The election of Viktor Yanukovich as president of Ukraine is starting to pay big time benefits to Russia. In a bit of horse trading to secure lower prices for Russian gas deliveries, Yanukovich has agreed to allow the Russian Black Sea fleet to remain anchored at Ukraine's Black Sea port city of Sevastopol until 2042, tacking on a 25-year extension to a lease that was due to expire in 2017. Yanukovych made the deal with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in the eastern city of Kharkiv on April 22. Brimming with glee over the deal, Medvedev said it would bring better European security to the Black Sea basin.
Under Viktor Yushchenko, who was pro pretty much all that is Western from NATO to the EU, the Black Sea fleets days were numbered. Yushchenko wanted them out in 2017 when the fleet's lease expired.
The Black Sea fleet is a hot-button issue for Ukraine, with many of the Russian-speakers in the east embracing it, while Ukrainians further west wanting the Russians out.
This Al-Jazeera program, People and Power, lays out the issue well.
But Yushchenko is out, and Yanukovych is in.
Yanukovich has vowed Ukraine will be a 'bridge' between the rest of Europe and Russia, not a chummy friend of Washington as Yushchenko had desired.
As the Informant reported, he's already officially scrapped Ukraine's bid to join NATO, to the delight of Moscow.
Now, Moscow has secured its Black Sea fleet for a good bit longer at the Ukrainian port.
While Yanukovich is depicted by this website and most Western MSM as a Moscow stooge, his decisions vis-a-vis Moscow are also driven by sobering economic realities.
Ukraine is in economic freefall due to the global slowdown. It's main export, steel, fell by fifty percent last year. State revenues are down 30 percent.
Now, Ukraine wants a $12 billion handout from the IMF. That would be on top of a $16.4 billion credit extended by the IMF to Ukraine in 2008. Ukraine has received $10.6 billion of that loot, but the international bankers have shut the taps, angered over Ukrainian pols concerns for social cohesion rather than counting the beans in the budget.
On top of that, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko negotiated a 10-year gas deal with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in 2009 that left Ukraine paying more for gas than most European countries do.
Ukraine has struggled to pay its gas bill to Russia, which has twice shut off the taps to Ukrainians over unpaid bills. Europeans have been left shivering on the sidelines as the gas spats have left European homes with less of the natural resource needed to heat the heaters.
So, Yanukovich has little wiggle room, and any decision to lighten Ukraine's financial obligations is desired.
On Wednesday, Yanukovich got that. The gas-for-fleet deal means Kyiv will pay up to $100 less per thousand cubic meters, or about a 30% price reduction.
That is a significant price cut for the Ukrainians.
But opponents at home are complaining the price Ukraine is paying is just too high.
Tymoshenko, Yanukovich's rival for the presidency, said the extension "crudely violates the 17th article of the constitution which prohibits the stay of foreign military bases on the territory of Ukraine".
Tymoshenko is calling for people to take to the streets on Saturday for what she hopes will balloon into huge demonstrations.
One deputy of Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party said it amounted to "a surrender of national interests".
The foreign ministry, in a statement that clearly foresaw criticism too in the West, said: "We do not regard the Black Sea fleet as a source of threat to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. Its presence should not cause concern among our Western partners for the independence of Ukraine."
For the Russians, the deal is crucial to stop the Black Sea from becoming one big U.S. lake.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has opened up his country with open arms to the Americans, with U.S. military personnel coming in and out of the Caucasus country on a regular basis.
In March, US naval forces held exercises with Georgian coast guards along the Black Sea coast.
At least seven US warships have visited Georgian ports since its August 2008 war with Russia, including the USS Mount Whitney, the flagship of the US Sixth Fleet, which visited a few weeks after the conflict.
The Russians even warned the U.S. military build up in the Black Sea could be seen as a 'declaration of war.'
Russia's securing of its Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol won't mean Washington will leave the sea. Just last year, the Pentagon announced it would build new Black Sea bases in Romania and Bulgaria.
Expect the Black Sea region to be an area of tension for some time to come.