A bigger role for 'Little Russia': The Moscow honeymoon is over. Now, says Robert Seely, the West should woo Ukraine

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THE VISIT by President Kravchuk of Ukraine to the United States at the weekend was intended by Washington to be little more than a 'thank you' present for his help in trying to denuclearise Ukraine. It may come to be seen, however, as a turning point in relations between the West and the countries of east and central Europe.

The Ukrainian leader went to the US to sell his country as a counter-balance to Russia just as Western political leaders were starting to question their relationship with the Kremlin. Relations between Russia and the US are at their lowest ebb since 1986. The arrest of the senior CIA officer Aldrich Ames underlined what governments have known all along - that Cold War memories die slowly. President Boris Yeltsin's recent 'state of Russia' address marked a change in the emphasis from building a liberal state to building a powerful one. Moreover, Russia's role in Bosnia remains ambiguous. Is it complementing Western nations or competing with them?

Unsure of both the course of change in Russia and the pace of reform, the West needs friends in the region. Enter Leonid Makarovich Kravchuk.

The Ukrainian cause has been bolstered in recent months by a growing body of opinion, mainly in the US but also in western Europe, which argues that support for Ukraine is in the West's strategic interests. A group led by such former Cold Warriors as Zbigniew Brzezinski, the US national security adviser during Jimmy Carter's presidency, argues that building up Ukraine would make it possible to block Russian expansionism. Russia with Ukraine, Brzezinski says, is an empire. Russia without Ukraine is not.

President Kravchuk leads a nation of 52 million people. As Europe's largest state, stretching from the Russian Caucasus in the east to the Polish, Hungarian and Romanian borders in the west, an independent Ukraine is a natural buffer between Russia and the central European states that are applying for membership of Nato and the European Union.

It has cultural factors in its favour, too. It lacks the imperial traditions of Russia and has not existed as an independent state for 300 years. It is content with a lesser role than Moscow. Its identity is weak, its people divided by language and culture. It is not a threat.

Until now, Western nations were hesitant about improving their ties with Ukraine for three reasons. First, the attitude that the Soviet Union - and what was left of it after 1991 - was Russia writ large lingered in the minds of many diplomats. That line of thought, perhaps most strongly represented in our own Foreign Office, was also the basis for President George Bush's policy towards the former republics. That policy was changed last year by the Clinton administration.

Second, Ukraine's claims to the 176 intercontinental nuclear weapons on its soil soured relations with the US and Europe for three years. Nationalists in Ukraine saw the weapons as a guarantee against Russian aggression - but they did not realise that these missiles could not actually targeted on Russia: the only point they could hit was Vladivostok. Former Communists meanwhile smelt money and said that if Washington wanted a nuclear-free Ukraine, it could buy the missiles at a heavily inflated price.

Third, Ukraine's refusal to dismantle its command economy underlined Western suspicions that the country - known as Little Russia for much of last century - was now turning itself into a little Soviet Union.

An end to these problems may now be in sight. The first consignment of nuclear warheads from Ukraine's arsenal left the republic this weekend for Russia. And although Ukraine has not signed all the nuclear accords that it should have, Washington believes that the attitude of Ukraine's government has changed. Before he set out for the US, President Kravchuk also gave his clearest signal yet that Ukraine would soon embark on a programme of economic reform, including privatisation of state firms.

The US, for its part, helped to negotiate the Moscow nuclear disarmament accord that was signed in January between the US, Russia and Ukraine. The Ukrainian government knows that the treaty saved the country from a humiliating loss of face in front of the Russians who, without Washington's arm- twisting, would gladly have continued to pile on the economic and political pressure.

There will be no immediate or dramatic change in relations between the West and Ukraine. There is still a lingering doubt in most Western capitals about whether Ukraine can be a good ally to anybody. And there is still a major question mark over Ukraine's long- term survival as an independent state.

One of Europe's great historical fault lines runs through Ukraine. Only half the population who inhabit the centre and west of the country speak Ukrainian as their first language. These people belong to a central European tradition which paints Moscow as an imperial power to be distrusted. And, having been under Austro-Hungarian rule until 1917, Ukrainians have limited experience of democracy.

The south and east of Ukraine, on the other hand, belong to a religious and political culture which is Orthodox. Moscow is the only power they have known. They are, in all senses, little Russians. A recent poll indicated that more than 55 per cent of the population in the south and east favour reunion with Russia. These areas represent a double danger to the stability of Ukraine. Should the country's dire economic situation continue to worsen, local leaders, especially in the Crimea, may try to secede.

At the same time, Moscow could use the Russian-speaking regions that contain large Russian minorities as a pretext for interfering in Ukraine's internal politics.

Any understanding between the West and Ukraine can come only after Ukraine abandons its command economy. The Western allies during the Cold War championed not only human rights, but capitalism. Although President Kravchuk has committed himself to economic reform, his assurances remain ambiguous. And even if he is sincere, there still remain powerful and corrupt officials who oppose change.

President Kravchuk's task must be to sell the West the idea that Ukraine can survive and prosper as a more reliable source of support for the international order than Russia and that, with US - and European - aid, it can become a bedrock of stability which will help to fix the fragile borders of eastern Europe.

He need not suggest that the US dump Russia in favour of Ukraine. But if Ukraine offers itself as a lever for Western influence in the region, in return for aid, this could be a price well worth paying. If nothing more, President Kravchuk has given Western policy-makers cause to think twice about their options in eastern Europe.

The author is special correspondent in Kiev for the 'Washington Post'.

(Photograph omitted)