After the Election: Yanukovich Prevails, West Stymied

November 26, 2012
Anthony T. Salvia
Director, American Institute in Ukraine

Despite the Ukrainian opposition's allegations of fraud in the October 28th parliamentary election, the Western powers have, by and large, looked the other way. No calls for Ukraine's isolation, no sanctions -- tough or otherwise -- no covert support for color-coded demonstrations in Maidan Nezalezhnosti.

The West understands that the Ukrainian election results - described by some in the Western media as "free, but unfair" -- were not so unfair as to annul their legitimacy. After all, the final results did not differ markedly from exit polls. Moreover, concerns about the electoral process came close to being overshadowed by the prospect of Svoboda, a grouping widely seen in the West as nationalistic and anti-Semitic, joining the parliamentary opposition.

The West, i.e., the US and by extension Europe, has no intention of allowing its misgivings about the elections (prompted as much by its aversion to the final result as by concerns about their freeness and fairness) to complicate what has already proved complicated enough for Europe -- what to do about the EU-Ukraine free trade agreement that was put on ice in December 2011 in reaction to the imprisonment of Julia Timoshenko.

Intended by its proponents as a wedge to be driven between Kiev and Moscow, the free trade agreement has wound up driving a wedge between EU member states: the Nordic countries want to impose strict criteria on Ukraine -- release of Julia Timoshenko, and sweeping judicial reforms -- before any agreement is signed, whereas the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia de-emphasize pre-conditions so as to rope Ukraine into an anti-Russian orientation as quickly as possible.

The US approach to Ukraine is equally ambivalent. Relations are correct, but not particularly close. Alexander J. Motyl refers to Ukraine's "complete and total irrelevance to American, and, by extension, Western foreign policy." In a similar vein, Taras Kuzio observes: "U.S. President Barack Obama's administration and the EU have other priorities at home and abroad; Ukraine is not one of them."

America's top priority abroad is its on-going, seemingly endless quixotic quest to re-engineer the Middle East (despite the evident failure of the policy and its vast cost even as the nation teeters on the brink of bankruptcy.) Russia, covering one-sixth of the earth's surface, and bordering as it does on Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, China and Japan, and possessed of a large nuclear arsenal and incomparable natural resource wealth, is of vast importance to the US, and, is key to America's ability to foster an acceptable world order.

As Ukraine was always seen in Washington (and by extension, Brussels), as a pawn to be deployed against Moscow, the new, emergent strategic reality leaves Ukraine very much in the lurch. The US sees Ukraine strictly in the context of its relations with Russia, which take precedence; moreover, it has outsourced its Ukrainian policy to Europe. Europe, meanwhile, will not have Ukraine as a member, but forces Ukraine to choose between an EU free trade agreement that offers few benefits, and a Russian Customs Union that offers many. Julia's arrest and Europe's high-minded reaction has redounded to Yanukovich's benefit as it allowed him to side-step Europe's unreasonable demand that it choose between Brussels and Moscow once and for all.

But, ultimately, Ukraine will have to get off the fence and choose. My sense of the matter is that if it chooses Europe, it will do considerable and perhaps irreparable damage to its relations with Moscow; if it chooses the Customs Union, the benefits will be tangible, and Europe, and by extension the United States, will treat Ukraine with new interest and respect.

In any case, Ukraine is effectively past the post-election period. It remains to be seen if the Party of Regions can manage a functioning majority in the new Rada, and how high a price the opposition will pay if Batkivshchina and UDAR cooperate with Svoboda. Internationally, Yanukovich remains, for the short term anyway, in the driver's seat, with the Americans largely uninterested and the Europeans looking for reasons to downplay election irregularities and Timoshenko's situation.