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Ukraine's deepening relations with Russia raise Western concerns

After years of animosity, relations between Ukraine and Russia are improving significantly. But not everyone is happy with Kyiv's new alignment with Moscow. Western powers are watching the deepening ties with concern.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. left, shakes hands with Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovich

Yanukovich's election victory was welcomed in Moscow

In the months that have followed Viktor Yanukovych's election as president of Ukraine, the former Soviet state's relationship with Russia has been improving steadily. After hitting historic lows under Yanukovych's pro-Western predecessor Viktor Yushchenko's presidency, Ukraine and Russia are taking significant steps to cement close ties in economic and strategic areas after years of destabilizing animosity.

Yanukovych has been pursuing stronger relations with Russia ever since his February election and along with a proposed friendship treaty that the two nations intend to sign in the coming months, Ukraine and Russia have announced the resumption of full military cooperation and mutually beneficial trade and energy deals in recent weeks.

A resumption of military cooperation between the two nations follows on from Yanukovych’s signing of a controversial deal in April allowing Russia to extend its lease on the Black Sea Port of Sevastopol for another 25 years after the current agreement expires in 2017.

Return to military cooperation signals new direction

A man holding a Russian flag speaks with a girl

Russia will now keep its fleet at Sevastapol until 2042

In May, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Yanukovych also issued three joint strategic declarations during a presidential summit in Kyiv; they pledged to jointly advance the Russian president's initiative aimed at signing the European Security Treaty, work together on resolving the conflict in the restive Transdnistria region and cooperate on naval security in the Black Sea region.

In June, Yanukovych made it clearer still in which direction he intended to take Ukraine when he effectively made good on an election promise to turn away from the West and NATO.

"On June 4, parliament passed an initial draft of a bill establishing Ukraine's non-aligned status, fulfilling President Yanukovych's pledge to halt the country's drive to join NATO," Asher Pirt, an expert in Russian and Central Asian Affairs, told Deutsche Welle.

"In addition, the renewal of Russia rights of the Black Sea Fleet Port and signing bilateral agreements point to a change in Ukrainian policy toward Russia rather than the West. Ukraine is not a great power like Russia and the US and needs assistance with defence, economic stability and energy supplies. Its neighbor Russia is able to provide this at a price."

Yanukovych has also attempted to repair relations over trade and energy security with Moscow which were damaged under the Yushchenko administration. The previous presidency consistently battled with Moscow over transit rights for oil pipelines, leading to annual cut-offs and supply shortages in Ukraine and customers in Europe.

Healthy economic ties being promoted by Moscow

Kyiv and Moscow recently agreed a new deal on oil and gas transportation which would secure previously contentious transit routes and set fees while also providing security to Russia's main customers in the European Union.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin

Putin is leading a push for closer economic ties

Ukraine and Russia have also normalized and improved trade relations since Yanukovych came to power with Russian-Ukrainian trade doubling in the first four months of the current year. In the last year of the Yushchenko presidency, trade between Russia and Ukraine collapsed to $22 billion (17 billion euros) from $40 billion. However, the new boost to economic ties seems to be driven mainly by Russian desires with Ukraine coming under a certain amount of pressure to cooperate.

"There is significant evidence in terms of economic alignment as well but there is also the question of how far Ukraine wishes to go with this and to what extent Ukraine can resist Russia’s overtures," Dr. Susan Stewart, a senior research associate at the Russia/CIS Research Division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told Deutsche Welle.

"Ukraine would like substantial but limited economic cooperation while Russia says it wants deeper relations, with Prime Minister Putin saying that he wants to see Gazprom and Ukraine’s Naftogaz merge."

While the developing closeness between the two nations has been greeted with relief among many who believed the damaging rift created under Yushchenko would ultimately lead to confrontation, Kyiv's shift towards Moscow is raising concerns in the United States.

Read more about the situation in Ukraine

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