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Delicate Balancing Act for Ukraine in Relations with Russia  

Ukraine and Russia always have had close ties going back centuries. Now, Ukraine has a new, Western-leaning president, Viktor Yushchenko.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was deeply involved in the recent Ukrainian presidential campaign between then Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich and opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko.

In an apparent effort to sway Ukrainian voters, the Russian leader traveled twice to Ukraine and openly praised Mr. Yanukovich. He quickly congratulated him on his victory in a November runoff election that was subsequently declared fraudulent by the Ukrainian Supreme Court. On December 26, Mr. Yushchenko defeated Mr. Yanukovich in a rematch, and was inaugurated as the new Ukrainian president on January 23.

Mark von Hagen, Ukraine expert at Columbia University's Harriman Institute, says President Putin's intervention could have been counterproductive.

"He seemed to be incredibly insensitive to the national feelings, even of those who maybe would have voted for Yanukovich anyway - to have a Russian president come and tell them, basically, who to vote for, twice, probably turned off as many as it brought in, and probably more were turned off," he said.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Ukraine's independence in 1991, the Russian government has considered Ukraine to be in its sphere of influence. The two countries also have historic, cultural, religious and economic ties going back centuries. Recognizing those ties, Mr. Yushchenko, a day after his inauguration as Ukrainian president, traveled to Moscow to meet with Mr. Putin. Mr. Yushchenko said: "Our position has always been, and always will be, that Russia is our eternal strategic partner."

Lucan Way, Ukraine expert from Temple University, says both leaders understand they need to cooperate.

"Both sides realize that they need each other's support," said Mr. Way said. "Ukraine is in a position where it cannot ignore Russia. It depends on it economically for energy resources. At the same time, Putin realizes that he simply cannot dictate events in Ukraine, and, like it or not, he will have to deal with Yushchenko. So, I think, eventually, relations will become relatively good, if always somewhat cold and distant."

At the same time, some experts believe Mr. Putin sees the election of Mr. Yushchenko as a threat. One of them is Frank Sysyn, director of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies.

"Whatever externally gets said for public consumption, I expect the Putin government still to be trying to undermine the Yushchenko government, and I would say, an additional reason for doing it is, if the Yushchenko government succeeds, this inevitably will provide an example for Russian society, that one can have economic progress, become a major player in world affairs, or, in the case of Russia, remain one, and still open up society and have democratic institutions," he said.

Analysts say it was a great symbolic act for Mr. Yushchenko to travel to Moscow so quickly after becoming Ukrainian president.

Mark von Hagen from Columbia University says the Ukrainian president's visit to Auschwitz, to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp by Soviet troops, was also full of symbolism.

"The Auschwitz visit is important, too, not only because Yushchenko's father was a prisoner in Auschwitz, but because it's a symbolic outreach to the Soviet war veterans of Ukraine, who probably also identify more as Soviet than to Ukrainian to this day, and to make them feel that they were part of Ukrainian history, too, and to make World War II an intimate part of Ukrainian history, which of course, it was," he said. "Some of the bloodiest battles and some of the most murderous episodes of the war happened in Ukraine, on [what was then] Soviet territory."

Looking ahead, experts say, Mr. Yushchenko must engage in a delicate balancing act with Moscow: continue having good relations with Russia, trying not to antagonize its leaders, while, at the same time, moving his country closer to the European Union.