The secrets of chicken Kiev

You probably know more about Ukraine than you think. Its most famous export is radiation after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor melted down in the 1980s. Its troops are serving alongside ours in Iraq. If you follow European football you'll have heard of Dynamo Kiev, the soccer team from the Ukrainian capital. You may also have heard of a ravine to the north-west of the city, known as Babi Yar where German soldiers shot around a hundred thousand people in batches of a dozen or so. They included Jews, gypsies, Ukrainians, Russians, the mentally ill - anyone the Nazis could lay their hands on. They even shot the Dynamo Kiev team members of that time. Yevgeni Yevtushenko wrote a poem about it and Dmitri Shostakovich set the words to music. If you've forgotten Babi Yar, so have the Ukrainians - teenagers now play football where footballers were killed.

But you've heard of chicken Kiev - boneless chicken breast, wrapped around herb butter, covered in breadcrumbs and deep-fried. Though she may not have heard of Dynamo Kiev, even Condoleezza Rice, nominated to become the new US secretary of state, will certainly know about chicken Kiev. This was the name given to a speech she wrote when she ran Soviet and east European affairs for the first president Bush. The speech was delivered by Bush to the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of the Ukraine, sitting in Kiev on 1 August 1991. It advised Ukrainians to stay in the Soviet Union. Just 23 days later, they declared themselves an independent republic.

Now, Rice's country is taking a renewed interest in Ukraine. Bush Sr was back there last May for the first time since 1991. He called on both Viktors who are now tussling over the presidency: Yanukovich and Yushchenko.

Why all this attention? Not, you may be sure, because tens of thousands of people stand outside in the snow. Nor because those people want to back out of Moscow's control. The reason is more physical than the nebulous demands of democracy. It is nearly a metre in diameter and travels 669 kilometres from Odessa to Brody. It is an oil pipeline from the Black Sea to the Polish border.

Pipelines can pump oil in two directions, and here's where the politics starts. If this pipeline pumps oil north-south, then Russia's Siberian oil can go to the Black Sea for tankers to ship it on to overseas markets. If it runs south-north, then it can bring cheap Caspian oil to Europe. The Ukrainians paid for it themselves because they thought they could get a chunk of oil money. But it remains empty.

Rice once had a 129,000-tonne oil tanker named after her. Cute. But it provoked a little controversy, so the people at Chevron, where she'd been on the board throughout the 1990s, changed its name to the Altair Voyager.

Chevron is big in the Caspian. Late in 2003, it wanted to get about nine million tonnes of oil a year out of Kazakhstan - which is about the capacity of the Odessa-Brody pipeline. That would have put paid to Russia's plans to ship its oil west. Russian lobbyists set to work killing the idea and it never happened. Now a Russo-British outfit has signed up to ship the same amount of Russian oil down to the Black Sea.

So that's why the Polish president is in Kiev to help "mediate" and that, too, is why Rice may be a little more "up" on Ukraine than the rest of us when she steps into the State Department as boss.