Ukrainians wonder what Georgia crisis means for them

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 15, 2008 

KIEV, Ukraine — Russia's invasion of Georgia has unsettled this former Soviet republic, which like Georgia has applied for membership in NATO but now fears that the U.S. could do little to prevent similar Russian action here.

"If the West swallows the pill and forgives Russia the Georgian war, the invasion of 'peacekeeping tanks' into Ukraine will just be a matter of time," Oleksandr Suchko, the research director of the Kiev-based Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, wrote on Ukrainska Pravda (Ukrainian Truth), a leading online news site.

Still, not everyone here thinks that Russia would invade Ukraine, which is nearly nine times larger than Georgia, 10 times more populous and much better armed. Many note, moreover, that Ukraine's president, Viktor Yushchenko, is highly unpopular and isn't expected to win re-election in 2010.

There are many disputes between the countries, however.

Ukraine has a long-standing issue with the presence of Russia's Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol, a holdover from when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991. Many in Ukraine want the Russians gone in 2017, when the lease agreement expires, but Russia has been suggesting that it intends to stay longer.

Russian politicians also provoke Ukrainian ire by reminding them that the Crimean peninsula was a gift from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954, giving rise to fears that Moscow might stoke secessionist sentiments in the area, which is part of Ukraine but inhabited predominantly by ethnic Russians.

Other supposed slights fan tensions.

One that burns, though perhaps apocryphal, is a supposed conversation between Russian then-President Vladimir Putin and President Bush during the April NATO-Russia Council summit in Bucharest, Romania, at which the membership applications of Ukraine and Georgia were delayed.

Putin supposedly told Bush that "Well, you understand, George, Ukraine isn't even a state," according to Russia's newspaper Kommersant, citing a diplomatic source in attendance.

Many here suspect Russian involvement in the still-unsolved and nearly fatal dioxin poisoning of Yushchenko, who fell ill while he was a presidential candidate in 2004. The Kremlin backed his rival, Viktor Yanukovych, whose path to power was blocked when the democratic Orange Revolution overturned the results of a rigged election.

Yushchenko flew to Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, earlier this week in a show of support for Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, and said Thursday that Russia must seek Ukraine's permission before moving its warships out of port. Russian leaders responded by saying they'd ignore Yushchenko.

The two countries also have an ongoing dispute over the price of natural gas. Ukraine is heavily dependent on Russian energy supplies, as is much of Europe, while Russia depends on Ukraine's transit pipelines to carry its gas to customers in other nations.

Even religion is a source of friction in the mainly Orthodox Christian countries. The most recent spat came during last month's events celebrating the 1,020th anniversary of the conversion from paganism to Christianity of Kyivan Rus, the medieval empire from which the modern nations of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus arose.

Yushchenko irritated Moscow by asking Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the nominal leader of the world's Orthodox faithful, to recognize a single Orthodox Church in Ukraine. Currently, Ukrainians are divided, with millions of faithful still loyal to Russian Patriarch Alexei II.

Still, many here also have a hard time imagining a Russian-Ukrainian military conflict.

Ukrainians and Russians share centuries of Slavic kinship — Georgians have a separate cultural history — and rule by czars and Soviets. Ukrainians, stuck between Hitler and Stalin during World War II, are accustomed to navigating unfavorable geographic positions. Moreover, some 8 million of Ukraine's 46 million people are ethnic Russians.

Polls show that Ukrainians are divided over the prospect of NATO membership, with many opposed and others ambivalent.

That ambivalence is clear in interviews.

"Russia will never invade Ukraine, not even for Sevastopol," said Sergei Ribak, a security guard in Kiev. "This thesis is ridiculous."

Others aren't so sure, but draw different conclusions about what Ukraine's foreign policy should be.

"I agree that, under certain circumstances, a Russian invasion of Ukraine is possible," said Elena Guzva, a Kiev homemaker. "That's why Ukraine should be more serious about maintaining balanced and friendly relations with our eastern neighbor in order to avoid the risk."

(Bonner is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

More from McClatchy

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U.S. 'no' to intervention leaves Russia in control

Commentary: A sad week for Georgia, America and the world

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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