- The Washington Times - Monday, October 20, 2003

Within the forthcoming year, the fate of Ukraine hangs in the balance. Since its independence in 1991 following the break-up of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has been mired by a flailing economy, a corrupt leadership and isolation from the West. It now faces the prospect of fighting for its very survival as an independent state. The Bush administration would be wise to exert its influence in the impending battle.

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma is deeply unpopular among most voters. The Ukrainian leader has been on the defensive over accusations he had a role in the murder in 2000 of journalist Georgi Gongadze, whose headless body was found in a forest near Kiev. Furthermore, Mr. Kuchma has been criticized by the Bush administration for his authoritarian rule, human-rights record and restrictions on the media.

Relations between the United States and Ukraine soured last year following the release of secretly taped conversations in which Mr. Kuchma was apparently heard approving the sale of a $100 million sophisticated radar system to Iraq.

More ominously, Mr. Kuchma seeks to abrogate Ukraine’s hard-won national sovereignty: he wants to foster closer ties with Moscow. A staunch Russophile, his ultimate goal is for Kiev to rejoin a Great Russian Imperium. At Yalta, he recently signed an economic union pact with the leaders of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. He has a tight-knit rapport with Russian President Vladimir Putin who wants Ukraine to fall under Moscow’s sphere of influence.

In January, Mr. Putin nominated Mr. Kuchma to become the leader of the Commonwealth of Independent States, an alliance of former Soviet republics. Under Mr. Kuchma’s tenure, Russian companies have acquired strategic Ukrainian economic assets, especially in the energy and chemical sectors. He is transforming his nation into a Russian economic vassal.

Mr. Kuchma’s second term is set to expire next year. According to the constitution, he is prohibited from seeking another term in office. However, many Western diplomats fear the Ukrainian strongman and his political cronies may cling to power by manipulating or altering the country’s election laws. Such a move would only further undermine Ukraine’s prestige and credibility in the West, thereby strengthening the influence of Mr. Kuchma’s pro-Russian advisers who seek to forge a union of Slavic states.

Mr. Kuchma’s Russophile policies have created a backlash among the Ukrainian electorate. If next year’s presidential elections are free and fair, the surging democratic opposition led by former reformist Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko is expected to sweep into power.

Mr. Yushchenko is a pragmatic reformer, who wants to preserve Ukraine’s national sovereignty and distinct cultural identity. He and his democratic allies vow to implement sweeping free-market reforms, the rule of law, a genuine Western-style press and to eventually integrate Ukraine into the European Union and NATO.

The Bush administration should do everything it can to support the pro-reformist forces. This resource-rich nation of roughly 55 million is of immense geopolitical importance to the United States. An electoral victory by the democratic opposition would provide the impetus for spreading economic development and liberal governance throughout Eurasia.

Moreover, a prosperous, democratic Ukraine can act as a strategic bulwark against Russian expansionism. Under Mr. Putin’s leadership, Russia has increasingly taken on the role of the successor to the defunct Soviet empire, threatening the interests of its neighbors and America as well. Moscow has increased its meddling in the internal affairs not only of Ukraine, but also of Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

The Russian army continues to wage a brutal war in Chechnya. Russian companies have sold missile-technology and weapons to rogue states such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, China and Iran. Moscow opposed the war in Iraq and continued to provide assistance to Saddam’s sadistic regime.

In contrast, under pressure from the pro-Western Ukrainian electorate, Kiev supported the U.S.-led military campaign. Ukraine has even contributed nearly 2,000 peacekeepers in Iraq — the fourth-largest foreign troop contingent in that country. Kiev can serve as a counterweight for the West against the Russian Bear’s grasping claws.

But there is also a moral imperative for a U.S.-Ukraine alliance. No other peoples suffered more than the Ukrainians under the murderous reign of Soviet communism. At a recent conference at McGill University in Montreal, sponsored by Memorial, a leading Kiev research institute, the full extent of Soviet atrocities was exposed. Roman Krutsyk, the head of the institute, explained that newly discovered documents and archives show that about “50 million ethnic Ukrainians within the borders of the Soviet Union” were killed during the Bolshevik regime from 1917 to 1991.

The most barbaric single event was the terror famine of 1932-33, in which Soviet dictator Josef Stalin systematically starved to death 10 million Ukrainian peasants in one of the greatest genocides of the 20th century. Stalin sought the destruction of the peasantry in order to permanently subjugate the Ukrainian nation.

Mr. Krutsyk says evidence has emerged revealing Soviet authorities practiced large-scale ethnic cleansing, in which depopulated Ukrainian villages were resettled with ethnic Russians throughout Eastern and Southern Ukraine. This new information is only now beginning to seep into the Ukrainian public consciousness. It must also be widely disseminated in the West, where many liberal academics and journalists continue to downplay communist crimes.

After having won the Cold War, the United States has for the most part turned its back on Ukraine. The result is that the tragic suffering of the Ukrainian people has been forgotten and the country’s future is imperiled.

By failing to promote a strategic alliance with Kiev, Washington risks missing a golden opportunity to bring Ukraine back into its rightful place among the European community of nations.

Jeffrey T. Kuhner is assistant national editor at The Washington Times

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