Ukraine fears it may be Russia's next target

With Russian troops stationed deep in Georgia, fears run high that Ukraine may be the next target of a Kremlin drive to reclaim dominance in the lands of the former Soviet Union.

Many here believe Moscow has its sights on Ukraine's strategic Crimea peninsula on the Black Sea – once a jewel of Russia's empire.

Officials both here and in the West worry about how far Russia might go to regain control of Crimea and to stop Ukraine's drive to join NATO.

Analysts say war between the two nations is highly unlikely. While Georgia is a small nation of 4.6 million, Ukraine is roughly the size of France, with a population of 46 million.

Russia also relies on Ukraine for transporting its natural gas to European consumers, and it is Ukraine's energy supplier and top trading partner.

“There is no way on Earth that these two countries will go to war,” said Geoffrey Smith, strategist at the Renaissance Capital investment bank in Kiev.

Short of war, however, the Kremlin has many ways of using economic and military might to pressure Ukraine's Western-backed government.

Russia drew criticism from the U.S. and Europe last week for recognizing two separatist Georgian territories as independent states following a short but devastating war. Russian troops still control a key Georgian Black Sea port and other locations in the country.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner suggested last week that Russia might next target Ukraine and neighboring Moldova, a tiny impoverished ex-Soviet republic that is plagued by its own separatist conflict.

Ukrainian leaders also are alarmed.

“The decision taken by the Russian leadership poses a threat to peace and stability both in our region and in Europe,” President Viktor Yushchenko said Wednesday

Since he came to power four years ago, Yushchenko has made joining NATO his top goal, sought to create a local Orthodox church independent of Moscow, and enforced the use of the Ukrainian language at the expense of Russian – all steps that anger Russia.