Five years ago, Western governments and nongovernmental organizations did their best to support Ukraine’s so-called Orange Revolution, which propelled Viktor Yushchenko into the Ukrainian presidency. But Mr. Yushchenko’s performance in office was a disaster; in last month’s presidential election, he finished in fifth place with a dismal 5.4 percent. His failure serves as a stark reminder of the risks when Washington intervenes in foreign politics.
Ukraine was one of many lands absorbed by both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. The collapse of the latter enabled Ukraine to win its independence.
But the break was never clean. Nearly one-fifth of Ukrainians are ethnic Russians. They make up a majority in the Crimea, which contains Russia’s Sevastopol naval base.
Moreover, Ukrainian politics have been marred by corruption, vote fraud, brutal infighting and violence. Despite the Manichean prism through which Westerners tend to view foreign political contests, most leading Ukrainian politicians appear to be shades of gray rather than black and white.
In the December 2004 poll, Washington-backed Mr. Yushchenko had his own big-business allies, just like Viktor Yanukovich, who was attacked for being a tool of financial oligarchs. Moreover, Mr. Yushchenko was allied with financial baroness Yulia Tymoshenko.
Although Mr. Yushchenko was more obviously pro-Western than Mr. Yanukovich, in practice, the differences were smaller than advertised. Even the latter advocated membership in the European Union, and Mr. Yushchenko never found public or political support for his plan to join NATO.
Finally, Mr. Yushchenko proved to be one of the least competent politicians ever elected head of state. Despite the initial euphoria of more liberal and Western-leaning elites at Mr. Yushchenko’s victory, Ukrainian politics quickly turned into a national soap opera.
Mr. Yushchenko quickly turned on Mrs. Tymoshenko, even accusing her of treason. In the meantime, the economy stagnated, reform halted, relations with Russia deteriorated, and the Ukrainian people grew frustrated.
In the latest vote, Mr. Yanukovich finished first with about 35 percent compared to Mrs. Tymoshenko’s 25 percent. She still could win the runoff on Feb. 7, but the Orange Revolution is dead. For those outside Ukraine, at least, it doesn’t matter much who becomes Ukraine’s next president.
It especially does not matter to America.
The Ukrainian diaspora in the United States long fought for its homeland, but Kiev’s status, policies and orientation aren’t of significant interest to Washington.
The Soviet Union lost the Cold War. Russia won’t be able to pick up the pieces, irrespective of its relationship with Ukraine.
The government of Vladimir Putin wants to be treated with respect internationally; it takes Russian security very seriously but has only limited ambitions. Whatever Moscow’s attitude toward the border states that were part of the Soviet Union, Russia is not going to attack the other nations of Europe or America.
In fact, expanding NATO to Russia’s border has made Moscow more paranoid and confrontational. Georgia’s hope for Western protection from Russian military action proved stillborn. No sane American policymaker would risk Washington to protect Kiev.
Attempting to manipulate Ukrainian elections may be less dangerous than offering Ukraine security guarantees, but it has proved to be even less successful. Not that this should surprise anyone. U.S. officials have meddled in other nations for decades but too often have had only a limited understanding of local politics and politicians.