Yanukovych at the Summit

April 20, 2010

President Viktor Yanukovych’s visit to Washington was a success by any analytical standard. The magnitude of that success is better judged by the tenor of America’s opinion-forming commentators than by any official statement or press release.

Until very recently the Ukrainian head of state had been negatively stereotyped by leading U.S. editorialists and op-ed writers as an “anti-Western” and “authoritarian” front man for Moscow, and even a threat to U.S. interests. This has now changed, practically overnight. “ Yanukovych emerged … as an unlikely star among the four dozen foreign leaders President Obama gathered in Washington,” Jackson Diehl thus opined in the unofficial organ of the Beltway establishment, The Washington Post; he “has long been perceived as the leader of Ukraine’s anti-Western camp… [but he] has come a long way since then.”

It is noteworthy that on the eve of the “Orange Revolution” Diehl warned his readers that “Yanukovych would … entrench Putin’s brand of authoritarian politics in his country.” The same author wrote in the same paper in 2006 that, “[f]rom the viewpoint of traditional U.S. interests, Yanukovych is still a menace. He opposes Ukraine’s integration into NATO, a step the Bush administration has been pushing, and he may well be willing to sacrifice his country’s sovereignty to Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.” As late as 2007 Diehl noted “a reluctance [in Washington] to do anything that might help Russia’s perceived ally, Yanukovych.”

This transformation was due to a fortuitous overlap of bilateral interests, personal confidence, as well as broader regional and global trends.

NUCLEAR DEAL – For three years following the disintegration of the USSR, Ukraine was the third-strongest nuclear power in the world. It transferred its weapons stockpile to Russia in 1994, however, and signed the UN Non-Proliferation Treaty. It retained a significant quantity – tens of thousands of kilograms – of highly-enriched uranium (HEU), however, at three scientific facilities in Kiev, Sevastopol, and Kharkov. The U.S. wanted to buy this stockpile, fearing its potential misuse by third parties, but Ukraine rejected the offer in 2002. Shortly before the second Iraq war, Washington was concerned that Iraq was trying to get hold of Ukraine’s HEU. In subsequent years, the lingering worry remained that a jihadist terrorist network could take advantage of the country’s financial crisis to make a substantial offer for some of its fissile material, possibly through an apparently innocuous third party.

President Yanukovych’s decision to give up Ukraine’s HEU stock (and replace it with U.S. fuel unfit for weapons if it were stolen or diverted) removes that concern. By agreeing to a deal his “pro-Western” predecessor had been reluctant to sign, Yanukovych did not make much of a substantial sacrifice, but – unlike Yushchenko – he knew that trying to overplay the card would be self-defeating. His cooperativeness earned lavish praise from White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, who said that Ukraine’s “landmark decision… something that the United States has tried to make happen for more than 10 years… demonstrates Ukraine’s continued leadership in non-proliferation.”

It contributed to Yanukovych’s ability to “stand out among the dozens of leaders jamming the luxury hotels of downtown Washington Monday.” It was, effectively, a cost-free move that has yielded immediate political benefits by presenting Obama with a tangible result of the summit.

UKRAINE IS SEEN AS A BONA FIDE DEMOCRACY – The fact that Ukraine has proven itself able to conduct free and fair elections and to undergo subsequent smooth transition of power was not the sufficient grounds for his stellar rating in Washington, but it was a necessary precondition. That transition was completed on the eve of his trip, with the ruling by the Constitutional Court on April 9 that legislative amendments, which allowed the formation of a new governing coalition last month, were legal. Under Obama Democracy is a word as fashionable in Washington as ever, and his credentials in that respect are better than those of many American “friends and allies” around the world. (The fact that Georgia’s interior minister Vano Merabishvili dismissed the notion of “Ukrainian democracy” as a “cliché” is a sure sign that this theme is worth playing.) “Ukraine is now a mature democracy, after less than two decades of independent statehood” would make a suitable future newspaper quote or sound bite.

