Ukraine: Relations with U.S. reach all-time low

  • 2002-11-14
  • Jeffrey Donovan
Mired in U.S. allegations that he approved arms sales to Iraq, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma's relations with Washington are going from bad to worse. The situation threatens the country - once considered to be a strategic buffer between Russia and the West - with deep isolation.

The darling of U.S. policy among the former Soviet states during the 1990s, Ukraine's relations with the United States are looking more and more like those of its neighbor Belarus - Europe's most isolated country.

It's an apparent trend that has left the State Department concerned. This week, a senior U.S. diplomat, who asked not to be named, said: "We've already downgraded relations. We don't want to put Ukraine in the Belarus category. We do want to have a relationship."

Yet the question remains whether the crisis over alleged arms sales - along with a new strategic reality that has lessened Ukraine's importance to Washington and allegations implicating Kuchma in a journalist's murder - will lead to a Minsk-type isolation for all Ukraine or stay confined to Kuchma and his senior associates.

Fiona Hill, an expert on the former Soviet Union with the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, said that, although Ukraine still has ties with the outside world that Belarus doesn't, and the "trajectory" over the last year has "clearly been negative."

According to Anders Aslund, an economic adviser to Kuchma in the mid-1990s, the general crisis has Kuchma's court stewing in the same sort of anxiety that gripped Richard Nixon's inner circle before scandal forced the former U.S. president to resign in 1974. "It's a bit worse than the White House after Watergate. It's a feeling of the whole place being on the verge of serious destabilization," Aslund said.

The State Department has already cut off $55 million in aid to Ukraine after concluding that it has proof Kuchma signed off on the arms sale. This week, U.S.-Ukrainian ties suffered another blow when a joint U.S.-British report probing whether arms were actually transferred to Iraq - in breach of United Nations sanctions - concluded that Kiev withheld information from the investigators.

Ukraine rejects the charge, saying investigators had unprecedented access.

As relations between Washington and Kiev tumble, Aslund said the administration of U.S. President George Bush is unlikely to take steps to cushion their fall - and is more likely to take what he called a "hard-line-by-default" position.

To be sure, Kuchma has not yet reached the level of Lukashenko, who has been diplomatically ostracized for alleged human rights abuses and is not welcome in the West.

But a visit to Prague may not do much to sway opinions about Kuchma. With investigations of several disappearances of journalists and opposition politicians still unsolved, activist Catherine Fitzpatrick of the New York-based International League for Human Rights said Kuchma is looking increasingly like his neighbor, Lukashenko. "The secret of Ukraine is it's always been more like Belarus than we've wanted to admit. But because of the Ukrainian diaspora, because of the need to have an alternative to Russia, (Kiev) got all this (U.S.) aid. And it was a big wash. It really was," Fitzpatrick said.

Jeffrey Donovan wrote this article for Radio Free Europe/Radio Libery