In Russia, with love? Ukraine president meets Putin as options dwindle

By Fred Weir

Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, who met with Vladimir Putin in Moscow yesterday, may have no option but to warm to Russia despite being aggravated over high Russian gas prices.


President Vladimir Putin met with his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovych at the Russian leader's country home, Novo Ogaryovo, late Monday, and declared some progress toward Mr. Putin's goal of integrating Ukraine's economy with Russia's. But he gave no word addressing Mr. Yanukovych's hope of winning a reduced price for Russian natural-gas exports to his post-Soviet nation.


The meeting, though one in a routine series, illustrates that Ukraine may be gradually edging toward Russia as its other alternatives wear thin. Because Ukraine has few natural resources, its economy has suffered badly in recent years; in part because of the deepening crisis in the European Union, in part thanks to the crippling price of Russian natural gas for its extremely inefficient industry and housing stock. Yanukovych's insistence on prosecuting and jailing his main opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, has deeply alienated the EU and further complicated any chances for economic integration with the West.


> Ukraine Map


"There are some reasons to think that Ukraine and Russia's positions are drawing closer," says Mikhail Pogrebinsky, director of the independent Kiev Center of Political and Conflict Studies.


"If we don't develop our relations with Russia, Ukraine might be facing serious economic problems," he adds. "Trade turnover with Europe has been falling due to the recession, and Ukraine's government budget is in serious doubt. The only direction we can look for financial aid would be Russia. If the worst happens, and there is no money to pay pensions and other benefits, our authorities will be in trouble."


According to Russian media reports, the two leaders discussed further integration of their aviation, metallurgy, nuclear power, and space industries, all areas in which Russia has been keen to restore lost Soviet-era technological synergies. Putin wants Ukraine to sign on to a former Soviet customs union, which would effectively reunite the economies of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. Yanukovych, who continues to hope for the dwindling possibility of signing a free trade agreement with the EU, has balked.


"The talks have confirmed that the development of cooperation and partnership between Russia and Ukraine is our common strategic choice. It relies primarily on the strong bonds of friendship between the two nations, so there is no reasonable alternative to this approach," Putin told journalists after the meeting.


"It's clear by now that the Russians will not give us any discounts for gas, so we have to live with that," says Dmitry Vydrin, an adviser to Yanukovych.


"The Russian leadership is interested in new economic departures, such as a free-trade zone. Ukraine wants to be more selective, and we are analyzing their proposals for joint geo-economic projects. The initiative comes from the Kremlin," he says.


Parliamentary elections are due in Ukraine next Sunday, and the country's divided opposition is not expected to fare well against Yanukovych's party, which is able to deploy state resources in much the way its Russian pro-Kremlin counterpart does. With Ms. Tymoshenko in prison, ironically for signing the disadvantageous gas contract with Russia, the opposition is without its most dynamic personality.


Since coming to power almost three years ago, Yanukovych has moved away from the pro-Western stance of his predecessor, Orange revolutionary Viktor Yushchenko, and mended fences with Moscow by shelving Ukraine's application to join NATO, extending Russia's lease on the Black Sea naval base of Sevastopol for 25 years, and drifting cautiously toward greater economic integration with Ukraine's giant neighbor.


But the supposedly pro-Moscow, native Russian-speaking Yanukovych has dug in his heels on giving up Ukraine's economic sovereignty by joining a Russian-led customs union, and infuriated the Kremlin by prosecuting Tymoshenko for a deal that she made personally with Putin when she was the Ukrainian prime minister.


"The Kremlin wouldn't have minded that Yanukovych jailed Tymoshenko on principle, but it should have been on different grounds, something that didn't involve Putin," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.


"Basically, Yanukovych is considered to be a traitor by Moscow. It had been hoped that he'd play the 'Moscow hand' for us in Ukraine, but he didn't do it.... The Kremlin doesn't like Yanukovych, but will work with him because there are no better alternatives in Ukraine," Mr. Petrov says.


The Putin-Yanukovych meeting took place amid a growing scandal over the alleged snatching of a Russian dissident wanted by Moscow authorities from the streets of Kiev, Ukraine.


Ukrainian police have officially denied any connection with the apparent "rendition" of Leonid Razvozzhayev, who disappeared outside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in Kiev on Saturday and reappeared the next day in Moscow's Lefortovo prison. Russian authorities said he gave himself up voluntarily, and has "confessed" to plotting to destabilize Russia. On Tuesday, Russia's Investigative Committee announced that he has been charged with "organizing mass disturbances."


As he was being pushed into a police van outside a Moscow court Monday, Mr. Razvozzhayev shouted to journalists, "They threatened to kill me. I was abducted in Ukraine and tortured for two days."


"Everyone here is discussing this case," says Vira Nanivska, director of the International Institute of Political Studies in Kiev. "Some think Yanukovych gave Razvozzhayev to Putin as a 'gift,' while others say it demonstrates that Yanukovych does not control our SBU [security service]. One thing's for sure, it does show how much Russia's secret services are capable of."