- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 7, 2004

Elections are rightly dominating the news, from George W. Bush’s 51 percent victory over John Kerry to whomever the Palestinians will chose to succeed Yasser Arafat. On Jan. 30, Iraqis are supposed to go to the polls. Yet, for all of these elections, the one with greatest immediate impact occurred in Ukraine. The issue is stark: a peaceful, lawful transfer of power or potential chaos.

In Ukraine, two Viktors contended for the spoils of the presidency: Current Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, who “won” an election that was neither free nor fair; and challenger Viktor Yuschenko. Following the disputed vote, Mr. Yuschenko’s supporters took to the streets by the hundreds of thousands in a well-organized and well-financed protest (note all the warm clothing and extensive tents and shelters that were provided), partly engineered by rising political star Gulia Timoshenko,ayoung,wealthy Yuschenko ally. The first Viktor is pro-Russian and the other looks West in charting Ukraine’s future. To make matters worse, rumors persist that Mr. Yuschenko was poisoned.

Despite electoral fraud, it is conceivable that Mr. Yanukovich could have won, though by a tiny margin. Both camps have promised a peaceful resolution and a second election seems very likely if not certain. But, as Russian President Vladimir Putin warned, suppose that election fails. Then what? The consequences do not exclude violence or civil war either with catastrophic effects for Ukraine and the region.

Strategically, future relationships between Russia and the West will largely be determined by what happens in Ukraine. A partitioned Ukraine is no longer inconceivable, a prospect that could spark a return to a “cool” if not Cold War between East and West. For the Bush administration, with its favored “forward strategy” of freedom and democracy, the compatibility of ballot boxes and the peaceful transition of political power in an unsettled world are very much at stake. And there are other matters for worry, some overlooked or ignored.

First, many Western observers are unaware of the effects that a succession of foreign policy failures and rebuffs by the West have had on the Kremlin. The “loss” of a friendly Ukraine will inflame these sensitivities. Second, a failure of the electoral process in Ukraine to yield an acceptable or legitimate government raises some frightening contingencies. Third, unless the White House is relying on guile, it does not appear to have a proactive strategy for dealing with Ukraine or Russia.

This has been a bad foreign policy time for the Kremlin. The war in Iraq and then Russia’s reluctant agreement to debt forgiveness cost plenty of political and financial capital. From Moscow’s view, NATO continues to establish new bases and jumping-off points in the Asian “stans” and Baltic states once under Soviet control that now are “ringing” Russia. Members of Congress threatened to remove Russia from the G8, a symbolic but nonetheless further slap in the face to a country wishing some measure of respect. With a population of about 150 million that is in demographic decline and male life expectancies a decade and a half less than in Europe, all is not well on the home front either.

Ukraine is of great importance to Moscow for strategic, political, economic and social reasons. While analogies are imperfect, had Mexico or Canada decided to join an unfriendly alliance, the reactions in Washington would not have been passive. Moscow also deploys part of its fleet from Sevastopol in the Crimea, a region traditionally part of Russia until Nikita Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine a half-century ago.

What could happen next in Ukraine raises some scary possibilities beyond partition or civil war. Under certain circumstances, Mr. Yanukovych could seek Russian support and intervention to guarantee his election. Ukraine may still possess some stocks of nuclear fissile material left over from the Cold War, raising the anxiety level. Russia could see a pro-Western Ukraine as the last straw and create new alliances to protect against what it fears is further encroachment by the West. At a time when the United States is already heavily committed in Iraq, Afghanistan and to the war on terror, even the prospect of a growing crisis in Ukraine, however remote, is bad news.

Meanwhile, aside for calling for peaceful resolution of the crisis, Washington has not raised alternative approaches to ensure a new election or how to deal with Russia and the winning (or surviving) Viktor.

The best outcome must be peaceful resolution through a new, fair election. If that proves too difficult, a power-sharing arrangement, with all of its limitations, could be considered with perhaps one Viktor as president and the other in a significant national office. And Washington needs a plan for dealing with Russia. The spoils here, if left to rot, will have tragic impact far beyond Ukraine.

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