TCS Daily

What's at Stake in Ukraine?

By Melana Zyla Vickers - November 19, 2004 12:00 AM

On a clip broadcast on Ukrainian TV in recent weeks, the tall, oafish clod who is heir to the ruling party's power, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, is watching a military parade ginned up, in the days before Ukraine's presidential election, to honor of his friend and patron Russian President Vladimir Putin. Yanukovych stands there watching the soldiers for awhile, then digs into his pocket for a candy. "Yum!" Is the expression on his face. He munches and then, realizing he's forgotten himself, offers his Russian KGB buddy a candy too. Putin has a look of "put that thing back in your pocket, you moron" on his face.

The clip is worth a thousand words. It sums up the big-brother-little brother relationship between the two proto-communist governments, aptly symbolizes that for Putin, Ukraine is to be seen at Russia's side and not heard, and that Ukraine's ruling party is only too happy to oblige.

Beyond what the camera is showing is the real news: There are very few regular Ukrainians at the parade. They're all supporting the opposition candidate for president, pro-Western Viktor Yuschchenko.

In recent weeks, foreign policy opinion-makers ranging from Sen. John McCain to the Washington Post editorial page have pointed out the importance of the Ukrainian presidential election, the runoff for which takes place this Sunday. President Bush has belatedly recognized their point, and has sent Sen. Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar to the ex-Soviet country of 50 million to observe the voting. Polls show West-leaning opposition democrat Yushchenko poised to defeat the Moscow-backed ruling party's handpicked successor.

Why the attention to Ukraine? Because it is the main domino of the former Soviet Union. Just as Ukraine's referendum vote to leave Moscow's side signaled the final breakup of the USSR in 1991, a falsified vote in favor of Moscow's candidate on Sunday can now significantly reconstitute it.

The risk of a stolen election is real and grave -- the ruling party engaged in a great deal of fraud and violent voter intimidation in the first round of voting Oct. 31. And if the ruling proto-communists succeed in rubbing out the will of voters to elect the opposition candidate on Sunday, then Russia will be free to reassert its authoritarian control in the ex-Soviet space. Ukraine, whose links to the West are still nascent, will fall back into Moscow's grip just as tiny Belarus already has, as wobbly Kazakhstan almost has, and as violence-wracked Georgia risks doing. Such a reversal will fundamentally harm the strategic interests of the United States.

Evidence of Moscow's never-abandoned imperial designs has been plentiful:

  • Russia has funded about half of the ruling-party candidate Prime Minister Viktor Yanukhovych's reelection campaign, according to the Washington Post. If Yanukovych takes power after Sunday, he will owe Russian President Vladimir Putin big time.
  • Russia's Putin has visited Ukraine twice in the last month alone, generating plenty of media images of Yanukovych at his side, including the parade clip (which is probably not one of Putin's favorites.) During that time Putin has also welcomed Yanukovych into his home in Moscow.
  • Russia's state-influenced television stations have been running show after show supporting Yanukovych and disparaging the opposition's Yushchenko. Ukrainian television, which years ago lost its independence from the government's will, has been running many of the Russian programs, with several channels simultaneously broadcasting material that stresses a Ukraine-Russia bond.
  • Russia has made clear that a Ukraine led by the ruling party's Yanukovych will benefit from Russian economic ties and largesse, whereas Ukraine under Yushchenko will not. The Russian government has even proposed that Putin's brainchild, an economic union of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan called the Common Economic Space, be headquartered in Ukraine.
  • Ukraine has been awash in positive trade news lately, such as record wheat exports, and the good-news state of affairs that makes a vote for the ruling party look like a vote for prosperity. Not surprisingly, the biggest buyer of Ukrainian exports is the Russian state.

