The Bush administration is hoping for a pro-Western outcome in today's presidential election in Ukraine, but at the same time has to be careful not to antagonize Russian President...

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WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is hoping for a pro-Western outcome in today’s presidential election in Ukraine, but at the same time has to be careful not to antagonize Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko and his Orange Revolution have pledged to fight corruption and orient Ukraine toward the West. His opponent in the runoff, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, wants to strengthen already tight relations with Russia, its neighbor to the east.

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Yushchenko says he wants to integrate with the NATO military alliance and the European Union.

“So our club of free-market democracies would grow if Mr. Yushchenko should win,” said Radek Sikorski, director of the new Atlantic Initiative at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. “Overall, the Bush administration has been pro-democracy in Ukraine. … This country has a general interest in countries adopting free markets and democratic principles and it is good if the Ukrainians make their own democratic choice in this election.”

On the other hand, if Yushchenko wins, Ukraine is expected to withdraw its 1,650 troops from Iraq.

The contest — a new election ordered by Ukraine’s Supreme Court after what it called a fraudulent first election last month — has irritated U.S.-Russian relations.

The Bush administration chided Russia for assisting Yanukovych while Putin accused the United States of meddling in Ukrainian politics.

Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center, said the Bush administration should be careful in its criticism of Russia because of political and economic issues.

Not only does Russia have a veto vote in the U.N. Security Council, it also is an ally of the United States in the war on terror.

In addition, Russia is subsidizing 50 million Ukrainians with cheap energy, Simes said, and it is in the U.S. interest not to “humiliate Russians just for the fun of it.”

Simes suggested accusations of Russian involvement in the Ukrainian election were exaggerated. “I don’t believe this was a serious exercise of neo-imperialism,” he said. There were a lot of foreign political consultants working in Ukraine, including Americans, Simes said.

The U.S. interest is free choice in Ukraine in a way that would not lead to separatist movements or spoil Ukraine’s relationship with Russia, he said.

Simes said he assumed Yushchenko would win “and it’s probably for the better.”

“Not only will it reflect the will of the Ukrainians, but he is the better candidate for Ukraine, for the United States and, if he plays his cards right, for Ukraine’s relationship with Russia,” he said.