KIEV — Doomsayers have been lamenting the West’s imminent “loss” of Ukraine for years, and the trend has only picked up since Viktor Yanukovich was elected president in February. In the recent signing of an agreement prolonging the lease of a Russian naval base in Crimea, they see proof of the new president’s desire to cement his country’s status as a Russian satellite.


They’re wrong. Sort of.

True, it’s a bad deal. In exchange for rebates on natural gas until 2019, President Yanukovich has allowed Moscow to station its Black Sea Fleet in the port of Sevastopol until 2042. In doing so, he has allowed Russia to maintain a foothold in a particularly unstable part of Ukraine — Crimea — and to continue to project its military power in the volatile Black Sea region — not a minor development, especially after Russia and neighbor Georgia came to blows in August 2008.

Just as worrying, the rebates will allow the president to postpone reform of Ukraine’s famously corrupt and inefficient energy sector. They are life support for a fossilized system that should long have gone the way of the dinosaurs.

Putting off reform is politically profitable for Mr. Yanukovich, who depends on the support of industrial and energy barons who made their fortunes thanks to corruption and artificially cheap gas. But it comes at a high political cost to Ukraine, which now essentially depends on Russian subsidies to pay for the energy it consumes.

In other words, the deal bolsters Russia’s influence in Ukraine and its claim to a sphere of influence in the region.

But those who see it as evidence of Mr. Yanukovich’s determination to steer his country back into Russia’s orbit are not looking at the right things.

The agreement is less evidence of Mr. Yanukovich’s geopolitical inclinations than proof of his country’s weakness. Ukraine’s economy shrank by one seventh in 2009, and with it the government’s ability to pay its energy bills.

Even Yulia Tymoshenko, a leader of the Orange Revolution who as recently as 2008 had called for Ukraine to join NATO, as prime minister found herself compelled in 2009 to make important concessions to Moscow — including a gas accord so one-sided it had to be revised only a few months after its signing.

Nor, for all its repercussions, does the deal spell the end of European integration in the broader sense. While NATO membership is clearly off the table in the short and probably medium terms, that was evident already before Mr. Yanukovich came to power.

The new president has resisted attempts by Moscow to get Ukraine to join a Russia-led customs union, preferring instead to continue negotiations on a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement with the European Union.

He has described European integration as his “key priority,” symbolically making his first visit as president to Brussels — much to Moscow’s ire. Mr. Yanukovich is less Western-oriented than his predecessor Viktor Yushchenko, but he is not a Kremlin stooge.

Despite his reputation for incompetence, Yanukovich can be a smooth operator. The gas agreement may undermine Ukraine’s position vis-à-vis Russia, but it is popular with industry and many households, whom it saves from higher gas bills (for this year at least).

It also paves the way for a national budget acceptable to the I.M.F., whose deficit-reduction demands have been a major stumbling block in negotiations on the release of further tranches of its emergency loan. Even U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called it evidence of Ukraine’s new “balanced approach” to foreign policy.

More worrying than the agreement’s content is the deeply flawed way in which it was concluded — and what this says about Mr. Yanukovich’s attitude toward the rule of law in Ukraine.

The Constitution prohibits the basing of foreign military installations on Ukrainian territory, albeit in unclear terms. What’s more, the deal was never submitted to Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, as it should have been, and the normal parliamentary ratification procedure was not respected. This, combined with the constitutionally dubious way in which Mr. Yanukovich recently pieced together his parliamentary majority, raises serious questions about his willingness to play by the rules.

It is too early to say that President Yanukovich is intentionally helping Russia “steal” Ukraine from the West. He is more positively inclined toward Moscow than his predecessor, but the truth is that he has been pushed into a corner by a combination of geopolitical ineptness, special interests and pre-existing problems.

The real question is whether he takes his obligations (constitutional and otherwise) seriously. If he doesn’t, both the West and Russia are in for unpleasant surprises.

Published: May 20, 2010

Sacha Tessier-Stall and Kateryna Zarembo are analysts at the International Center for Policy Studies in Kiev.