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Fault Line Between Russia and West

Poor Ukraine. For centuries this great flat fertile plain has been the battleground for other people's empires -- Russian, Polish, Lithuanian, German, you name it. Then, 13 years ago, the implosion of the Soviet Union thrust nationhood upon it -- a nationhood dreamed of but never seriously expected. And now the territory seems destined to become once again a zone of confrontation between external forces, the new fault line between Russia and the West.

As the cheated voters of Ukraine demonstrate in their tens of thousands on the streets of Kiev, demanding a recount to give victory to Viktor Yushchenko, the opposition candidate for president, the outside world is taking sides.

Europe and America say the Russians started it, blatantly interfering in the Ukrainian election campaign to support Viktor Yanukovych, the incumbent prime minister, as the pro-Russian choice. President Vladimir Putin came twice to ensure that the message got through.

Of course, ever since the Soviet Union disintegrated, Russians of all political persuasions have found it hard to accept that Ukraine should break away from the Motherland. Most Russians regard Ukrainian independence as an aberration, to be corrected in the fullness of time. That a Moscow government should make clear who is the preferred presidential candidate in Kiev is taken for granted.

In some ways, the United States and the European Union have been inviting a Russian backlash. They have made no secret of their preference for the "pro-Western" Yushchenko. This week, Putin gave his reply. In deeds, if not in words, he seems to be saying: "We won't let him win."

The revival of Cold War-style confrontation presents Ukrainians with a desperate dilemma. They cannot afford to choose between East and West, and yet they are being forced to do so, against their better inclinations.

For most Ukrainians, these elections were not about being pro- or anti-Russian. The elections were primarily about ousting a corrupt clique from power in Kiev. It just happened that the clique came from the Russian-speaking east of the country.

There can be no doubt that there was ballot-stuffing on voting day. In the largely Russian-speaking Donetsk region of 5 million people, 97 percent are supposed to have voted, overwhelmingly for Yanukovych. And in the months before the election, all the resources of the government, and of the state-owned television, were devoted to his cause.

The country is divided between the nationalist West, around Lviv, and the largely Russian-speaking East around Kharkiv and the coal-mining Donbass region. Yet the extent of that division can be exaggerated. And it probably has been, precisely because of the heavy-handed Russian intervention.

Yushchenko's supporters were not voting for instant membership in the NATO alliance or the EU. Indeed, Yushchenko had declared he would withdraw Ukrainian troops from Iraq, not a gesture that Washington would welcome. But because he represents a more liberal, pro-market attitude, in contrast to the statist style of the old Soviet factory managers surrounding President Leonid Kuchma and Yanukovych, there was a pro-Western subtext to his campaign.

Ukrainian ambassadors have been summoned in every EU state to hear protests about the ballot-rigging. Yet some protests may be lukewarm. A victory for Yanukovych would probably be easier for EU states to live with than one for Yushchenko. The big states do not want to infuriate Putin unnecessarily.

A liberal, West-leaning government in Kiev would expect some substantial financial support from the EU to help rebuild its institutions and economy. It would also look for a clear prospect of EU membership. But G?nter Verheugen, former European commissioner for enlargement, was always fond of saying that Ukraine should have a "European perspective, but not a membership perspective," at least for 20 years.

The harsh reality for Ukrainians is that they are largely on their own. What they need is time and space to put their own house in order. The best thing Europe and America can do is persuade Putin to back off and let them get on with it. He may take a lot of persuading.

Quentin Peel is international affairs editor at the Financial Times, where this comment first appeared.

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