The news that Ukrainian President-elect Viktor Yanukovych plans to visit Moscow as his first out-of-country trip-assuming that there is no successful court challenge to his inauguration-has been greeted by some as proof that this "pro-Russian leader" is planning to bring Ukraine back under the Kremlin's sway.
Let's first put this into context. Russia remains Ukraine's largest trading partner and is still Ukraine's principal supplier of energy. It is no surprise why a Ukrainian leader would make Russia a first stop any more than it is de rigueur for Canadian prime ministers and Mexican presidents to journey to Washington. And it bears recalling that Yanukovych's opponent, Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, also pledged to make repairing the Ukraine-Russia relationship her first priority had she been elected to the presidential chair.
But we in the West should not be surprised at Yanukovych's agenda. Given his strong support from East Ukraine's business community, he is going to focus on achieving pragmatic results.
So what might result from his meeting in Moscow?
Clearly, NATO membership for Ukraine is off the table. Not only is the alliance not offering the opportunity to join (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's assertions to the contrary, since she does not speak for NATO as a whole), public opinion in Ukraine continues to be highly skeptical of this proytposition. So Yanukovych, essentially, can present the Kremlin with a fait accompli: the Atlantic alliance will not be expanding to Russia's soft underbelly anytime soon.
Yanukovych might start talks on the fate of the Russian Black Sea fleet and its base at Sevastopol in the Crimea. The president-elect has long argued that should Russia want to continue basing its naval units on Ukrainian soil, the terms of the lease should be revisited (and perhaps made more economically advantageous to Ukraine).
Reevaluating the gas-transit agreement that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reached with Tymoshenko will also be high on Yanukovych's agenda. Yanukovych argued that this deal was not beneficial for Ukraine-a view ironically shared with the outgoing president, Viktor Yushchenko. But Yanukovych also has a clear vision: he wants to forestall Russia's attempts to move away from using Ukraine as a prime transit route to Europe-which would mean, in the long term, a loss of income for Ukraine. If he can negotiate a new natural-gas arrangement that removes the need for Russia to pursue its South Stream project (the proposed gas pipeline under the Black Sea running directly to the EU, which may now be in trouble given Bulgaria's newfound reticence to back the venture), he ensures Ukraine's position as the key energy hub for Europe. But to move forward on a more cooperative stance with Russia on energy, a Yanukovych administration is far less likely to consider some of the alternate projects (e.g. a gas pipeline from Georgia to Ukraine; shipping Caspian oil to Europe via its land pipelines, and so on).
How does all of this fit in with U.S. interests? To the extent that the United States wants continued expansion of the NATO alliance eastward across the Eurasian plain and is interested in continuing to diversify Europe's Eurasian energy supply, a Yanukovych presidency is not likely to embrace those policies.
On the other hand, Yanukovych has stated his continued commitment to pursue EU membership for Ukraine and his reluctance to fully integrate Ukraine into any Russian-led Common Economic Space; nor does he endorse any membership for Ukraine in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the security pact of ex-Soviet states created by Moscow.
Back in January, I described the prospect of a Yanukovych presidency as a "glass half full" for the West, and there remains many areas where the West can profitably interact with the new presidential administration. President Barack Obama has struck the right tone. Rather than trying to divide Ukrainians into "pro-American" and "pro-Russian" camps, the White House said simply: "The United States looks forward to working with President-elect Yanukovych and continuing to strengthen our cooperation with Ukraine's government and its Parliamentary leaders." This low-key approach is the best way forward.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security bstudies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.