The world still knows this city as Kiev, its name in Russian, but let this dateline and this column call the capital of Ukraine by its rightful name. That name, always used by Ukrainians...

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KYIV, Ukraine — The world still knows this city as Kiev, its name in Russian, but let this dateline and this column call the capital ofUkraine by its rightful name.

That name, always used by Ukrainians, reflects the historic events unfolding here. The “completion of our revolution,” “the most important days in a thousand years,” “our final break with Moscow” — all these are phrases one hears here repeatedly. They are heard not only from the young demonstrators who will continue to occupy parts of central Kyiv until their candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, has won the presidential election rerun scheduled for Dec. 26, but also from political leaders in this bitterly contested struggle.

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There is little doubt that Yushchenko will soon be president. Any attempt by the government to declare his opponent, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, the winner would result in overwhelming demonstrations, national paralysis and, possibly, civil war. But that catastrophic outcome is far less likely than was once feared. Leading political figures and even military officers are defecting daily to Yushchenko, and Yanukovych’s strongest supporter, Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been isolated and humiliated.

Even President Leonid Kuchma, who ruled with nearly total power for the past 10 years, implicitly acknowledges the inevitability of Yushchenko as he sits in a modest suburban villa, miles from his offices in central Kyiv, which, he says angrily, are “hard to use” at the moment. Nothing symbolizes more clearly the rapid flow of power out of the government’s hands.

Viktor Yushchenko

Yushchenko needs the young demonstrators — their tents brought in by the army, their electricity and heating supplied by Kyiv’s mayor, who has deserted the government that appointed him — to prevent another fraudulent election. The crowds will swell to record numbers if necessary, right after the voting, and stay until he becomes president.

But what then? Is this simply a struggle for power between the two Viktors? Or is it the beginning of a deep, thoroughgoing democratic transformation? And, even more important, is this the moment when Ukraine, after living almost entirely within “the Russian space” for a thousand years, turns toward the West and seeks membership in NATO and then the European Union?

Make no mistake about it: 2004 has been Putin’s “annus horribilis,” the year in which he “lost” Georgia and Ukraine to anti-Russian popular revolutions, the year of Yukos and the school massacre at Beslan, a year in which, while remaining popular at home, he lost credibility throughout the rest of the world. His objective in Ukraine — to help the candidate preferred in Moscow — was entirely rational, but his personal behavior has been puzzling, petulant and self-demeaning. He must now either look for a way to back down quickly and learn to live with Yushchenko or — if he tries to stir up separatism in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine or punish Ukraine economically — risk destroying his relations with much of the West.

Ironically, Putin’s heavy-handedness, so reminiscent of the Soviet era, is likely to have an effect opposite to its intent — and to accelerate Ukraine’s quest for NATO and EU membership. As one of Yushchenko’s closest advisers put it, “After what Putin has already done, how can we afford to risk floating between East and West?”

Because of the complexity of integrating the economies, and the concerns the European Union has over the speed at which it is growing, full EU membership is probably a decade away. Putin can live with that. But NATO is a more serious matter, even if the alliance is a long way past its anti-Soviet origins.

Russia will, of course, object, as it did to the earlier rounds of NATO enlargement — especially to Poland. But not one of the fears and predictions of disaster that came from many learned commentators and wise men in the United States turned out to be true after Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic entered NATO in 1999. Ditto more recently when the Baltic states and seven more Central European countries joined. So why not Ukraine?

From the U.S. point of view, it makes sense. NATO virtually defines our core zone of security in half the world, and danger lurks to the south and east.Ukraine, as part of the greatest peacetime military alliance in history (it already has 1,600 troops in Iraq), gives added comfort and stability to the eastern tier of NATO nations.

But there will be hesitation in some capitals, especially Berlin. It will require strong sponsorship by Washington, assisted vigorously by Warsaw — and speed is important. President Bush will have to recognize that he has gotten little for his four-year affair with Putin, and that we cannot let Ukraine’s security be determined in Moscow.

Yushchenko (and his Ukrainian-American wife) will seek an official invitation to Washington soon after he takes power. Once there, he should be told that the United States will lead the effort for a road map that would formally begin at the December 2005 NATO ministerial meeting and end, if all goes well, about two years later.

All this must be done so that Moscow does not view another NATO enlargement as a zero-sum game for Russia.Ukraine must find other ways to create a constructive relationship with its giant neighbor; an omni-directional foreign and economic policy is the only way for it to go.

The path of NATO enlargement, so thorny and mysterious when we embarked on it in 1994-95, is now well understood. It has paid off handsomely for U.S. and European security and for its new members — and it has not destroyed relations with Moscow. It may seem a long way from the “tent city” in Kyiv to NATO, but because of those idealistic young demonstrators, the trip has begun. The logic of the situation is turning the once-unthinkable into the inexorable.

Richard Holbrooke is a former ambassador to the United Nations.