AFTER SIX postponements, Boris N. Yeltsin is finally visiting Ukraine in what was billed as "the Russian president's most important foreign policy action this year."
The question for leaders of the two countries now becomes: What next?
It is impossible to think of Russia without Ukraine. The historical fates of the two countries are so intertwined that modern Russia dates its birth to the 9th century arrival in Ukraine of three Scandinavian brothers who, according to a legend, answered local Slavic tribes' plea: "Our whole land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come to rule and reign over us."
The primacy of Kiev did not last long. By the 14th century, Moscow had emerged as the supreme power of the region. Ukraine was gobbled up by the expanding czarist empire. When the Bolsheviks took over in 1917, Ukraine became the second biggest constituent republic of the Soviet Union.
The collapse of communism six years ago enabled Ukraine to gain independence. It also produced conflicts with Moscow over the fate of the former Soviet Black Sea fleet and control of the Crimea, which the Kremlin had transferred to Ukraine in 1954. Complicating matters further is that while nationalism is strong in parts of Ukraine, many people elsewhere in the country identify with Russia.
Mr. Yeltsin's post-Soviet Russia has found ready allies in Belarus and Kazakstan. Ukraine, on the other hand, has rebuffed all attempts to draw it closer to Moscow, even though that would make sense economically. The 19-page friendship agreement Mr. Yeltsin is expected to sign today as he wraps up his two-day visit to Ukraine is unlikely to change anything.
In the long term, Russia needs Ukraine, which borders on Poland, the Slovak Republic, Hungary and Romania. Ukraine is pivotal for Moscow as the western flank of Russia's defense. The France-sized nation's active participation is also essential if the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States is ever going amount to anything.
It took six years for a Russian president to visit Ukraine. That was not because the desire was lacking but because relations between the two countries are fraught with problems.
Pub Date: 5/31/97