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Last Updated: Monday, 24 January, 2005, 19:32 GMT
Russia and Ukraine face reality

By Damian Grammaticas
BBC News, Moscow

Viktor Yushchenko arrives at Moscow airport
Viktor Yushchenko kept his promise to make a prompt visit to Moscow
On his first full day in office, in his first major act as president, Ukraine's new leader has chosen to travel abroad and visit Moscow.

It is intended as an important signal from Viktor Yushchenko.

He wants to repair strained ties with Russia and put past differences with his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin, behind him.

Ukraine's protracted political crisis has undoubtedly damaged the relationship between the leaders.

Mr Yushchenko's insistence from the start of his campaign that he wants Ukraine to move decisively towards Europe, to aim at membership of the European Union and of Nato, were all seen as threats to Russia's influence.

Mr Yushchenko has described Russia as a "strategic partner" but his policies would undoubtedly see Ukraine carve a new path, away from its former imperial master in Moscow.

President Putin publicly supported Mr Yushchenko's rival in the election, Viktor Yanukovych.

Mr Putin made trips to Ukraine to appear in public with Mr Yanukovych before both first and second rounds of voting. Russian money and Russian political advisors helped his campaign.

Close ties

President Putin even congratulated Mr Yanukovych on winning the election before the result was confirmed by the Supreme Court.

Viktor Yushchenko with Vladimir Putin
The visit reflects the two states' close ties

And when the election was disputed Mr Putin had sharp exchanges with Western leaders, warning them not to interfere in Ukraine's affairs.

Now, though, Russia has little choice but to respond to Mr Yushchenko's overtures. There is no alternative but to forge a working relationship.

Economic ties are important to both sides. Russia is Ukraine's largest trading partner.

It supplies more than a third of Ukraine's energy needs, and pipelines carry Russian oil and gas across Ukraine towards markets in Europe.

Tens of thousands of Ukrainians work in Russia, often in low-wage jobs. They are important to Russia's economy and remit significant amounts of money to Ukraine.

There are historic and cultural ties too. For 300 years Ukraine's affairs were run from Moscow, first as part of the Russian Empire, then the Soviet Union.

Over centuries, millions of Ukrainians and Russians have intermarried and now have relatives on either side of the border. They share a common language and religion.

It is a priority for President Yushchenko to heal the divisions in Ukraine. To do that he must convince the Russian-speaking east of the country that he has their interests at heart too. Good relations with Russia will be invaluable here.

New dynamic

But Russia also has reasons to fear the direction Ukraine is heading.

There is the major naval base at Sevastopol in the Crimea, the home of Russia's Black Sea fleet with easy access to the Mediterranean. Mr Yushchenko's desire to join Nato could threaten Russia's presence there.

Russia wants to create what it calls a common economic space, to harmonise tax, customs and trade links between a group of former Soviet states including Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus.

Ukraine's desire to join the EU is probably incompatible with that and would deal a blow to Moscow's ambitions of building an alternative trading block.

Intriguingly, the Russian press has reported that President Putin met the defeated candidate in Ukraine's election, Viktor Yanukovych, the day before Mr Yushchenko's visit to Moscow.

Mr Yanukovych apparently asked for continued Russian support, hoping to create an opposition bloc in parliament.

The Kremlin didn't deny that the meeting happened. So Mr Putin may be keeping some of his options open.

Both leaders have powerful reasons to co-operate. A nation of 50m like Ukraine, next door to a nation of 150m like Russia, cannot afford to let its squabbles damage its interests.

But there is also a new dynamic in the relationship that will prove hard to manage.

Mr Yushchenko has his vision for Ukraine. He has the confidence of knowing that millions of Ukrainians took to the streets to support him.

He has promised them a new direction and he must deliver to keep them satisfied.

That means Russia has to learn to put behind it any nostalgia for the way things used to be. Moscow will have to learn to live with a newly assertive, independent Ukraine.


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