December Surprise

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On Dec. 19, while the United States was preparing for the last shopping weekend before Christmas, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed a Charter on Strategic Partnership with her Ukrainian counterpart. A similar charter with Georgia was scheduled to be signed on Jan. 4 but was delayed until Jan. 9 because of the hostilities in Gaza.

But what exactly is a Charter on Strategic Partnership, and how binding will be it be on President Barack Obama? And how is it seen by the other signatory, Ukraine -- not to mention Russia?

A charter is a statement of intent, and it is not binding since it is not ratified by the U.S. Congress. But the intent is clear: to "strengthen Ukraine's candidacy for NATO membership" by "enhanced training and equipment for Ukrainian armed forces." The charter's very last point addresses the intent to open an "American presence post" -- a consular-like post of one or two people -- in Simferopol, Ukraine. These presence posts are part of Rice's philosophy of transformational diplomacy, whose aim is to "build and sustain democratic, well-governed states" and to spread the U.S. vision and to learn more about those regions.

Simferopol is the capital of Crimea, the most politically sensitive part of Ukraine. Crimea was once part of Russia but was given as a gift to Ukraine by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. The majority of its population of 2 million is ethnically Russian and leans more to Moscow than to Kiev. Russia's Black Sea Fleet is also stationed in Crimea under a lease with Ukraine, which the current Ukrainian government has stated it will not renew when the agreement expires in 2017.

If the Kremlin, which is very much against Ukraine's membership in NATO, wishes to foment civil strife in Ukraine, Crimea would be the best place to do it. For that reason it makes sense to have a diplomatic outpost there representing U.S. views and interests while keeping an eye on the situation. But that post will also be viewed by the Russians as intrusive and provocative.

Rice must have realized that the Russian-Ukrainian gas shipment and pipeline agreements also came up at the end of the year. Those talks quickly collapsed, resulting in shortages and recriminations. In demanding higher prices and late fees, the Kremlin might have been scrambling for money or punishing Kiev for a charter the Russians inevitably see as directed against them. Feeling backed by U.S., Kiev was tougher in negotiations.

Remarks about the U.S.-Georgia charter made by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili a few days after the U.S.-Ukraine charter was signed give some clue to the extravagant hopes these last-minute agreements are fostering. "America has never before said Georgia is its strategic ally, in any statement or in any agreement," Saakashvili said. "If now the word 'strategic' appears in our relations, this will be the most articulate answer to the aggression against Georgia ... and to permanent efforts to destroy Georgia and tear it to pieces."

Even though the charters are nonbinding, they create expectations that can have consequences. Upon taking office, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should at once inform Ukraine and Georgia that these charters will be renegotiated after the United States has hammered out a new foreign policy in which Afghanistan will play a central role. Since NATO and U.S. troops can no longer depend on supply routes through Pakistan, the cooperation of the Central Asian nations and Russia will be essential. Agreements should be reached with them first.

Richard Lourie is the author of "The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin" and "Sakharov" A Biography."