U.S. President George Bush has stepped up pressure on Russia and Ukraine to secure an outcome in Ukraine's presidential elections that is favorable to the United States. Pro-U.S. candidate Viktor Yushchenko and his pro-Russian opponent Viktor Yanukovich face a runoff Nov. 21.
On Nov. 5, U.S. President George Bush encouraged Russian President Vladimir Putin — for the sake of good ties between Washington and Moscow — to shift his support from pro-Russia candidate Viktor Yanukovich to pro-U.S. candidate Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine's presidential elections, sources close to the Russian Security Council say. Washington thinks the case is worth pressing because a Yushchenko victory in Ukraine would give Washington more influence on Russian policies. Washington could be right. Putin has tied his political future — and Russia's future, as he envisions it — to Washington and is bent on steering Russia to the West. He is unlikely to spoil relations with the United States over a Ukrainian presidential election. Washington has made a few steps that Russia perceives to be a warning to Moscow. First, the Pentagon recently suggested that Russians removed 300 tons of explosives from the al Qaqaa ammunition depot in Iraq. Second, U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Alexander Vershbow, in a Nov. 7 interview on a Moscow radio program, expressed Washington's concerns over Russia's handling of the Yukos affair (the Russian energy company is headed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is considered pro-United States). While Putin has shied away from a direct answer to Bush's request, he has promised to do what he can to ensure the Ukrainian election outcome will not harm U.S. interests. Sources say he told Bush there is nothing more important to him than good relations with the United States. Indeed, there are some signs the Kremlin might be drifting away from Yanukovich under Washington's pressure, which has intensified following Bush's re-election. Over the weekend of Nov. 5-7, leaks from the Putin administration to the Russian media suggested that Yanukovich should withdraw his candidacy before the second round for the sake of Ukrainian unity. Sources say the leak is seen as an anti-Yanukovich move meant to confuse his supporters and to signal to Ukraine's elite that it is time to switch sides. It is not clear whether Putin authorized the leak. In addition, the Kremlin has turned a cold shoulder to Yanukovich's proposal to introduce dual citizenship for Ukrainians and Russians. Sources in the Ukrainian administration say Bush also called Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma on Nov. 7 and strongly encouraged him and other government officials to support Yushchenko. Washington has built a long dossier on Kuchma, who it accuses of (among other things) selling Ukraine's newest air defense systems to Saddam Hussein's government, authorizing the assassination of opposition journalists and other political opponents, misappropriating state funds and turning a blind eye to human rights violations. Several high-profile defectors from the Ukrainian government, now living in the West, along with former Prime Minister Pavel Lazarenko, who is residing in a U.S. jail for money-laundering, know a great deal about Kuchma's alleged wrongdoings. It would be relatively easy for Washington to help initiate legal actions in the United States and elsewhere to have Kuchma detained while he travels abroad. While time will tell whether Kuchma was sincere in assuring Bush he will stay neutral and try to keep the election process fair and balanced, sources say there are signs that some Ukrainian officials, sensing Kuchma's hesitation and unwillingness to openly throw his weight behind Yanukovich, could start distancing themselves from Yanukovich and seek contact with Yushchenko. All of this suggests that Bush and his team, with their hands free following the re-election, are paying considerable attention to Ukraine as a strategically key country between Russia and Europe, and there is some indication that the U.S. pressure is beginning to bear fruit. So soon after the re-election, the Bush administration has enough momentum be able to focus on several major issues at a time. In addition, there are some good strategic thinkers in the administration who appreciate Ukraine's geopolitical value and the need to deal with its presidential election — even as coalition forces launch a major assault against Al Fallujah in Iraq's Sunni Triangle. Bush's making three phone calls — two to Putin (the first one just before the Ukrainian elections began) and one to Kuchma (just before the U.S. elections) suggests Ukraine is on a White-House front burner. If Russia continues to distance itself from Yanukovich, and switching sides among Ukrainian officials becomes epidemic, these factors could have a significant impact on voters in eastern Ukraine, the largest electoral territory favoring Yanukovich in the first round. Yushchenko would likely win the runoff, especially if he manages to keep his hard-core supporters in western Ukraine and Kiev from large protest rallies, which could result in violence and scare away mainstream voters. At this point, all things considered, Yushchenko's and Yanukovich's chances are fairly equal. Yanukovich's attempts to introduce dual citizenship for Ukranians and Russians and to elevate the status of the Russian language in Ukraine (in schools and government correspondence) appeals to millions in the country's east and south. At the same time, his government's paying salaries to government workers that had been in arrears and social benefits as never before shortly before the election has appealed to some in the middle class and many among the poor. Time will soon tell whether these efforts will be strong enough to defeat Yushchenko, who is enjoying growing attention and support from the world's only superpower.