Keeping Kiev Friendly

President Boris Yeltsin's energetic activity abroad these past few months, including his visit to Kiev last week, is evidence that the country's foreign policies are becoming even more presidential than before. It seems that despite the opposition of a significant part of Russia's political elite, the president has decided to adapt the country's foreign policy to its current capabilities and international position. Yeltsin has acknowledged that the country's current borders are fixed, and has definitively recognized the independence of Ukraine. He has also shown a firm determination to carry out dialogues and promote cooperation with the West and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

So what is the nature of the agreements Yeltsin has signed in Kiev with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, in Paris with NATO and in Moscow with Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko? The NATO Founding Act, the "big agreement" with Ukraine and union accord with Belarus set the basic principles of interaction among all sides and leave the terms of their fulfillment largely open. Although the agreements mark a break with the previous Yalta international order, what the new order will be is still unclear.

If Russia did not succeed in Paris in securing its main condition from NATO -- an assurance that it would not expand further eastward -- then in Kiev, Yeltsin only managed to reduce the acuteness of the question. What will happen in the next 10 to 20 years will depend precisely on whether Russia will be able to build constructive relations with NATO and its separate members and manage to become a more necessary economic partner for Ukraine.

Of course, the agreement with Ukraine, especially concerning the Black Sea Fleet and Sevastopol, should have been signed long ago. But starting in the spring of 1995, Russia was exasperated by the endless visits of Western leaders to Kiev and Ukraine's own growing ambitions. In May of that year, President Bill Clinton said the fate of European security will be decided in Ukraine. During last year's presidential elections, Yeltsin simply could not have allowed himself to sign such an agreement without great political damage. Then the president's illness brought about a six-month lull in the negotiations.

Yeltsin's recent diplomatic activities have signalled Russia's foreign policy priorities and alternatives. He first turned to Beijing, from which there is no getting away; to Minsk, with which Russia sees no alternative other than union; to Paris, because Russia intends to define major international policies with the leading world powers; and to Kiev, for it is precisely there, as Clinton rightly pointed out, that the fate of European security will be decided.

Yeltsin could not come to Kiev earlier, since the recognition of Russia's limited capabilities would only come with the bitter experience in Chechnya and the realization that NATO would accept new members regardless of Moscow's objections. When he visited Kiev last month, he arrived in another country and in different international circumstances. Even before NATO's official invitation of membership, Poland has already begun to form a "regional partnership" with countries that will remain outside the initial wave of expansion of the alliance. In May the leaders of the three Baltic countries, Ukraine and Poland met in Tallinn to discuss such ties.

This is not the first attempt to create an east European buffer zone between the Baltic and Black seas. Poland has almost always been behind such initiatives. And Russia always reacted negatively to these attempts, accusing its allies of trying to close it off from the rest of the world with a cordon sanitaire. But Poland did not succeed, because, first of all, it did not get the West's support, and second, its neighbors in the region, the Czech Republic and Hungary, did not want to acknowledge Poland's role as leader.

Today with one foot in NATO, Poland's situation has changed dramatically. After it becomes part of this powerful defense system, Poland will have an objective interest in pushing the periphery of the alliance further eastward. If Belarus is no longer an option, then Ukraine is still open to the West. Indeed, Poland and Ukraine already took steps this May toward closer relations, and Polish officials consider that both countries are ready to form a strategic partnership.

What this partnership will entail -- trade and economic cooperation, joint Polish-Ukrainian peace-keeping battalions, cultural exchanges or a pulling of Ukraine into the sphere of NATO or a quasi-NATO -- will be a key question for Russia in the coming decades. The question could not be solved by signing a "big agreement" in Kiev or an "act" in Paris. Moscow will have to carry out painstaking, "small-steps" policies that restore political trust and turn economic cooperation into a plank of Russian-Ukrainian relations; that develop advantageous bilateral relations with Poland; and finally that allow for trusting, sound and positive cooperation with NATO and its members.

Did Yeltsin arrive too late in Kiev? Yes, he came late, and Ukraine was set to head in a direction away from Russia. But for the time being, it hasn't moved. In order to keep it from moving away from Russia, there is no need to put obstacles in the way. Russia and Ukraine need simply to stop the chaos and economic disorder at home.

Irina Kobrinskaya is a senior analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.