President Viktor Yanukovych Meets With President Barack Obama in Washington

April 14, 2010

President Viktor Yanukovych’s visit to Washington to participate in a multilateral summit on nuclear issues may be seen as his third major foreign initiative after visits to Brussels and Moscow. Unlike most of the other participating leaders in Washington, President Yanukovych’s visit was marked with a substantive bilateral meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama.

The American Institute in Ukraine asked several foreign policy experts, including participants in AIU past programs, to comment on the Yanukovych visit to Washington. AIU’s Expert Roundups are part of AIU’s informational and educational program to bring to the people of Ukraine a sense of the diversity of opinion that exists regarding issues relevant to Ukraine and the United States. AIU believes such diversity allows for a better informed debate among Ukraine’s people about the future of their country.

Doug Bandow, Senior Fellow, CATO Institute, Washington, DC.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich’s visit to Washington is the third leg, coming after trips to Brussels and Moscow, of a calculated attempt to balance between the European Union, Russia, and the U.S. There are substantive issues to be discussed, such as continued Ukrainian economic reforms. More important for President Yanukovich will be demonstrating that he can forge a positive relationship with America even as he improves ties with Moscow.

His most likely strategy will be to tilt towards the West on economics while backing away from security cooperation with the U.S. and NATO. How well he manages the competing pressures from the major powers is likely to determine the success of his presidency.

James Bissett, former Canadian Ambassador to Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Albania

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s meeting with President Obama while in Washington during the summit on global nuclear security could prove to be an important turning point in U.S.-Ukraine relations. The former U.S. policy of attempting to lure Ukraine away from Russian influence by encouraging it to join NATO and perhaps eventually the European Union failed spectacularly in August 2008 when Russia crushed Georgia’s aborted invasion of South Ossetia. The demonstration of Russia’s determination to use force to protect its vital geopolitical interests was neither overlooked by the Ukrainian populace nor by the German-led EU that dropped the idea of issuing an invitation.

It is to be hoped President Obama and the Pentagon have also learned a lesson by this Russian show of force and have forsaken the previous policy of attempting to encircle Russia with a ring of newly arriviste NATO satellites. The Ukrainian President has made it clear that Ukraine will not join NATO, is not interested in joining the EU and has eagerly renewed friendly relations with Russia; including the promise to renew the leases on Russian naval bases on the Black Sea when these leases end in 2017.

The new President of Ukraine has made a good start and has shown astute statesmanship in recognizing that his country’s ability to maintain political and economic stability depends on maintaining good relations with its powerful neighbor but at the same time establishing warm relations with the EU and the United States.

Ivan Eland, Senior Fellow and Director, Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute

It looks as if U.S. President Barack Obama rolled out the red carpet for recently elected Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych when he came to Washington for Obama’s summit on global nuclear security next week. Yanukovych’ substantive meeting with Obama (separate from the summit get-together) suggests he is being courted – with the purpose of trying to woo Ukraine so that it does not leave the Western camp or reduce its relations with NATO.

In contrast to his predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko, who rashly tried to push Ukraine into NATO, Yanukovych is more wisely charting a mid-range course, trying to have good relations with both the United States and Russia. In addition to increased cooperation with Ukraine on nuclear security, the United States would like Ukraine to institute free market reforms in its energy sector, increase bilateral business ties, pass a law allowing joint military exercises on Ukrainian territory this year, and maintain the existing level of cooperation with NATO. Yanukovych would be wise to consider instituting free market reforms in the energy sector, which would benefit both Ukrainians and outsiders, and increasing cooperation with the United States in commerce and nuclear security.

However, Yanukovych should refuse provocative joint military exercises in Russia’s backyard, eschew the goal of Ukraine being admitted to NATO, and end cooperation with the alliance all together. Ukraine should not hook its security to NATO’s wagon, because the United States is too far away to provide a credible defense of Ukraine—as was demonstrated by George W. Bush’s anemic response to Georgia’s calls for help during its brief war with Russia. Therefore, Ukraine, for its own good, should not put all of its security eggs in a very unreliable NATO basket. Ukraine is better off providing its own security, rather than becoming dependent on a distant benefactor.

James George Jatras, Deputy Director, American Institute in Ukraine

Any meeting between former president Yushchenko and his American counterpart could never have any aspect other than that of a meeting between a client and patron. Far from a meeting of equals, the unmistakable, unspoken subtext always was: “You are our guy, we put you where you are, and you’ll do as we say.”

