Russia wooing Ukraine back in?

April 04, 2001|By Bill Thomas

WASHINGTON -- Problems began for Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma in November when a former bodyguard released tapes on which the stressed-out leader appears to be instructing colleagues to get rid of a troublesome reporter. The journalist's body was later found minus a head.

In other tapes, Mr. Kuchma is heard apparently telling political cronies how to blackmail local officials into supporting him in the country's 1999 presidential election. Faced with calls for his resignation, Mr. Kuchma recently ordered all government workers, Cabinet officials and mayors to declare their loyalty to him or look for new jobs.

A hidden tape recorder, investigative reporters, angry protesters and a chief executive caught in a scandal of his own making. Sound familiar? Mr. Kuchma has become a post-Soviet Richard Nixon, complete with his own Kievgate. But unlike Nixon -- thanks to a pliant legislature and a friendly court system -- Mr. Kuchma could survive his dilemma. And if he does, Moscow, not Washington, stands to be the chief beneficiary.

Ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union nearly a decade ago, Ukraine has been courted by United States with a combination of private investments, foreign aid and a weapons removal program intended to dismantle the country's Soviet-era nuclear arsenal.

And while much of the money involved probably ended up in the hands of Mr. Kuchma and his henchmen, the goal was to drive a diplomatic wedge between Kiev and Moscow. But that was before the release of the infamous tapes, after which Washington quietly distanced itself from the Ukrainian leader and his increasingly despotic measures to stay in power.

Enter Russian President Vladimir Putin. It's no secret that Mr. Putin favors the restoration of Soviet-style foreign policies, including partial rehabilitation of the Soviet Union.

Though the former republics in Central Asia and the Baltic region are lost forever, others are coming back to the fold.

Mr. Kuchma's difficulties clearly are working to Mr. Putin's advantage. The Russian president thoughtfully rushed to extend his support soon after the current crisis began, meeting with his beleaguered counterpart in the same Ukrainian missile plant that Mr. Kuchma headed in Soviet times.

The symbolism of that encounter should give both advocates and opponents of a U.S. missile defense shield something to think about.

Meanwhile, if Mr. Kuchma survives his political troubles, look for Ukraine to join Belarus, its neo-Soviet neighbor to the north, in a strengthened Kremlin alliance. With the former Soviet republic of Moldova indicating that it, too, wants stronger ties with Moscow, Mr. Putin could soon have in place all the pieces of the anti-NATO bloc he's been looking for.

We may never learn the story behind the sudden appearance of the Kuchma tapes, but in the current resurgence of East-West espionage, it's obvious the ex-spy running the Kremlin knows how to make the most of them.

Bill Thomas, former editor of Capital Style magazine, is the author of "Red Tape: Adventure Capitalism in the New Russia" (Dutton, 1992).

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