WASHINGTON, DC -- Viktor Yanukovych emerged Monday as an unlikely star among the four dozen foreign leaders President Obama gathered in Washington for his nuclear security summit.
The hulking Ukrainian president, who won election only two months ago, has long been perceived as the leader of Ukraine’s anti-Western camp: In 2004, it was his announced victory in a fraud-ridden presidential election that prompted his country’s pro-democracy Orange Revolution.
But Yanukovych has come a long way since then. His victory in the February presidential election was clean, and he proved deft in the following months as he overturned the crumbling Orange coalition in parliament and installed his own prime minister.
His announcement of an agreement with President Obama under which Ukraine would give up the highly enriched uranium that it now uses in three research reactors gave Obama one of the most tangible results of the summit.
It also signaled Yanukovych’s ambition to position Ukraine between Russia and the NATO powers -- outside the Western alliance, but also not part of a Russian sphere of influence.
Yanukovych outlined that strategy in an interview Monday afternoon with me and The Post’s Mary Beth Sheridan. “The policy of the new administration of Ukraine is to strike the right balance in our relations with Russia and the European Union,” he said. “We want to be a reliable bridge between Europe and Russia.”
The means, in part, an end to the previous government’s policy of seeking full membership in NATO -- a cause that the alliance endorsed in principle at the urging of the Bush administration, but then put on a back burner.
“The relations between Ukraine and NATO are not going to change,” Yanukovych said. “They will stay on the same level and with the previous attention. The only thing that has changed is that Ukraine as a non-bloc member is not stating that it wants to accede to NATO” -- because the majority of Ukrainians oppose full membership. “We will keep developing partnership interests,” he added. “We will keep improving that.”
At the same time the Ukraine leader made clear that he did not intend to go along with Moscow’s wish that his government join a customs union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, instead of seeking a free trade agreement with the European Union.
“At this stage the accession of Ukraine to the customs union isn’t possible,” he said -- but he hopes to finish a trade agreement with the European Union by the end of the year.
Yanukovych also pledged to patch Ukraine’s fractured relationship with the International Monetary Fund by implementing austerity measures the previous government balked at. An IMF deal could win the government fresh financing from the World Bank and send a positive signal to Western foreign investors, he noted.
Thanks in part to its loss of Western confidence, Ukraine has suffered more than most countries in Europe during the great recession, with a drop of over 15 percent in its gross domestic product.
The Obama administration has been accused of neglecting Ukraine as it drifted back toward Russia’s orbit. But Obama was one of the first foreign leaders to call Yanukovych in February following his electoral victory, according to aides.
The United States and Ukraine had been negotiating for years about a deal under which the United States would help replace highly-enriched uranium in the country’s research reactors with fuel that could not be used for weapons if it were stolen or diverted.
Yanukovych said Obama proposed that they complete the deal, and invited the new president to Washington for this week’s summit.
By quickly accepting, Yanukovych built a link to the White House to balance his long-standing connection to the Kremlin -- and managed to stand out among the dozens of leaders jamming the luxury hotels of downtown Washington Monday.
“We’ve had this idea for quite some time,” he said. “But it was only realized when Barrack Obama raised it to a much higher level.”