President Obama can have no such expectations in his meeting with President Yanukovych. Perhaps making a virtue out of necessity, in Ukraine’s most recent election Washington did not try to repeat the 2004 experience of directing the outcome but let nature and the democratic process take their course. No doubt much to the frustration of many in the Washington policy community, we “gave it our best shot” five years ago, tried to haul Ukraine kicking and screaming into the Western camp, and saw that we had nothing to show for it but the single-digit percentage of the vote that went to the incumbent. Now that the U.S. is much poorer and weaker, we had no choice but to pursue a more reasonable and balanced acceptance of the fact that what citizens of Ukraine want may not be the same as what American policymakers think they should want.

At the same time, no one should think of the Obama-Yanukovych summit as a meeting of adversaries. Incredible as it may sound, conditions now exist for the American and Ukrainian presidents to meet as equals, as leaders of two normal countries, to discuss matters of mutual concern and cooperation. That in itself is of significant value to both sides.

Anthony T. Salvia, Executive Director, American Institute in Ukraine

In his talks in Washington, President Yanukovych must make it clear that Ukraine has opted definitively for non-aligned status, and that, therefore, the matter of NATO membership, whether through the normal mechanism of a Membership Action Plan, or through the backdoor of the Annual National Program, is permanently off the table. To underscore that he means business, Yanukovych should take steps now to codify Ukraine’s non-aligned status in law, and possibly seek a constitutional amendment enshrining its neutrality.

And he should be prepared to explain to Americans why Ukraine’s non-aligned status is deeply in the interest of all parties. A neutral Ukraine is vital to peace in Europe. Superannuated games of encirclement and counter-encirclement are costly, dangerous and deeply unsuited to the common strategic challenges faced by pan-Europe—North America and Europe proper including Ukraine and Russia. In any case, Russia is key to Ukraine’s economic recovery, which must be Kiev’s top priority. Ukraine has no interest in serving as a pawn in the geo-strategic machinations of others.

Vlad Sobell, Eastern Europe analyst, London

Having first visited Brussels and then Moscow, Yanukovych continues to put into practice the new administration’s strategy of equidistance between Russia and the West. This is Ukraine’s natural geopolitical position and it is bound to bring tangible economic and political benefits.

The Orange regime’s ditching of the concept of equidistance or multi-vector foreign policy, pioneered by Leonid Kuchma, has turned out to be a very costly blunder. It fuelled the chronic instability of Ukraine’s domestic political scene, preventing the evolution of effective consensus behind economic reforms. The malaise has brought the country to its knees, with the IMF forced to suspend its program in November. By pushing the Orange leadership towards NATO, and hence alienating Ukraine’s most important partner – Russia – Washington rode roughshod over the true interests of the Ukrainian people. The Yanukovych regime is now slowly repairing the damage, with Ukraine’s prospects looking much brighter.

Yanukovych’s itinerary suggests that Washington continues to value its relationship with Kiev. However, one wonders what exactly is the purpose of possible joint military exercises. It could be seen as a sop to Washington following Yanukovych’s abandoning of Ukraine’s drive towards the membership of NATO. Nevertheless, given the bankruptcy of Ukraine’s economy, I would suggest that such examples of U.S.-Ukrainian cooperation should simply be abandoned. Ukraine has nothing to gain from such follies.

Srdja Trifkovic, Director, Center for International Affairs, Rockford Institute, and Executive Director of The Lord Byron Foundation for Global Studies

If President Obama could bring himself to view Ukraine the way Putin and Medvedev view Canada – as a friendly far-away country, vitally important to the giant next door but irrelevant to one’s own security calculus – we could have an all-round plus-sum-game:

  • Ukraine’s decision to terminate its NATO candidacy should be greeted with relief in Washington, as it removes a major and altogether unnecessary irritant in the U.S.-Russian relations, while at the same time ending the danger of the U.S. accepting dangerous political and military commitments;
  • Ukraine’s continuing bid for closer ties with the European Union may not lead to full membership any time soon, but should be supported by the U.S. as a sign that the new government is willing to diversify its economic and foreign policy options in the way that Russia does not find threatening or hostile;
  • Ukraine’s policy of budgetary austerity and fiscal responsibility is a welcome change to the profligate ways of the previous regime, and should be supported by the U.S. through those international institutions (notably the IMF) where America has a lot of influence.

By acting in this way the U.S. would help those in Russia, notably President Medvedev, who believe that a genuine reset in Moscow’s relations with Washington is possible. Premier Putin and FM Lavrov take a more jaundiced view, having experienced the mendacity and duplicity that characterized the Russia policy of the Bush-Cheney administration. Looking at Ukraine the way Russia looks at Canada would be a cost-free way for Obama to build on the legacy of Prague and further improve relations with Russia. This should be his top priority at a time when the likely closing of the U.S. Ganci Air Base in Kyrgyzstan following the change of government there makes Russia’s cooperation in resupplying the troops in Afghanistan more important than ever.