- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 18, 2004

Sunday is the show time in Kiev. Presidential elections will define Ukraine’s political course. Moreover, they will decide whether Ukraine faces the West or Russia for years to come. The United States has a lot at stake in the outcome.

In the first round of voting Oct. 31, the Kremlin’s preferred candidate, former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych lost by one-half of 1 percent to opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko — according to the government-controlled Central Electoral Commission. Western observers and independent pollsters gave a stronger victory to Mr. Yushchenko, of between 4 percent to 6 percent. The most recent opinion poll gave Mr. Yushchenko a 5 percent lead.

The race is tight, but due to widespread election fraud instigated by Yanukovych supporters and Mr. Yushchenko’s inadequate access to government-controlled TV, Mr. Yanukovych might steal the second round set for Nov. 21.

The United States has a strategic interest in keeping Ukraine’s sovereignty and democracy on track while preventing increased Russian influence. The U.S. government has warned that, in the future, selective visa bans may apply to Ukrainian officials involved in election fraud. This may not be enough to prevent such fraud in the second elections, since the Yanukovych circle has much at stake and Russian influence is powerful.

The biggest geopolitical challenge for the United States is to keep Russia in the antiterror coalition and assure access to Russian energy resources, while ensuring the former Soviet states’ global economic integration, sovereignty and independence. The tools in the U.S. diplomatic box are limited. Russia, flush with cash from oil sales, no longer needs Western economic assistance, and advanced technology for oil exploration is widely available in open markets.

The Russian, Soviet-educated, elite, which often views the U.S. as a strategic adversary, may challenge sovereignty or increase control of the post-Soviet states, such as Ukraine, by overtly supporting pro-Moscow political candidates.

There are two reasons for the Kremlin’s ascendancy in Ukraine. The first, say sources in Moscow and Kiev, is that Russia poured unprecedented resources into the election: at least $300 million from sympathetic Russian and Ukrainian businessmen. The second reason is more sinister: Russia has access to the Soviet-era criminal files of Mr. Yanukovych, jailed twice on criminal charges of aggravated assault and robbery.

Ukraine is a crucial test of the changing geopolitics in Eurasia. It is a large-scale trial run of Russia re-establishing control in the former empire and expanding its access to the Black Sea and Southeastern Europe. Ukraine should be viewed in the larger context of recent negative regional dynamics.

Before the elections, on Moscow’s request, President Leonid Kuchma and Mr. Yanukovych engineered Ukraine’s move away from NATO and European Union integration. On Oct. 17, President Alexander Lukashenka pulled off an unconstitutional power grab in Belarus, and the stalemate continues in Moldova over secession of the trans-Dniester region.

Greater Russian activity in the Caucasus also is evident. There, Moscow deliberately undermines Georgian independence by creeping annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Russia deliberately focused its policy on detaching Ukraine from its Western ties and creating a codependent relationship with Kiev. According to Moscow experts, for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Viktor Yanukovych’s criminal past creates a relationship of a case officer and an “asset.” Such a relationship by definition creates Ukrainian dependence.

If Russia consolidates control over Belarus and Ukraine, Moscow may also pursue a greater say over the Caspian oil. It will do so by increasingly pressuring Kazakhstan, possibly utilizing its Russian-speaking minority as a conduit of influence. Russia eventually will move to secure Azerbaijan’s compliance with the Kremlin regional policy. Beyond that, it may move to further undermine pro-American Mikhail Saakashvili’s presidency in Georgia and pressure Uzbekistan to return to the fold of the Russia-led bloc in the former Soviet Union.

However, as the Beslan school-hostages tragedy showed, Russian military power remains limited in countering real security threats as opposed to largely imaginary U.S. influence. Such an ambitious policy may create imperial hubris for Russia — with unpredictable consequences.

Ukraininan forces committed to democracy, free markets and Euro-Atlantic integration should be boosted through diplomatic, financial and media support by the Bush administration. Washington should support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all post-Soviet states. The United States should further expand cooperation with these countries via NATO’s Partnership for Peace and bilateral military-to-military ties, exchanges, train-and-equip programs and, where necessary, limited troop deployment. Washington should maintain and expand dialogue with Moscow over contentious issues, such as South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as well as the U.S. presence in Central Asia.

The latest developments in Iraq, Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East require more attention from the Bush administration and are likely to limit U.S. freedom to maneuver in Eurasia. If Russia consolidates its control over Ukraine and Belarus, and the U.S. does not challenge Moscow’s growing influence, the true independence of the post-Soviet states may prove only an interlude before the Kremlin reasserts control.

The region’s geopolitical outcome depends on Washington’s engagement in Eurasia, including with the Kremlin; a U.S.-Russian agreement on “traffic rules”; and on Moscow abandoning an aggressively anti-American policy within and beyond the territory of the former Soviet Union.

Ariel Cohen is a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and the editor of “Security Changes in Eurasia After 9/11” (Ashgate, forthcoming).

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