The East-West stakes over Ukraine

Russian and Western leaders are sharply at odds over the election crisis that's bringing huge crowds to the streets of Kiev.

As Ukraine's unresolved electoral contest spills into the streets of Kiev, the geopolitical stakes are being carefully counted in Moscow, Washington, and Brussels.

Supporters of pro-Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko - who allege the presidency was stolen through electoral fraud by the Kremlin-backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich - and the phalanx of riot police they confront may be, in a sense, proxies for much larger global forces.

On one side, the expanding European Union and the United States regard the eastward march of democracy and free markets to be necessary and unstoppable.

On the other, a reviving Russia, flush with oil profits and seeking to regain hegemony in its historic sphere of influence, believes it must draw the line in Ukraine after a decade that's seen NATO and the EU creep up to A poll conducted last week by the Levada Center, Russia's only independent public opinion agency, found that 68 per cent of Russians do not regard Ukraine as a "foreign country."

Each side may be primed to see the outcome of Ukraine's domestic tug of war as a global win or loss, rather than just a stage in a troubled post-Soviet country's development, experts say.

If Mr. Yushchenko's protests succeed in forcing a revision of election results, Russia is likely to suspect a Western-backed coup, similar to last year's "Rose Revolution" in Georgia, which yanked another post-Soviet country from its traditional Moscow-centered orbit.

"Ukraine is absolutely vital to Russia, and we know that Ukrainian voters are pro-Russian from long experience," says Sergei Markov, head of the Council on International Affairs, a coalition of Russian think tanks that often advises the Kremlin.

"If an anti-Russian politician [Yushchenko] manages to become president through street actions, it will be seen in Moscow as an attempt to steal the election."

But if Mr. Yanukovich - who was officially declared the winner by Ukraine's Central Election Commission Wednesday - refuses to launch an independent inquiry into fraud allegations, or employs force to disperse demonstrators, it will probably be interpreted in the West as a Kremlin-backed suppression of democracy.

The current chill in East-West relations could grow colder, but at the same time, US officials are playing down the prospects of a resurgent "East-West divide" over Ukraine. If anything, they say, it is Russia that is playing that game.

Election observers call for review

The US and EU have focussed on opposition claims of voter fraud and intimidation in Yanukovich's narrow win to demand an investigation.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso warned Wednesday that "there will be consequences if there is not a serious, objective review" including aid cuts, travel restrictions, and other punitive measures against Ukrainian leaders.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said Wednesday that Ukraine's election must be reviewed to conform with democratic standards.

The US is mulling sharp cutbacks in financial assistance to Ukraine as well.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who allegedly channeled $300 million to Yanukovich's campaign and made two Ukraine visits to stump for him, was quick to pronounce the voting legitimate, while the Russian parliament issued an angry statement Wednesday denouncing the pro-Yushchenko street protests as "illegal actions."

The West's interests in Ukraine, a Black Sea nation of $48 million, seem based largely on long-range democratic hopes and short-term worries about instability on Europe's eastern flank.

"Ukraine is profoundly divided, and we must do our utmost to ensure this country is able to rally together," EU Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana said Wednesday. "There is still time for dialogue."

Russia's concerns

But Russia's concerns are more material and immediate. Mr. Putin's plans to construct a post-Soviet common market, with Russia at its core, hinge upon having a loyal leader in Kiev.

"For Russia, the stakes in Ukraine are much higher than the West's," says Konstantin Zatulin, a Duma deputy and director of the official Institute of Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow.

"The West won't lose much [if Yanukovich wins] but for us [a Yushchenko victory] will entail big losses and force us to reevaluate our whole strategic position."

Some Russian experts are beginning to worry that the Kremlin may have overplayed its hand by intervening directly in Ukraine's political process.

"We should never have backed Yanukovich," says Stanislav Belkovsky, head of the National Strategy Institute, a think tank that often reflects inner Kremlin views. "Now we are witnessing a revolutionary situation in Kiev," and Rus- sian prestige is at stake, he says.

Some Western experts suggest the US and EU might also do well to back off a bit and develop an evolutionary strategy for helping Ukraine.

"We need to get away from the big-bang theory of elections as the ultimate test that suddenly delivers a democracy," says Nikolas Gvosdev, an expert in East-West relations at Washington's Nixon Center. "We need to focus more on the long-term process of integrating countries like Ukraine into the West," he says.

US dilemma

The US is attempting to juggle its equal interests in supporting democratization and fair elections, and in maintaining good relations with both Ukraine and Russia.

The White House issued a statement earlier this week saying it is "deeply disturbed by extensive and credible indications of fraud" in the election.

The US is caught "between a rock and a hard place," says Mr. Gvosdev. It wants to encourage Ukraine's cooperation in such areas as Iraq and economic reform, even while pressing for democracy's consolidation.

"On the other hand, [the US] can't risk pushing Ukraine into feeling its only alternative is closer relations with Russia," he says.

After the initial successful Western integration of the Baltic states and several Central European countries, other former Soviet satellites have been seen more as examples of "backsliding," he says. "We want to be helping Ukraine to avoid that."

The once warm personal relations between President Bush and Putin have cooled recently, in particular over Putin's implementation of political reforms that are seen as quashing democratic expression.

The US is calling on Ukraine officials not to certify the election results until the widespread claims of "organized fraud" are investigated. If that doesn't happen, the US will be tempted to punish Ukraine, analysts say.

Ukraine receives more than $140 million in annual assistance from the US, with some officials suggesting cutbacks or other measures such as visa restrictions could be imposed.

Material from wire services was used in this report.

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