MOSCOW — Ukraine's once deeply controversial bid to join NATO appears to have died a little-noticed bureaucratic death this week, as incoming President Viktor Yanukovich moved to abolish a commission that had been overseeing the country's preparations for eventual entry into the Western military alliance.
Monday's presidential decree scrapping the commission came as Mr. Yanukovich was meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev amid his second official visit to Moscow since being elected in February. Another commission, whose brief was to promote Euro-Atlantic integration, was cut along with a few dozen other advisory state bodies associated with the Western-leaning former president Viktor Yushchenko.
Experts say there's little surprise in the action, since Yanukovich was elected, at least partly, on a platform of repairing relations with Moscow, which had been so infuriated by Mr. Yushchenko's pro-NATO tilt that Russia refused to send an ambassador to Kiev for almost two years.
"It is definitely not the policy of Yanukovich to join NATO," says Oleksandr Sushko, research director of the independent Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kiev.
"Yanukovich's policy is not to move in any direction, but for Ukraine to be a kind of 'bridge' between East and West. The danger is that we are moving into a gray zone, where the security status of Ukraine will become ambiguous."
Since Ukraine achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, most of its leaders have upheld a strategy of gradually integrating the France-sized country of 48 million into the European community of nations. But following the 2004 Orange Revolution, which brought Yushchenko to power pledging to put the country on a fast-track to NATO membership, the issue became a major wedge between Moscow and Kiev.
Though opinion polls over the years have shown Ukrainian majorities favor the idea of eventually joining the European Union, NATO membership has never commanded popular support.
"Our latest poll on this was in October 2009, when 17 percent of Ukrainians supported joining NATO and 53 percent were opposed," says Vladimir Paniotto, director of the independent Kiev International Institute of Sociology. "We've polled on this regularly over the years, and majorities have always been against joining NATO."
Following Russia's 2008 summer war with Georgia, another NATO aspirant, enthusiasm for admitting any more post-Soviet states into the alliance notably cooled, particularly in western Europe.
As financial crisis struck last year, hammering Ukraine's economy, Ukrainian voters became even less interested in geopolitical issues and more concerned about fixing relations with Russia, Ukraine's top trading partner.
"I don't believe that Yanukovich is thinking in any grand terms, such as positioning Ukraine as a neutral or non-aligned international player," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal.
"I think his key goal is to save the Ukrainian economy from collapse, and for this he needs help from all sides, including Moscow. Meanwhile, you don't hear any European countries pressing to have the question of Ukrainian NATO membership put back on the table. Yanukovich is simply behaving in a pragmatic way," he says.
However, the agenda for Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's visit to Ukraine next week does include a meeting of a new parliamentary group on Russian-Ukrainian security cooperation, and some Russian experts say Ukraine may be moving toward a formal declaration of neutrality.
"Ukraine is turning away from NATO and correcting its foreign policy," says Kiril Frolov, an expert with the official Institute of Commonwealth of Independent States Studies in Moscow. "It is moving toward neutral status, and the next step will be a law to establish that."
Mr. Sushko, a longtime advocate of Ukraine's accession to NATO, says he worries that a drift toward Russia could end up undermining Ukraine's democracy.
"Yanukovich and the people around him are not noted for their strong commitment to democratic values, and it's a big question what might happen if Ukraine's economy continues to deteriorate," he says. "This is certainly a chance for Russia to erode the democratic choices that Ukraine has made."
(Weir is a Christian Science Monitor correspondent.)