- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 30, 2004

The tug of war between Russia and the West over the electoral crisis in Ukraine could easily escalate. On the line for Russia are geopolitical and economic interests, not to mention face-saving concerns. For the United States and Europe, the transit of energy resources, strategic interests and leadership in supporting democracy are at stake. A hostile face-off between the two sides over Ukraine’s presidential election would not benefit Russia or the West — or Ukraine for that matter. Although the Bush administration has been accused of being too conciliatory in its handling of the crisis, a look at the progression of events demonstrate that U.S. officials have adeptly balanced conflicting considerations.

Ukraine’s electoral authorities said the Kremlin-backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich won the Nov. 21 vote against opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko 49.5 percent to 46.6 percent. The election has been broadly described as fraudulent by international observers. Ukraine’s Supreme Court is reviewing allegations of fraud presented by the opposition.

In the run-up to the vote, Russian officials had been intervening in the Ukrainian electoral process in a manner that can only be described as openly manipulative. With concerns over the legitimacy of the vote overshadowing the process, Mr. Putin then congratulated Mr. Yanukovich on his victory. In reaction to allegations of fraud by Western sources, Mr. Putin said Ukraine didn’t need foreign meddling in its affairs — even though that’s exactly what Russia had been doing.

The Bush administration responded immediately with some strong statements. Mr. Bush warned outgoing President Leonid Kuchma that Washington would review its relationship with Ukraine if authorities didn’t ensure the vote was fair. Secretary of State Colin Powell said there would be “serious consequences” if Ukraine didn’t investigate fraud charges.

Since those comments, the situation in Ukraine has reached its own critical mass. Yushchenko supporters have taken to the streets en masse. On Monday, outgoing Mr. Kuchma said Ukraine’s peace and cooperation depended on new balloting. Though Mr. Kuchma’s comment was vague, it signals a willingness to negotiate. Yesterday, Mr. Yushchenko’s party backed out of talks regarding the electoral crisis, but ultimately both sides need to compromise.

Mr. Putin has also backed away from his more antagonistic stance and negotiated today with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Mr. Bush, meanwhile, on Monday sought to defuse tensions. Speaking near his ranch in Texas, he said that given the allegations of fraud, the election should “be resolved in a way that brings credit and confidence to the Ukrainian government.” That and other calibrated comments by Mr. Bush have caused some “Democrats and other critics of the Bush administration” to allege that the “president was putting up with too much bad behavior from Mr. Putin,” reported the New York Times yesterday.

The administration is playing it exactly right. It has mapped out the potential consequences to foul electoral play. It does not want to be seen as dictating the political and legal process in Ukraine. That could cause Mr. Yushchenko to lose credibility and further polarize a dangerously divided country. For some critics of the administration, though, a muscular foreign policy isn’t modulated enough, while a carefully balanced one lacks muscle.

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