As was expected for months, forces loyal to Prime Minister
Victor Yanukovich of Ukraine attempted to steal presidential
elections on Sunday. While two reliable exit polls gave the
opposition leader Victor Yushchenko comfortable leads between four
and 11 percent, the government-dominated electoral commission
awarded Yanukovich a 2.8 percent win. One of the two exit polls
which pronounced Yushchenko winner came from a pro-government
Such victory is apparently mathematically impossible: pro-Russian, pro-Yanukovich precincts in Eastern Ukraine have reported a whopping 96 percent turnout, unprecedented even by the rancid "people's democracy" election standards of the USSR.
Many Western observers, including Organization for Security and Cooperation and Europe said Monday that the elections fell far short of Europe's democratic norms and called for review. Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), the senior U.S. election observer, announced that Yushchenko was denied access to media and pro-Yanukovich forces committed "concerted and forceful" fraud. Bruce George, the veteran European observer expressed identical sentiment.
The stolen election is opening a Pandora's box of political turmoil and geographical splits, as four major cities in Ukraine's pro-Yushchenko West -- Liviv, Ternopil, Vinniytsia, and Ivano-Frankivsk -- have declared him president. An acrimonious, hate-filled political confrontation in Ukraine, which had rather peaceful politics since the 1991 independence, is now inevitable. Ukrainian observers do not rule out violence.
The current presidential elections will define the future political course of Ukraine. Moreover, they will decide whether Ukraine is facing the West -- or Russia for years to come. The U.S. has a lot at stake in the outcome.
The U.S. has a strategic interest in keeping Ukraine's sovereignty and democracy on track while preventing Russian influence from growing further. The U.S. Government has issued warnings that selective visa bans may apply to Ukrainian officials involved in election fraud. This was not sufficient to prevent such fraud, as the stakes of losing power for the Yanukovich circle are high, and the Russian influence is powerful.
The biggest geopolitical challenge for the U.S. is keeping Russia in the anti-terror coalition and assuring access to Russian energy resources, while ensuring the former Soviet states' global economic integration, sovereignty and independence. The instruments in the U.S. diplomatic tool box are limited. Russia, flush with cash from oil sales, no longer needs Western economic assistance, and the 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, through overt support of pro-Moscow political candidates.
There are two reasons for the Kremlin's ascendancy is Ukraine. The first, according to sources in Moscow and Kiev, is that it poured unprecedented resources into the election campaign: at least $300 million dollars from sympathetic Russian and Ukrainian businessmen. The second reason is more sinister: Russia has access to the Soviet-era criminal files of Yanukovich, who was 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 South-Eastern Europe. Ukraine should be viewed in the larger context of the recent negative regional dynamics. Before the elections, on Moscow's request, President Leonid Kuchma and Yanukovich engineered Ukraine's turning away from NATO and EU integration. On October 17 President Alexander Lukashenka pulled off an unconstitutional power grab in Belarus, and the stalemate in Moldova over the secessionist trans-Dniester region continues. More active Russian policy in the Caucasus is also in evidence. 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 co-dependent relationship with Kiev. According to Moscow experts, for Putin, Viktor Yanukovich's criminal past creates a relationship of a case officer and an "asset". Such a relationship by definition creates a dependency for the Ukraine.
If Russia successfully consolidates control over Belarus and Ukraine, Moscow may also pursue a greater say over the Caspian oil. It will do so by increasing pressure on Kazakhstan, possibly utilizing its Russian-speaking minority as a conduit for its influence. It will eventually move to secure Azerbaijan's compliance with the Kremlin regional policy. Beyond that, it may move to further undermine pro-American Mikheil Saakashvili's presidency in Georgia and put pressure on Uzbekistan to come back to the fold of the Russia-led bloc in the former Soviet Union. However, as the Beslan tragedy demonstrated, Russian military power is still limited when it comes to countering real security threats and not largely imagined American influence. Such ambitious policy may create imperial hubris for Russia -- with unpredictable consequences.
What to do? The Bush Administration has already said that it will boycott Ukrainian officials who facilitated election fraud. Instead, U.S. should boost those groups in Ukraine that are committed to democracy, free markets and Euro-Atlantic integration by providing diplomatic, financial and media support. Washington should support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all post-Soviet states. The U.S. 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 increased attention of the Bush Administration and are likely to limit American freedom of maneuver in Eurasia. If Russia consolidates its control over Ukraine and Belarus, and the U.S. will not challenge Moscow's growing influence, the true independence of the post-Soviet states may be just an interlude before the Kremlin reasserts its control. The geopolitical outcome in the region will depend on Washington's engagement in Eurasia, including with the Kremlin; an agreement upon "traffic rules" between Russia and the U.S; and on Moscow's abandonment of an aggressively anti-American policy within and beyond the territory of the former Soviet Union.
Ariel Cohen is a research fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in TechCentralStation