A deal to extend the stay of Russia's Black Sea Fleet in the Crimea in exchange for up to $40 billion worth of gas discounts stops Ukraine's drift toward NATO, but political-military integration with Russia is not in the interests of the nation.
The package of agreements, which Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev signed in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkov on 21 April, extends the Black Sea Fleet's lease for 25 years after it expires in 2017 with a five-year prolongation option. In exchange, Ukraine will get discounts on Russian gas as well as collect more rent from the fleet's Crimean facilities, for which Moscow is now paying $98 million annually.
The discounts will expire in 2020 while the fleet will stay in the Crimea at least until 2042 if the agreement is ratified. The agreements will allow Ukraine to save up to $40 billion, according to Yanukovich. According to Yanukovich's arch-enemy, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, however, Ukraine won't be saving any money at all on Russian gas.
Tymoshenko and Yanukovich's pro-western predecessor Viktor Yushchenko have already vowed to try to derail ratification of the lease, on which the Ukrainian parliament is set to vote on 27 April, and have even threatened to impeach the president for betrayal of national interests and violation of the Ukrainian Constitution. The constitution declares Ukraine a neutral state and bans foreign military bases, but it also contains a clause that allows for the maintenance of those bases that have already been established, according to government lawyers.
The 21 April agreements, which Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had secretly negotiated with his Ukrainian counterpart Nikolai Azarov, are strong evidence of the new Ukrainian leadership's intention to re-balance the country's position vis-ŕ-vis the West and the East.
In fact, Yanukovich's actions echo the shrewd slow-paced strategy pursued by his mentor and 2nd Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, who sought to balance Ukraine between Russia and the West, refraining from explicit overtures to NATO in order to avoid antagonizing Russia while exploring possibilities of EU membership.
"Our strategic aims are not changing. Ukraine will integrate into the European Union," Agence France Presse quoted Yanukovich as saying on 22 April. "My aim is that in the triangle of EU-Russia-US, Ukraine will find its place and its national interests. We have to find equilibrium."
While keeping closer ties with, if not membership in the EU among the list of foreign policy priorities, Yanukovich has all but quashed the country's prospects of joining NATO. These prospects had been nourished by Yushchenko despite strong public opposition, especially in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Yanukovich campaigned on a promise to end the NATO bid and he disbanded the government commissions focused on advancing this bid soon after his inauguration.