By contrast, opposition candidate Yushchenko has vowed that a Ukraine under his presidency would integrate Westward, seeking entry into NATO and the European Union. Observers see a Yuschenko presidency as Ukraine's opportunity to get off the fence and join the West, leaving behind a decade of vacillation in which it toyed with market reforms then regressed, toyed with NATO then looked toward Moscow, and even went so far as to send troops to Iraq but then showed political unity with Iraq-war-opponent Russia, not the United States.

To be sure, Ukraine's return to Russia's embrace won't be alarming to those in the Bush administration -- and there do seem to be a few around -- who see President Putin as a force for good. But for those with a few doubts about the purity of the KGB careerist's soul, here is a short list of how Ukraine's lockstep with Russia, precipitated by a stolen election this Sunday, might harm U.S. interests on the Eurasian land mass.

Russia will have reconstituted the Slavic core of its empire. Putin, who says that strengthened ties to neighboring states will in turn strengthen Russia, will hold sway over Minsk, Belarus, where the leadership has openly sought to rejoin the Russian fold economically, politically and militarily, and over Kiev, Ukraine, where he will have had bought the political loyalty of the leadership by securing their electoral victory. In a week when Russia announced plans for a new nuclear missile designed to trump U.S. missile defenses, a victory for pro-Putin forces in Ukraine -- which disarmed its nuclear weapons unilaterally at the behest of the U.S. -- risks pulling Ukraine rather dramatically away from the U.S. More than ever, there will be a divide between the EU members of Central Europe and the Russian sphere beginning on the Polish border with Ukraine.

Russia will have neutralized any chance of democrats in the ex-Soviet Union to band together against Moscow's will. An opposition victory Sunday would let Ukraine join Georgia in electing a pro-U.S. president who came to power despite the best efforts of Moscow. It would strengthen political groupings such as the GUAM group of countries (Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia, Moldova) which have toyed with formally counterbalancing Russian dominance of their economies and political systems. A ruling-party victory will prevent any such furthering of ties, and may ensure that Ukraine looks the other way as Russia seeks to destabilize the Caucasian state of Georgia. Georgia, it's worth noting, is a counterweight to Muslim fundamentalism in the Caucasus region, and is in the midst of building military ties to the U.S.

Russia will have trumped an energy strategy in which U.S.-financed Caspian oil was to have flowed through Ukraine to Poland and Western Europe. If the ruling party holds on to power in Ukraine, a new cross-Ukraine pipeline designed to feed U.S.-financed, Kazakhstani oil from the Black Sea north to European markets will likely see a peculiar reversal of roles. It's likely the Odessa-Brody pipeline would literally reverse its flow and instead be used to ship Russian oil south through the Mediterranean, strengthening Russia's export position, undermining U.S. energy and investment interests in Kazakhstan, and preventing any European diversification away from Russian energy.

Russia will have been rewarded for its authoritarian, anti-democratic ways, and its strategy of playing on old Communist loyalties to build international ties. Ukraine's people-power revolution will have been smothered, unlikely to muster itself successfully for years to come. The stillbirth will take place at a time when Putin has been reversing democratic progress in Russia. The trend will be in stark contrast to the Bush administration goal of breathing life into pro-democracy, pro-freedom political movements in formerly repressive corners of the world.

Of course, a dark fate could also await an opposition-led Ukraine if the democrat Yushchenko is able to secure power after the Sunday vote, but then finds himself alone without significant U.S. or European support as Russia punishes him economically, politically, and in terms of energy supplies, for his victory. (Look to the powers-that-be in Russia to paint Ukraine as a rogue state, bad debtor and hateful society if Yushchenko comes to power.) Such Western neglect isn't out of the question -- Western Europe, at least, shows little sign of wanting to embrace yet another new country to its east.

At least the U.S. has taken the first step of recognizing the importance of the Ukrainian election. If the U.S. can follow through with rhetorical and material support for a victorious Yushchenko -- through greater economic ties, military-to-military ties, and expeditious integration of Ukraine into the community of Western nations -- it will have helped its own interests a great deal.


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