UKRAINE IS A STABLE PARTNER – In the aftermath of his visit, and without specifically referring to his predecessor, Yanukovych should reassure Western investors that the years of “divisive politics” in Ukraine are over. Such assurance is what they want to hear anyway, but this time it is factually supported. Yanukovych honestly can claim Ukraine no longer has the luxury of allowing real problems to fester while Ukraine’s politicians (including those who pettily boycotted his inauguration) waste their energies on those of their own making – instead, Ukraine needs consensus-building and predictability. His twin commitment to Ukraine’s Euro-integration and military neutrality reflects a broad popular consensus conducive to long-term domestic stability. Foreign investors and Western creditors evidently hope that his leadership will end five years of political infighting and keep the country financially afloat. Their studied indifference to Yulia Tymoshenko’s cries of electoral foul play was not only due to the weakness of her arguments, but also to their desire to give stability a chance. Instead, Ukraine can aspire to be a bit like Finland: out of the news, quietly prosperous, and hopefully even a little boring.

UKRAINE MEANS BUSINESS – The Yanukovych team’s commitment to the policy of budgetary austerity and fiscal responsibility is a welcome change after the profligate ways of the previous regime. The fruits were visible immediately: the International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreed on the resumption of cooperation, Yanukovych announced on Tuesday (April 13) after a meeting with IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn. (The fourth and final $3.8 billion tranche of Ukraine’s current stand-by program of $16.4 billion had been held up because of the previous regime’s financial irresponsibility.)

From now on Yanukovych hardly needs to lobby for stronger U.S. support of his policies through those international institutions where America has a lot of influence. That support is there. He does need to produce results, however, and above all to persevere with austerity measures. Admittedly, the business climate in Ukraine should be improved by abolishing bloated instruments of administrative control that breed corruption and waste, but during his Washington visit Yanukovych has displayed the political will to do it and the American leadership trusts him. They want the central bank to be made more independent, inflation predictable, and exchange rates floating – but all those tasks are of a different order of magnitude to the core challenge of public spending. It is admittedly ironic that the “pro-Western reformist” former President Viktor Yushchenko was terminally discredited in Western bankers’ eyes, while Yanukovych – until not so long ago caricatured in the Western media as a neo-Soviet nostalgist – proved able to gain Obama’s confidence and satisfy the IMF’s requirements for the re-opening of credit lines. He can state, with credibility, that after almost 20 years of independence, Ukraine finally has a reformist government trusted by the global financial community.

UKRAINE AS AN ASPIRING EU MEMBER – Ukraine’s continuing bid for closer ties with the European Union, with the hope of eventual full membership, is a strong sign that Yanukovych is willing to diversify his country’s economic and foreign policy options independently of Moscow but in the way that Russia does not find threatening or hostile. Ukraine is in Europe, and of Europe, he has made clear, and preparing to be within the Union that has come to embody Europe. If the tasks of reforming energy policy are tackled with courage and determination, the capitals of “Old Europe” will breathe a sigh of relief. Further ties with Brussels will demand decisive action to combat corruption and reform the judiciary, but the problem is neither unique to Ukraine – Bulgaria and Rumania, the two Balkan EU members, are hardly in a better shape – nor perilous to its reformist endeavors. As with other aspects of Ukraine’s policy, Yanukovych must balance policy toward the EU with connections to the east. Especially since the EU is unlikely to be taking in any new members soon, this presents a certain “bird in the hand (Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan customs union), versus two in the bush (EU)” problem. Ukraine can have the first immediately and it would have immediate benefits. But taking it may complicate a potentially bigger benefit that will take a long time in coming, if ever. While in Washington, Yanukovych that he would not agree to Moscow’s stated desire that Ukraine joins a customs union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, instead of seeking a free trade agreement with the European Union. This is difficult choice Yanukovych should work hard to avoid. One important starting point is for Ukraine (a WTO member, unlike Rus-Bel-Kaz) should work with the WTO and the CIS Customs Union countries to facilitate Ukraine’s entry in the latter organization even while pressing the case of the rapid accession of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia to the WTO. With respect to the EU, this could mean that the EU and Ukraine would have to negotiate a specific arrangement taking into account Ukraine’s membership of the CIS Customs Union, which itself could become a catalyst for progress in economic ties between the EU and the other members of the CIS Customs Union as well.

