Page last updated at 08:31 GMT, Thursday, 28 August 2008 09:31 UK

Alarm bells in Ukraine

By Steven Eke
Russian affairs analyst

The British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, has travelled to Ukraine to discuss what he termed "a coalition against Russian aggression".

Meanwhile, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has warned that Moscow may indeed set its sights on Ukraine - a situation he described as "very dangerous".

Ukraine's leadership currently pursues pro-Western policies.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko (R) celebrating his birthday in Kiev with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (file image)
All smiles: But the president and prime minister have a tense relationship
President Viktor Yushchenko and Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ohryzko are both committed to Ukraine's eventual integration into western institutions, including Nato and the European Union.

Neither organisation has so far provided a "road map" to membership, any realistic prospect of Ukraine joining may be many years away.

This, along with the divisions entrenched in Ukrainian society and politics, are factors Moscow will try to use to its advantage in the fight for influence over Ukraine with the West.

Fractious parliament

Mr Miliband might be aware that opinion polls before the recent conflict suggested that as many as two-thirds of Ukrainians are either opposed to Nato membership, or have no fixed opinion. Attitudes to the European Union are much more positive.

President Yushchenko's popularity is at rock bottom. Opinion polls give him extremely low, single-digit levels of support.

BBC map

His chances of re-election in the next presidential vote are very slim.

Forging a coalition with such a weak leader, in a country with such a fractious parliament, could be difficult.

Even more so when the other key figures - especially Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko - have been decidedly ambiguous over the Russia-Georgia dispute.

Mr Yushchenko has criticised Ms Tymoshenko's silence, with his allies even suggesting she was a "traitor" working for Russia's interests.

Her position is likely to be based on the pragmatism for which she is known.

She could not launch a bid for the presidency next year (and she is likely to do so) on an anti-Russian ticket.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian opposition leader, Viktor Yanukovych, has warned that Ukraine must not be drawn into disputes between Russia and third countries.

Naval fleet

From the Russian perspective, the issues are more clear-cut.

Firstly, Russia will not countenance any further expansion eastwards of Nato.

A bather on Sevastopol city beach welcomes Russian missile cruiser Moskva as it entering Sevastopol bay
The Crimea is home to a large ethnic Russian population
Some Russian politicians have even suggested restoring Russian influence in the Caucasus could serve as a model for Ukraine - which matters much more than Georgia.

Russia has a powerful tool at its disposal, namely the large ethnic Russian population in Crimea - also, significantly, the home of Russia's Black Sea naval fleet.

Mr Yushchenko has restricted fleet operations, and suggested Russia should pay more for its presence. He also insists it must leave when an inter-state treaty expires in 2017.

From Russia, there are regular calls for the annexation of Crimea, which was transferred from Russian to Ukrainian jurisdiction by the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, in 1954.

Russian separatism in Crimea appeared to have waned by the mid-1990s. But recently there have been consistent attempts to resuscitate it.

Reports suggest that over recent years, Russia has quietly issued many of the ethnic Russians in Crimea - legally citizens of Ukraine - with Russian passports.

In Moscow's view, this makes them Russian citizens, and gives Russia the right to act to defend them.

This was precisely the policy adopted towards South Ossetia and Abkhazia - separatist regions internationally recognised as parts of Georgia, but whose populations are described by Moscow as its own.

Alarm bells

Inflating the concept and definition of citizenship in this way opens the way to serious consequences.

No-one is seriously forecasting armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine. But the mere notion sets alarm bells ringing

After all, well over 20 million Russians currently live outside the borders of the Russian Federation.

In some countries they form a significant minority of the population. Russia's government began to enunciate this policy some year ago, but it drew little attention in the West.

No-one is seriously forecasting armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine. But the mere notion sets alarm bells ringing.

In the West, because Ukraine is the major transit route for Russian oil and has en route to markets in central and western Europe.

And, in Ukraine itself, it is encouraging an important rethink of national defence strategy and military doctrine.

Constitutionally, Ukraine is a neutral country, one that voluntarily gave up nuclear weapons and that has pledged never to host NATO bases.

Nonetheless, leaks from the Ukrainian defence ministry suggest the country plans to bolster air defence systems in Crimea and the eastern regions bordering Russia.

Fighters currently deployed in other regions are likely to be moved to the Crimea. Large increases in spending on defence are expected to be announced as early as September.

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