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Published: Sunday, 2/28/2010

Election leaves Ukraine with a cloudy future

Ukraine - a country that is central to the security of Europe - has returned to the Kremlin fold.

The Ukrainian presidential election runoff earlier this month between Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yanukovich has brought the pro-Kremlin opposition leader to power, thus sealing the country's fate.

En route to joining Europe after bringing down a corrupt, pro-Kremlin regime in a bloodless Orange Revolution five years ago, the Ukrainians have this time chosen a pro-Russia ex-felon over a presentable pro-Western prime minister.

The electorate's options were simple and so was the choice.

Forced by the Kremlin to choose between the prospect that Russia will repeat its practice of disrupting natural gas supplies in the middle of winter and voting down a pro-Western presidential candidate, Ukrainians took the latter option.

Their decision has shamed those of the more ardent critics of the efforts of Russian President-turned-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to manipulate the Ukrainians.

Those critics had jumped the gun by proclaiming that the use of energy as a weapon had proven to be a disaster for Russia as it attempts to rebuild its empire.

There is little doubt that the pro-Russian president will help open his country's major companies to hostile takeovers by Russian monopolists and restore Ukraine as Russia's vassal.

Unfortunately, there is little the United States and its European allies can do to reclaim Ukraine.

The economic levers - such as Russia's long-delayed membership in the World Trade Organization or a veiled reluctance to treat Russia as an equal partner in the G-8 - are so old and tired that the Kremlin has learned to live with them.

Conversely, Russia has gained political clout by threatening to use its spoilsport card anytime the United States needs its cooperation.

Examples include Russia's threat to veto Iranian sanctions in the U.N. Security Council and Russia's threat to deploy medium-range missiles allegedly to counter the U.S.-led European missile shield that the Kremlin likes to cast as a military threat. There is also Russia's role in Central Asia near Afghanistan, where the Kremlin pretends to support the U.S. anti-terror effort while actually resisting American influence in the region.

The Ukrainians will likely be left to their own devices in their dealings with Russia, at least for a few years to come.

Optimists in the West have given President Yanukovich the benefit of the doubt. What they are saying is that he may choose a path more independent from Moscow now that he is the president. The assumption is that he would do that simply to make it easier for himself to win the next presidential election.

Such a premise unduly dismisses the role of Prime Minister Tymoshenko and about half the country that supports her.

The fact remains that Ukraine is still a highly divided nation, with about half the population - mainly the southwest of the country - leaning toward Europe, democracy, and wary of Russia. The other half - including the ethnic Russians in the coal-mining northeast of the country - are pro-Russian.

This division is likely to continue. And it will continue to be exploited by the highly ambitious Ms. Tymoshenko and the equally ambitious Mr. Yanukovich.

The latter therefore is unlikely to refuse the help Russia is bound to offer him and probably will become the Kremlin's puppet. Unfortunately, that means that Ukraine's future is no longer pretty.

Mike Sigov, a former Russian journalist in Moscow, is a naturalized U.S. citizen and a staff writer for The Blade.

Contact him at:

sigov@theblade.com

or 419-724-6089.



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