Even though U.S. President Barack Obama publicly mentioned Ukraine just once during his July 6-8 visit to Moscow, the reference was exactly what the nation wanted to hear – mostly likely to the chagrin of his Russian hosts.
“State sovereignty must be a cornerstone of international order,” Obama told graduating students of the New Economic School in Moscow. “Just as all states should have the right to choose their leaders, states must have the right to borders that are secure, and to their own foreign policies … That’s why we must apply this principle to all nations – and that includes nations like Georgia and Ukraine.”
Obama’s university speech on July 7 was not broadcast by the top state-controlled TV channels in Russia. Kremlin leaders have claimed former Soviet republics such as Ukraine as part of their privileged sphere of influence and have also waged a relentless anti-American campaign in the news media.
The U.S. president also undoubtedly irritated Russian leaders by defending every nation’s right to join the NATO military alliance, a prospect vehemently opposed by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Moreover, Obama gave short shrift to Putin – meeting with him only two hours over breakfast on July 7 – and made sure to carve out time with Kremlin opponents and members of civil society. Obama also acknowledged American-Russian differences over a proposed missile defense shield in Eastern Europe.
“Ukraine should be satisfied,” said Anders Aslund, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C. “Indeed, President Obama stated publicly and clearly all the things that are important for Ukraine: sovereignty, territorial integrity and the right to pursue an independent foreign policy. Obama’s stand on Ukraine in Moscow was as clear and positive as anybody could ask for. Ukraine plays an important role in U.S. politics and no U.S. president is likely to play down Ukraine.”
Volodymyr Fesenko, chairman of the Kyiv-based Penta Center for Applied Political Studies, said that while Ukraine took a backseat to discussions on nuclear-arms reductions and greater cooperation on Afghanistan, the nation was not forgotten by either side.
“There were soft warnings from the American president to his Russian colleagues that it’s better not to create problems on the borders,” Fesenko said. “There were hints that it is essential not to allow anarchy in neighboring countries and additional conflicts. It was a signal that America is not indifferent to this.”
Before Obama’s visit there had been fears that his desire to reset ties with the Kremlin may lead to a lessening of support for Ukraine’s democracy or Euro-Atlantic integration ambitions.
“Obama has made clear that Ukraine is not a bargaining chip in the U.S.-Russia relationship,” Adrian Karatnycky, senior fellow with the Atlantic Council of the United States. Karatnycky said that, by reasserting key principles of autonomy, meeting the opposition and civil society in Russia, Obama made clear that he won’t abandon his principles for the sake of cooperation with Russia.
That doesn’t mean that NATO membership will come anytime soon – if ever – for Ukraine, which remains deeply divided over the prospect. “Entering NATO may be postponed for five years and that would be a big concession to Russia,” said Yuriy Shcherbak, Ukraine’s former Ambassador to the United States.
Shcherbak also welcomed Obama’s defense of Ukraine’s sovereignty. “It is a very essential signal,” Shcherbak said. “Obama clearly showed that the United States won’t treat positively Russia’s attempts to dominate post-Soviet space and, especially, to impose on Ukraine any of its models or demands. After this visit, if Russia wants to [improve its relationship] with the United States, it must operate more carefully in post-Soviet space.”
Shcherbak also thinks that – in contrast to the scant public references – Ukraine “was mentioned dozens times in the closed part of negotiations. These talks were not public, but soon we’ll find out what they were about.”
Especially gratifying, Shcherbak said, is that U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden will come to Ukraine later this month and “hopefully will clarify to Ukrainian leaders what was going on in Moscow and what is the American government’s position.” It may also become more clear what concrete leverage Washington may use against a Russian leadership that less than a year ago clashed in a bloody war with Georgia, another pro-Western ally on post-Soviet turf.
The success of young, yet still fragile, post-Soviet democracies such as Ukraine and Georgia is crucial for America’s larger geopolitical aims.
Karatnycky said that Ukraine’s democratic progress “is seen by many in the U.S. and Europe as a potential cultural and political example to Russia of a Slavic state that can develop prosperity and democratic institutions. That is why its success is so essential to European leaders and to Obama. The U.S. is interested in the Europeanization of Russia, not the Eurasianization of Ukraine.”
Explaining the pivotal role of Ukraine in global security, Fesenko referred to Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Polish-born former American national security adviser to U.S. President Jimmy Carter from 1977-1981.
“Brzezinski wrote that the keys of Russian empire revival or, vice-versa, to its disintegration lay in Kyiv,” Fesenko said. “If Ukraine takes part in any new integration projects in post-Soviet space, then there is a great possibility of a powerful imperial formation. If Kyiv does not participate in such projects, they have no chance to succeed.”
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