UKRAINE AS NATO’S PARTNER – In Washington President Yanukovych signaled his goal to position Ukraine between Russia and the NATO powers – outside the Western alliance, but also not part of a Russian sphere of influence. As he put it in an interview, “The policy of the new administration of Ukraine is to strike the right balance in our relations with Russia and the European Union… We want to be a reliable bridge between Europe and Russia.” This is the right approach and it should be followed by the theme that neutrality is not only in the national interest of Ukraine, but also in the interest of other parties – including the United States. By taking the issue of NATO membership off the agenda, he is not disrupting the status quo while at the same time removing an altogether unnecessary irritant in the U.S.-Russian relations, and freeing the U.S. from potentially dangerous political and military commitments. Yanukovych would be well advised to reiterate, in the months that follow, that neutrality does not preclude friendly relations and cooperation with the Alliance, specifically including activities

  • under the Science for Peace and Security (SPS) Program;
  • in the PfP Planning and Review Process (PARP);
  • in planning and cooperation in the fields of humanitarian assistance and rescue services under the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC);
  • in civil emergency planning, specifically in the work of the Senior Civil Emergency Planning Committee (SCEPC) and its subordinate committees within the PfP.

It is hoped that while indicating to Obama his willingness to cooperate with NATO, Yanukovich made it clear to his American counterpart that Ukraine has taken membership in the alliance permanently off the table. No one should be under any illusion that proponents of Ukraine’s accession, both in the Ukraine and elsewhere, see Yanukovych’s election as just a temporary setback, with the hope that the NATO program can be kept on life-support until more favorable circumstances arrive. Disturbing, for example, is the recent comment by NATO’s Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs and Security Policy Dirk Brengelmann that the NATO invitation issued at the April 2008 Bucharest summit, declaring that Ukraine (and Georgia) “will” become members of NATO, remains on the table – seemingly oblivious to the new reality in Kiev. Yanukovych's rejection of membership must be absolutely unequivocal. To impress upon Washington and Brussels that Kiev's rejection of NATO membership is definitive, the President should take steps now to codify Ukraine’s non-aligned status in law, and possibly seek a constitutional amendment enshrining its neutrality. Also key is that Ukraine balance its non-member cooperation with NATO with parallel cooperation with the Moscow-led Collective Treaty Security Organization (CSTO), and perhaps also the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), while actively promoting NATO-CSTO-SCO cooperation, especially in the area of counter-terrorism.

UKRAINE IS A POTENTIAL MEDIATOR AND CONCILIATOR –Yanukovych should follow up his visit to the White House with a bols specific proposal: that Ukraine should host the next OSCE Summit. Its proposed agenda could build up on the climate of the new U.S.-Russia START agreement and explore a new, genuinely post-Cold-War security architecture, per Moscow’s draft treaty, for a “greater Europe” of 56 member-states for the rest of the century. Kiev is the right location, he can point out, an ancient city positioned geographically, historically and culturally to be the true bridge between the East and the West, rather than a cause of disagreement between them. As a key proponent for a new European security treaty that will ensure the rights of non-aligned states as well as alliance members, Ukraine can emerge as a key “player” both regionally and continent-wide.

THE RUSSIAN FACTOR – The U.S. policy toward Ukraine has always been and remains inseparable from its relations with Russia. Indirectly but clearly, Yanukovych’s visit to Washington has the potential to mark the beginning of a genuine reset in the U.S. –Russian relations. It may be regarded as Obama’s helpful signal to those in Russia, notably President Medvedev, who believe that such a reset in Moscow’s relations with the United States is possible. Premier Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov are reputed to take a more jaundiced view, having experienced the mendacity and duplicity that characterized the Russia policy of the Bush-Cheney administration. Reassuring them vis-à-vis Ukraine would serve the American interest in a key region, defined with realism and pursued with pragmatism.

The apparent success of President Yanukovych’s meeting with President Obama required two conditions to be satisfied:

  • The former’s ability to create a favorable first impression and to respond favorably to Washington’s concerns in all five key areas outlined above; and
  • The U.S. Administration’s acceptance of the need to establish an enduring cooperative rapport with Moscow in order to achieve its strategic objectives of pacifying Afghanistan, keeping Iran’s ambitions in check, stabilizing global economy, reducing nuclear stockpiles, and enhancing international security.

Washington’s gradual adoption of the approach long advocated by the AIU – that of a plus-sum-game based on the acceptance of Moscow’s legitimate regional interests and security concerns – was apparent in Prague earlier this month at the signing of the new START Treaty. It has been reinforced by five recent events that affect U.S.-Russian relations. Each is significant in itself; but taken together, they reflect a decisive shift of the geopolitical balance in Russia’s favor:

