The West pledges its support for Ukraine - up to a point

Diplomatic Editor,Anne Penketh
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:34

Western governments are rushing to bolster Ukraine's pro-Western government amid fears that the former Soviet Republic is becoming the front line in the "new Cold War".

A day after Russia threw down a fresh challenge to the West by recognising Georgia's breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, was the first Western official in Kiev to demonstrate support for the President of Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko. Dick Cheney, the United States' Vice-President, is travelling to Georgia and Ukraine next week.

Mr Yushchenko, who fell victim to a mysterious poisoning in 2004, which almost cost him his life, fears his country could be next on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's hit list. But are the Western visitors telling the Ukrainian leader "we're all Ukrainians now", after the Republican presidential candidate, Senator John McCain, expressed solidarity with the Georgians by saying "we're all Georgians now"? Not exactly.

Everyone is aware that the conflict in the Caucasus would pale into insignificance when compared with the risks to regional stability in case of conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Not only does Ukraine have a population of 47 million, but it is also home to a significant minority of ethnic Russians who live mostly in its eastern regions and in the Crimean peninsula. So the challenge for Ukraine and its Western allies is to balance a "real sense of determination" with "the realism that comes from the geographical position" of Ukraine, as Mr Miliband put it during his whistle-stop tour through Kiev's chestnut-lined avenues.

The Ukrainian President, who is campaigning to take his country into both the European Union and Nato (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) – as is his Georgian counterpart, Mikheil Saakashvili – has condemned Russia's latest decree amputating Georgia. As Mr Miliband flew back to London last night, he learned that his colleagues on the G7 leading industrialised nations had also condemned the actions of "our fellow G8 member" as Russia faced heightened international opprobrium.

Mr Yushchenko believes that membership of the Western military alliance offers the best insurance policy for Ukraine against attack. "What has happened is a threat to everyone, not just for one country. Any nation could be next, any country. When we allow someone to ignore the fundamental right of territorial integrity, we put into doubt the existence of any country," he stated yesterday.

Mr Miliband offered strong words of support during his talks in Kiev, but did not stray beyond EU and Nato policy of offering Ukraine eventual membership of both organisations.

"My visit is designed to send a simple message," he told an audience of students and diplomats gathered at Kiev's oldest university. "We have not forgotten our commitments to you. Nor shall we do so." He went on: "The Russian President [Dimitri Medvedev] says he is not afraid of a new Cold War. We don't want one. He has a big responsibility not to start one."

Mr Miliband, who advocated a "hard-headed engagement" with Russia, discussed in Kiev how Ukraine could avoid falling for Russian provocations in the Crimea, where the Ukrainian leadership accuses Russia of stirring up trouble. He cautioned Ukraine against giving Moscow a technical pretext for intervening in the peninsula, potentially triggering a major conflict. In his question-and-answer session in the university library, the Foreign Secretary stressed that "the Ukrainian government should ensure that the letter of the agreements are stuck to until 2017".

Ukraine's main concerns focus on the presence of Russia's Black Sea fleet, based in Sevastopol, which is leased to Moscow until that date. But Mr Yushchenko risked fuelling tensions with Russia yesterday by pointing out that the base had been leased at below market rates and that it was time to think about raising the price.

Diplomats are aware that unlike public opinion in Georgia, Ukrainian opinion is fiercely divided on whether Ukraine should join Nato. Opinion polls show that while 27 per cent of people are in favour of Nato membership, about the same percentage is opposed – although the number of those in favour has risen since Russia's armed intervention in Georgia.

On the streets of Kiev yesterday, Ukrainians voiced fear and support for Moscow in equal measure. And the government itself is also divided – with presidential elections scheduled at the end of next year.

While Mr Yushchenko has called for closer ties with the West in the light of the Georgia conflict, his former ally in the Orange Revolution, Julia Tymoshenko, who is now Prime Minister, has kept silent. She has been accused by her detractors of taking a more nuanced approach in the hope of gaining support in the presidential election from Russian-speaking voters. Her strategy appears to be working – Mr Yushchenko is trailing in the polls, with 7 per cent support, while she has at least 24 per cent. The third dominant political figure, Viktor Yanukovich, a former prime minister, has criticised Mr Yushchenko for his open support of Georgia, saying Ukraine must remain neutral.

Such concerns were at the heart of Mr Miliband's discussions yesterday with the President, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Volodymyr Ohryzko, who said afterwards that Ukraine needs to join Nato "as soon as possible".

Nato and the EU have agreed to set Ukraine on the path to future membership, but no date has been set. Nato leaders are due to assess whether to extend a formal timetable to Ukraine – a Membership Action Plan (MAP) – at the summit in December. Diplomats say Russia's actions in Georgia make it more likely.

EU membership is even further off. The political infighting between the President and the Prime Minister has held back progress ahead of an EU-Ukraine summit on 9 September. The EU is also insisting on Ukraine demonstrating results in fighting corruption, reforming its constitution and justice system.

At the Nato summit in Bucharest five months ago, Mr Putin reportedly told President George Bush that Russia would reclaim the Crimea if it joined Nato. "Do you understand, George? Ukraine is not even a state," he is reported to have said. Russia's Foreign Minister has denied that Mr Putin intended to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty.

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