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Biden visits Kiev to calm Ukrainian fears over Russia relations thaw

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Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko (R) welcomes U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in Kiev, Ukraine, December 7, 2015 REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

US Vice-President Joe Biden is in Ukraine this week for the fourth time since protests ousted the pro-Russian government at the beginning of 2013. Biden met Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Sunday and was to address parliament on Tuesday.


Biden's Ukraine visit comes as the West seems readier to cooperate with Russia in Syria - a thaw in relations with Kiev’s current arch-enemy.

One of the reasons, if not the main reason, that Biden is there is to address Ukranians' concerns in that respect.

“This is very important for us, he is giving messages from our foreign alliances and we can see the Americans and the Europeans as our allies in our fight against Russia and we are really grateful for this support, which shows that we are on the right track.” says Alexei Ryabchin, a member of parliament for Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party who met Biden on Monday morning.

“It signifies the importance that Ukraine carries at the moment for the US,” says Lilith Gevorgian, senior economist with IHS Global Insight. “It also signifies the continuing US support for Ukraine and perhaps in some ways it is a gesture to address those concerns Ukrainians may have over the recent thaw between Russia and the West over Syria."

Many Ukranians fear that their conflict with Russia may be overshadowed by the eagerness of Nato members, especially France, to  build an alliance against the Islamic State armed group (IS) in which Russia is an important player, she explains.?

Biden seems to have answered Ukrainian concerns, for now at least.

“Of course Ukraine is concerned with this,” says Ryabchin, just back from Paris where he attended the Cop21 climate change negotiations.

There “high French officials gave guarantees that the Syrian question is one thing and Ukraine is another", he says. "It won’t be mixed."

“And now I heard from Vice-President Joe Biden, who could speak on behalf of the presidential administration, that Syria is one thing and Ukraine is another and they will not mix these two things together.”

Another point of discussion may be Ukraine’s debt to Russia and a looming default that could take place as early as this month.

Russia provided Ukraine with three-billion-dollars-worth of credit in 2013, when the country was still ruled by the Moscow-backed government of Victor Yanukovich. The payback is due on 20 December.

“Obviously Ukraine does not have the means to repay this,” says Peter Hablik, an economist with the Vienna Institue of Internatinal Economic Relations. “Russia insists on getting this money back, otherwise Ukraine would default. And Russia has proposed that for instance the US or the EU would provide guarantees for this credit and in that case Russia would be willing to restructure.”

Meanwhile, Nato members are not unanimous in their attitude to Russia. Poland calls for more Nato troops on its territory and cutting ties with Russia, while the Germans last week said they want to push their allies to reopen high level contacts with Russia.

Ukraine is trying to defend its perceived interests in the shifting sands of Moscow-Nato relations.

“The task of the Ukranian state is to build up capacity of governming our army, of organising our army according to the best Nato standards,” says Ryabchyn.

“It does not mean that we are applying for membership right now. No, it means that we now need to build an army that is able to defend the country. The army has been destroyed during 15 years of a pro-Russian government. We restored it within one year. And now we need to train it to the best Nato standards. So this is where we see Nato helping us.”

But membership of Nato is still a far-away dream.

“Ukraine has thrown away the previous policy of neutrality in terms of military alliances,” says Gevorgian. “In the past Ukraine had declared it didn’t want to pursue any military alliance with Russia or Nato However, after the last crisis, the Crimean crisis and the one in astern Ukraine, there is an overwhelming support now for pursuing and Atlantic integration, including on a military level."

But Ukraine and Georgia, which is also pursuing Nato membership, may have to go through years of reforms before being accepted by the military alliance, which is not going to solve their immediate military problems with Russia, she says.