MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Kremlin has struck a tactical alliance with its former foe Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko designed to help her become the next president and help Russia rein in Ukraine’s drive to embrace the West.
Tymoshenko and the Kremlin have put aside years of mutual suspicion to unite against Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, the driving force behind Kiev’s ambitions to join NATO and Tymoshenko’s rival in a bitter struggle for power.
The new warmth was on show on Thursday when Tymoshenko — who two years ago accused Russia of extorting cash from Ukraine in a row over gas — had a cordial meeting with her Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin followed by unscheduled, late-night talks with President Dmitry Medvedev.
“The tactical interests of Moscow and Tymoshenko have coincided. They have the same main opponent and that is Yushchenko,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.
The calculations of both sides are focused on the next presidential vote, which must take place no later than January 2010. The field could include Yushchenko, Tymoshenko and Viktor Yanukovich, a former prime minister.
The Kremlin backed Yanukovich’s failed bid to win a 2004 presidential election, but opinion polls suggest he does not have enough support outside the Russian-speaking areas of the country to win the presidency now.
“Moscow cannot find common ground with Yushchenko and is waiting for a new president to appear,” said Oleksander Dergachyov, an independent analyst in Kiev.
“Tymoshenko is, of course, not the sole alternative, but her candidature is a good one against the background of Yushchenko.”
After their talks on a new gas supply deal on Thursday, Putin said reports Tymoshenko could be investigated in Ukraine for treason were comical and joked that Yushchenko was a “trickster” for commandeering the aircraft in which Tymoshenko had been scheduled to fly to Mosocw.
That atmosphere was in marked contrast to the frostiness of the past. Tymoshenko, with then ally Yushchenko, led the 2004 “Orange Revolution,” a wave of street protests that defeated Yanukovich and was lambasted in Moscow as a Western plot.
In a 2007 article in U.S. journal Foreign Affairs, she wrote that the West must contain Russia’s “imperial designs” on its neighbors and accused Putin of suppressing dissent at home.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling the article an “anti-Russian manifesto, an attempt to draw new dividing lines through Europe and take the world back, at the least, to the atmosphere of the Cold War.”
Charges of forgery and smuggling gas were brought against her in connection with her activities at the head of a private gas trading firm in the mid-1990s and an arrest warrant was issued for her in Russia. But Russian prosecutors dropped charges against her in December 2005.
Russia’s brief war with Georgia in August turned Tymoshenko’s relations with the Kremlin around.
Yushchenko went to Tbilisi to show support for Saakashvili, he reaffirmed his desire to take Ukraine into NATO despite opposition from many voters and told Russia’s navy it must leave the Ukrainian base it leases by 2017.
But Tymoshenko took a more calibrated approach and criticized the president for backing Georgia too stridently.
“Tymoshenko behaved like a real Ukrainian,” said Kirill Frolov of Moscow’s Institute for CIS Countries, a pro-Kremlin think tank which studies ex-Soviet states. “Why should Ukraine take someone’s side?”
Differences between Tymoshenko and Yushchenko over Georgia were an important factor in bringing down their fragile coalition last month. Yushchenko can call an early parliamentary election if efforts to resurrect the coalition fail.
Tymoshenko’s new efforts to distance herself from Yushchenko’s staunchly pro-Western line may have more than a little to do with her ambition to replace him as president, said Moscow-based analyst Lukyanov.
“For Tymoshenko it is very important to win extra votes in those parts of the country where they do not welcome NATO and all of that,” he said.