KIEV, Ukraine – Before Viktor Yushchenko was swept to power, Ukraine’s ties with the United States had gotten so frosty that seating arrangements at a NATO summit had to be changed so President Bush wouldn’t be placed next to Yushchenko’s predecessor.
The new Ukrainian president visits Washington this week to cement a new chapter in relations shaken by allegations that Ukraine sold radar equipment to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
While Yushchenko’s people-power credentials and reformist bent are sure to win him a sympathetic ear, he also faces a delicate balancing act: to move closer to the U.S. without alienating Russia, Ukraine’s massive neighbor and one-time master.
The three-day trip, beginning today in Washington, comes a little more than two months after Yushchenko took office following a dramatic popular uprising in which masses of supporters camped out in Kiev’s bitter cold to protest that he was robbed of an election victory over a Kremlin-favored candidate.
Yushchenko’s “Orange Revolution” – after his campaign color – was widely portrayed by his opponents as a U.S.-backed power grab, and welcomed in Washington as a spontaneous outpouring of popular sentiment peacefully bringing about democratic change.
Yushchenko moved quickly to try to allay the suspicions by meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin the day after he was inaugurated on Jan. 23. But that trip to Russia was only a few hours long, compared with the three days Yushchenko will spend in the United States.
Yushchenko is here to lobby for aid and investment, win Washington’s support for joining NATO, and greet Ukrainian-Americans on an itinerary that takes him to New York, Chicago and Boston, accompanied by his wife Kateryna, an American-born Ukrainian.
Yet his main challenge may be to show he’s serious about uncovering the truth about the alleged military sales to Iraq. Ukrainian officials have released information about an array of shady weapons deals under former President Leonid Kuchma, including cruise missile sales to Iran and China.
“It was not easy for me and my government to publicly announce facts about such dealings shortly before the trip to the U.S.,” Yushchenko said in an interview with The Associated Press.
He said he and Bush will “review all the steps aimed at ending such practices.”
At a 2002 NATO summit that Kuchma attended as a guest, the friction was such that organizers changed the alphabetical seating order from English to French so that “Etats-Unis” – the United States – would be a healthy distance away from Ukraine.
In an apparent bid to smooth ties, Ukraine sent some 1,650 troops to Iraq under the U.S.-led coalition. However, their deployment was widely unpopular at home and Ukraine began withdrawing them in March – a move Washington has indicated won’t count against Yushchenko during this week’s talks.
“I see no problems in the withdrawal of the Ukrainian troops,” U.S. Ambassador John Herbst said recently.