Who Wins Ukraine's Election? Russia, of Course

By Daniel McGroarty

With none of the ballots counted and many millions remaining to be cast, we can confidently predict a winner in today's Ukrainian presidential election: Russia.

To be sure, pre-election polls suggest that frontrunner Victor Yanukovich will finish with far less than the 50 percent plus one necessary to avoid a two-candidate run off, while others see a dark horse candidate surging past sitting Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to seize the second slot. But the usual Ukrainian electoral ferment doesn't hide the fact that Russia is rumored to have lines in to all the major candidates contending to become the next resident of Mariyinsky Palace.

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It's a far cry from 2004, when Moscow made no secret of backing Yanukovich - Vladimir Putin even traveled to Ukraine to campaign with him - only to see his "victory" unravel amidst charges of fraud that fueled the fabled Orange Revolution and propelled pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko into the presidency.

This time around, Moscow covered its bets, backing not only Yanukovich and his pro-Russian Party of the Regions, but also reportedly assisting Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, initially an Orange ally of Yushchenko but now head of the aptly-named Blok Yulia Tymoshenko, less a party than a cult of personality. Once a proponent of a Western-focused future for Ukraine, Tymoshenko has moderated her views, writing recently that "geography ... is a form of destiny," and that Ukraine must seek to explore "common projects" and "shared goals" with Russia. Just this month, a Tymoshenko advisor benefited from a billion-dollar deal that will put the country's major steel assets in the hands of Russian investors.

Not to be left out of the winners circle, various reports suggest Moscow is also backing dark-horse candidates Sergei Tigipko, Minister of the Economy and member of the Party of the Regions coalition, and even perhaps Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a nominal independent who has nevertheless assured Moscow that he has no intention of displacing Russia's naval presence in Crimea - a key element in Russia's ability to project power in the strategic Black Sea region.

What about the pro-Western hopes awakened by the Orange Revolution? The Ukrainian politician with an enduring affinity to the West, current President Viktor Yushchenko, may well finish fifth in the balloting. Pre-election polls show Yushchenko drawing support of no more than 4 percent of the electorate - smaller in many cases than the polls' margin of error.

Whichever candidate prevails - and none looks likely to poll well enough today to avoid a runoff - Russia has done all it can to put itself in a heads-I-win-tails-you-lose situation in its efforts to pull Ukraine back into its orbit. Even a 2010 recount would simply re-cut the cards between two candidates already proven to follow Moscow's lead.

As a result, today's election effectively puts the brakes on Ukraine's Western-facing project, and marks a major post-Soviet turning point in Russia's reassertion of primacy in its near-abroad. The European Union, in the throes of "enlargement fatigue," may not seem to care, but Moscow's appetite for enlargement is great and growing.

Devotees of realpolitik will say there never was a serious chance that Ukraine, the so-called "bread-basket of the Soviet Union," would pull itself free of the red star's gravitational pull to chart a pro-Western course. But such world-wise thinking is deterministic at best, if not downright defeatist. For its part, the United States extended a Western welcome to Ukraine across two decades and two administrations, from Bill Clinton's Partnership for Peace to George W. Bush's push to extend a NATO MAP to Ukraine at the 2008 Bucharest Summit. European leaders were decidedly cooler, expressing not-so-quiet concerns about Russia's reaction.

Then came Georgia and the guns of August ‘08, followed by the gas war of Winter ‘09, in which Moscow cast blame on an unreliable Ukraine as the reason Europe's homes went cold and factories went dark. In each of these test cases, Europe did little to contest Russia's actions, while the U.S. limited itself to stirring rhetoric before subsiding to tacit recognition of Russia's new resurgence.

And so today, in all likelihood, Ukraine "elects" to return itself to satellite status.

When the Orange Revolution flashes Red, what sort of signal does this send to the other Color Revolutions in Russia's near abroad? And what sort of support can they expect from a Europe enervated even before the current economic distress, and an America preoccupied with two wars and a terror threat at home?

Daniel McGroarty, principal of Carmot Strategic Group, an issues management firm in Washington, D.C., served in senior positions in the White House and at the Department of Defense.

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