BY PETER LEROE-MUNOZ
Engaged in its first diplomatic quarrel of the second Bush administration, the United States finds itself in a delicate pas de deux with one of its most important strategic allies, Russia. The point of conflict? Ukraine’s allegedly fraudlent presidential election.
Last month, the Ukrainian electorate faced a decision between two radically different visions for their country’s future. The government-backed candidate, Prime Minister Viktor Yanokovych, advocated a platform of increased state regulation and centralization, as well as closer ties with neighboring Russia. In contrast, opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko proposed cutting government bureaucracy, increasing media and judicial freedom, and establishing stronger ties with Western Europe and the United States.
Initial reports from the Central Election Commission declared Prime Minister Yanokovych the winner, but opposition candidate Yushchenko immediately claimed electoral fraud, and denounced the result as illegitimate. Election monitors verified this claim with accounts of voter intimidation, widespread ballot tampering, and multiple voting. The Ukrainian Supreme Court was next to reject the election results, and it summarily ordered a second election to be held on December 26. Following this announcement, the Ukrainian parliament deliberated for nearly two weeks before approving several electoral law changes.
One of the many interesting undercurrents to this electoral drama is the effect it will have on US-Russian relations. Moscow unabashedly supported government candidate Yanokovych, with President Vladimir Putin frequently appearing on the campaign trail with the endorsed candidate. Despite claims of electoral fraud, Putin was quick to accept Yanokovych’s victory as legitimate. Contrary to Russia’s position, the United States has soundly rejected the election as tainted, and thrown its support behind opposition candidate Yushchenko.
In light of the conflicting opinions surrounding the legitimacy of the Ukrainian election, it may be tempting to predict diplomatic tension between Russia and the United States. To be sure, Ukraine is at a crossroads: one path affirms its historical, cultural and political past with Russia, while the other leads towards a more Western political model. However, recent history suggests that the Kremlin and the White House may endorse their respective candidates with little reason to fear irreparably harming their relationship. The United States has proven that it can be critical of Russia without alienating this strategic ally, as demonstrated by its criticism of the government response to the 2002 Moscow Theater hostage crisis, and Russian activities in Chechnya. Similarly, the US-Russian relationship has weathered Russian criticisms of recent US policy, most notably the war in Iraq.
One factor that makes the US-Russian relationship so resilient is the necessity of cooperation between the two nations. For the United States, Russia represents a key partner in the war on terror: it is a buffer against possible regional threats, and it houses many nuclear weapons sites that are potentially-vulnerable. For Russia, the United States is both an economic and political model to be emulated (albeit not completely), as well as a valuable trading partner.
In short, although the current crisis in Ukraine represents a proxy conflict between certain Russian and US values, it can hardly be thought threatening to the underlying stability of the relationship between the two nations.