  • In the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, where the U.S. was actively involved eight years ago in the overthrow of a Moscow-friendly government, the country’s supposedly “pro-Western” and decidedly despotic leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev was overthrown on April 8, thus reversing the fruits of two out of three “color-coded revolutions” in the region over the previous decade. The new government, in addition to enjoying popular support, is widely seen as pro-Russian and committed to the closing of the U.S. air base (recently renamed “transit center”) at Manas (aka Ganci). This event, the latest episode in Russia’s resurgence in its near-abroad, effectively marks the end of the “ New Great Game” – the Bush-Cheney inspired bid for U.S. influence, hegemony and profits in Central Eurasia. Just as the end of the original Great Game made the Anglo-Russian entente of 1907 possible, the fizzling out of its ill-conceived sequel is likely to remove a major irritant in U.S.-Russian relations.
  • The following day (April 9) Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attended a ceremony near St. Petersburg to mark the start of the construction of the Nord Stream gas pipeline which will connect Russia and Germany under the Baltic Sea. This was another geopolitical victory for Russia. The top-level launch of a major bilateral Russo-German project is a boost to the Moscow-Berlin strategic partnership – a leitmotif of Central-East European geopolitics since Catherine the Great. Chancellor Merkel has moved decisively beyond her earlier policy of Alleingang (a go-it-alone rapprochement) to a bilateral strategic partnership with Russia. This is a blow to the Russophobe Atlanticists in Warsaw, Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius. It sounds the death knell to their much-vaulted Council of Baltic Sea States, and a clear sign that Scandinavia has come to terms with the role of Russia as the dominant power in the Baltic region. With Nord Stream’s completion, European dependence on Russian gas will be greater than ever before.
  • Russia’s significance in the EU policy calculus became clear during the “gas war” of 2008-9 when Yushchenko tried to hold Europe hostage to a pricing dispute with Moscow. This role was further cemented with a major deal between Russia and Azerbaijan for the annual sale of 500 million cubic meters of natural gas, with an option to double the quantity. Russia’s gas monopolist Gazprom is now the sole purchaser of natural gas from Stage 2 of Azerbaijan’s sprawling Shah Deniz field. Russia now enjoys a critical strategic advantage in the Caspian Sea energy game, Georgia was left in the lurch, and the U.S.-supported Nabucco pipeline project’s future is grim-to- non-existent. More importantly still, the key powers of “old Europe” are supportive of the Russian-Azeri deal. They realized months ago that the true threat to their energy safety was not Russia, the producer, but pro-American regimes in the transit states, Georgia and (before January 2010) Ukraine.
  • Last and least, President Obama’s decided not to meet separately with Saakashvili on the sidelines of the nuclear summit. The latter’s American hirelings were lobbying hard for a private meeting, however brief, while Russophobic “analysts” went out of their way to warn that, should this not happen, “Russia would have a serious argument to convince the Georgian public that Georgia’s pro-Western road is deadlocked and Moscow is capable of isolating Tbilisi.” As it happens, it IS deadlocked. In addition to Yanukovych, Obama had met eight other world leaders, including President of Armenia Serzh Sarkisian and President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev. He knew that that his meeting Saakashvili would have been irritating to Moscow and unwelcome in Brussels, in the way in which his consolation phone call to Tbilisi was not. Obama’s reserve reflects a tectonic shift in Washington’s calculus after Saakashvili’s adventure in August 2008. Bush and Cheney had relied heavily on pipelines and railways across Georgia as a tool for reducing Russian supplies to Europe. After the war, as some experts now point out, the EU opted for dependence on Russia, rather than being beholden to Saakashvili’s antics, which has had “grand strategic ramifications for the consolidation of a new ‘Eurasia Home’ in which the U.S. is an unwelcome guest, or even intruder.”

On balance, Yanukovych’s visit to Washington could not have come at a better time in terms of regional developments and underlying geopolitical trends. That visit will facilitate Ukraine’s post-Orange normalization. The White House, the IMF, foreign bankers and investors, European institutions are all taking note, approvingly. Having discarded the divisive legacy of 2004-2010, Ukraine can finally focus on finding pragmatic solutions to the real problems of geopolitical realism abroad, and cultural truce, economic reform and recovery at home. After Yanukovych’s visit to Washington, its prospects of success in all four endeavors are better now than at any time since independence.

For the United States, the acceptance of Ukraine’s new reality is a matter of necessity. In the aftermath of his White House meeting, Yanukovych is well positioned to help Obama turn that necessity into virtue. He can and should build upon this early contact by developing statements of principle, specific policies and longer-term proposals that will further reinforce his image of a reliable and independent-minded leader whose vision is consistent with broader U.S. interests.