President Barack Obama met today with Ukraine's new President, Viktor Yanukovych, who's in Washington for the Nuclear Security Summit. In theory, this should have been a disaster: over the years the United States has devoted a lot of time and diplomatic capital to keeping the pro-Russian Yanukovych out of power. Washington refused to recognize his "victory" in a rigged 2004 election and instead supported his Western-leaning rival, Viktor Yushchenko, and the Orange Revolution that eventually brought him to power. Yushchenko wanted to bring Ukraine westward—into NATO and the European Union—and was supported in this quest by the Bush administration, much to the chagrin of European powers like Germany, France, and Italy (who rightly feared that pushing Ukraine into NATO would cause fury in Russia). Now Yanukovych is back, and he will surely draw Ukraine back toward Russia: he makes no secret of his view that the NATO idea was "a mistake" and "against Ukraine's national interests." Earlier this month he even scrapped a government body dedicated to overseeing NATO integration. Instead, Yanukovych says that he wants Ukraine to be "a neutral country on good terms with all of our neighbors." This doesn't seem like a natural friend for Obama.
And yet all of this suits the American president quite well. For Obama, Yanukovych's move back to Russia's orbit makes life much easier. NATO membership for Ukraine was a major irritant in Washington-Moscow relations for years. Now, Obama has made a point of "resetting" relations with Moscow, and to do that he needs to remove as many spanners from the diplomatic works as possible. One such obstacle was overcome last week when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sat down with Obama in Prague Castle to sign a new nuclear arms-reduction treaty, in an atmosphere as constructive and friendly as there has been between the two countries' leaders in a decade.
But there are other examples of hurdle-clearing, too: Washington scrapped plans to station antiballistic-missile interceptors in Poland and the Czech Republic; instead, it will station them in Southern Europe, where they won't interfere with Russia's nuclear capabilities. The most important, though, is Obama's very clear signal that he won't push to include former Soviet republics like Ukraine and Georgia into NATO and a Western embrace, as Bush had done. A cold rapport with Yanukovych will allow Obama to cultivate a warm one with Russia's Dmitry Medvedev.
And Russia, for Obama, is the more important relationship. In the grand scheme of things, incremental victories for liberalism in Ukraine won't do nearly as much for American security as close relations with Moscow. First and foremost, they'll have to work together to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions: Russia's vote for sanctions in the U.N. Security Council will be crucial. And Russia has so far held off from delivering a powerful $1 billion S-300 missile-defense system bought by Tehran in 2007.
Obama's new line is hardly the sellout of the Ukrainian people that American supporters of the Orange Revolution might be given to believe. It is pretty much in line with what ordinary Ukrainians think: according to a recent poll, more than two thirds reject the idea of joining NATO (in Georgia, the proportions are reversed because of the 2008 war with Russia). So rather than a meeting of awkwardness and anxiety with Yanukovych today, Obama's confab with him heralds the beginning of a more pragmatic relationship for America and Ukraine, and a more fruitful one for America and Russia.