Ukraine's Prime Minister on Working With Russia

Ever since President Barack Obama offered to push the "reset" button on U.S.-Russian relations, worries have mounted in Central and Eastern Europe that the White House would downgrade our security concerns. Obama's decision not to build an antimissile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic seemed to confirm those fears. Indeed, the fact that Obama's decision was announced on the 70th anniversary of Stalin's invasion of Poland incited an orgy of doubt about Washington's intentions.

But it is a mistake to invest historical coincidence with diplomatic significance. The only sensible debate about Eastern Europe's security centers on how to create a more constructive atmosphere. The question is not whether tensions between the U.S. and Russia should be defused, but how. Are they the result of misunderstandings, memory, or malice? Or do they reflect deeper causes? Part of the answer lies in our region's psychology. International relations are not governed by rationality alone. Remembering the long decades of occupation, many people in our part of the world are uneasy about the idea of the U.S. and Russia deciding their fate.

Indeed, so sensitive are some people in the region that they even regard attempts to reform and integrate the structure of the European Union as a stealth threat to their hard-won liberty. Call this the Yalta syndrome, after the conference at which Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill divided the continent into spheres of influence.

While the Cold War division of Europe may remain deeply imprinted on our souls, however, we in Central and Eastern Europe must rise above our memories. History is not destiny. Geography, however, is a form of destiny. And we are destined to have Russia as a neighbor. So it is up to us, as well as Russia's leaders, to create mutually beneficial relations between our nations.

We do so at a time when, after years of soul-searching, Russia has recovered its self-confidence, which is seen by some of our neighbors as aggressiveness. It is wrong, however, to automatically interpret Russia's current behavior only in the light of Soviet and Russian imperial transgressions.

When Prime Minister Vladimir Putin condemned the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in September, he demonstrated that Russia is beginning to recognize the depth of the historical wounds it inflicted on its neighbors. Now that it has begun, that debate about historical responsibility must continue. Only when we all achieve clarity about the past will we be able to build an amicable future.

Meanwhile, the pain inflicted on Russia's economy by the global financial crisis has revealed the severe limits on the country's international ambitions. Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin recently mentioned that the country will use up in two years the vast reserves it put away over the past decade of sky-high oil and gas prices if domestic spending continues at its current pace. So Russia's leaders must know that their country, like Ukraine and the other nations of Central and Eastern Europe, needs an enduring peace—in Russia's case in order to diversify its economy from its narrow and inefficient natural-resource base.

Only common projects can ease our region's tensions. A search for such shared goals has been the hallmark not only of my government's policy toward Russia but of its stance toward Europe and Euro-Atlantic relations as a whole. An agreement on gas supplies we forged with Russia in early 2009 opened the door to a process between the European Union and Ukraine to modernize my country's transit-pipeline network and improve our energy efficiency. We are hopeful that Russia will participate in this open and transparent effort at reconstruction, just as we are hopeful that China will participate as well. Such cooperation on energy can offer a template for other forms of collaboration that will help dispel regional suspicion and cut through the fog of mistrust.

I have no illusions about the challenges involved. But at least our destination is not in doubt. I regard the Europeanization of Ukraine and the whole region as synonymous with its modernization. The current global economic and financial crisis has made it clearer than ever that Ukraine needs to be closer to Europe. The European Union's unique blend of national and supranational elements is the best formula for bridging the divide between Russia and the nations of Central and Eastern Europe. The unifying figure of Barack Obama will certainly help that process. And despite all the fears and distrust that we have inherited, reduced tensions with Russia are in all of our best interests. The alternative is to remain trapped by our past.