Russia's Putin Makes Trip to Neighboring Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin makes his first visit to Ukraine in nearly two years. It's a sign that relations are warming between the two countries. Just last year Moscow shut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine during a bitter winter cold spell.

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Oh, let's check in with another holiday traveler - Russian President Vladimir Putin. He's making his first visit in two years to the neighboring country of Ukraine. And his trip is a sign that relations may be warming slightly. No pun intended, because relations were much worse a year ago when Moscow shut off natural gas supplies during a bitter winter cold spell.

Let's go to NPR's Gregory Feifer, who is covering this story. Gregory, the last time that Putin visited Ukraine, the political situation was very different. How have things changed?

GREGORY FEIFER: Well, the last time the Western-leaning Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko met Putin, he'd just won the presidency after the Orange Revolution. Yushchenko defeated Viktor Yanukovich, the man Putin had publicly backed. The Orange Revolution was a big scare for the Kremlin, which accused Western countries of trying to hurt its relations with its neighbor. But now pro-Western Viktor Yanukovich is back as prime minister and is locked in a bitter power struggle with President Yushchenko.

Yanukovich is against Yushchenko's desire for Ukraine to join NATO, and he wants to improve relations with Russia. So Putin will probably get a warm reception from the prime minister, and I think the Kremlin is upbeat about that and it feels it has influence in Kiev once again.

INSKEEP: Although let's talk about the two presidents here. Yushchenko, who you mentioned, was poisoned, apparently, during his campaign for office a couple of years ago. Moscow was against him. Moscow was suspected of some kind of involvement in the poisoning. Are these two presidents actually going to meet?

FEIFER: Yes, they are going to meet. Now Yushchenko hasn't accused Moscow of trying to poison him, although there are all sorts of suspicions, but I don't think they will - the two leaders will discuss that. The key issue between the two countries is really energy. When Moscow temporarily shut down its gas pipelines during a pricing dispute last winter, as you mentioned, it seriously affected crucial supplies to Europe. A key part of the deal ending the crisis was the supply of gas from Turkmenistan, whose president died this week. There are now fears of political instability there, and I think Putin and Yushchenko will surely want to discuss how that may affect gas exports. But Kiev says no energy deals will be reached, and formally the two leaders will only sign some minor agreements and discuss general political and economic relations.

INSKEEP: Gregory, in a moment we're going to talk more about Turkmenistan - the president who died, and a gas-rich republic, and what that means for the region. But first, let's talk about Russia. Very briefly, how powerful are they because they're such a big energy exporter to so much - so many of their neighbors?

FEIFER: Well, energy exports are huge to Russia. The Kremlin sees oil and gas as the key to its bid to becoming a major power, and it's consolidating state control over the industry. Moscow wants to gain control over Ukrainian pipelines, through which most of Russian exports flow to Europe. And the Kremlin doesn't appear frightened of international criticism. Yesterday the state natural gas monopoly, Gazprom, signed a deal to take control over the country's largest foreign investment, the massive Sakhalin II Gas Complex in the Russian Far East. The $22 billion project was headed by Royal Dutch Shell, which is relinquishing control after months of pressure from the Russian government.

INSKEEP: Okay, that's NPR's Gregory Feifer. Gregory, always good to talk to you. Thanks very much.

FEIFER: Thank you.

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