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Ukraine's leader looks to boost ties with US visit

KIEV -- Before Viktor Yushchenko was swept to power, Ukraine's ties with the United States had gotten so frosty that seating arrangements at a NATO summit had to be changed so President Bush wouldn't be placed next to Yushchenko's predecessor.

The new Ukrainian president is to visit Washington this week to begin a new chapter in relations shaken by allegations that Ukraine sold radar equipment to Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

While Yushchenko's people-power credentials and reformist leanings are sure to win him a sympathetic ear, he also faces a delicate balancing act: to move closer to the United States without alienating Russia, Ukraine's massive neighbor and its onetime master.

The three-day trip, slated to begin today in Washington, is occurring a little more than two months after Yushchenko took office following a dramatic popular uprising in which masses of supporters camped out in Kiev's bitter cold to protest that he was robbed of an election victory over a Kremlin-favored candidate.

Yushchenko's ''Orange Revolution," after his campaign color, was widely portrayed by his opponents as a US-backed power grab and welcomed in Washington as a spontaneous outpouring of popular sentiment peacefully bringing about democratic change.

Yushchenko moved quickly to try to allay the suspicions by meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia the day after he was inaugurated in January. But that trip to Russia was only a few hours long, compared with the three days Yushchenko will spend in the United States.

He is visiting the United States to lobby for aid and investment, win Washington's support for joining NATO, and greet Ukrainian-Americans on an itinerary that takes him to New York, Chicago, and Boston, accompanied by his wife, Kateryna, an American-born Ukrainian.

Yet his main challenge may be to show he's serious about uncovering the truth about the alleged military sales to Iraq.

Ukrainian officials have released information about an array of shady weapons deals under former president Leonid Kuchma, including cruise missile sales to Iran and China.

He said he and Bush will ''review all the steps aimed at ending such practices."

At a 2002 NATO summit that Kuchma attended as a guest, the friction was such that organizers changed the alphabetical seating order from English to French so that ''Etats-Unis," the United States, would be a healthy distance away from Ukraine.

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