The United States finished its presidential election in one round. Not so Ukraine, where Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko were forced into a runoff after the Oct. 31 vote.
The poll was not without problems, but observers generally found it free of the sort of fraud feared by Yushchenko's supporters. Nevertheless, some critics see the vote determining whether Ukraine will fall into Russia's orbit. Radek Sikorski of the American Enterprise Institute even fears Washington having to take up arms "to face a threat from a reconstituted empire."
Yushchenko has portrayed himself as pro-Western and earned a warm embrace from foreign interests. In contrast, Yanukovych is seen as leaning toward Moscow.
"The Kremlin is very actively involved in the campaign," charges Yushchenko adviser Oleg Medvedev. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said nothing officially about Ukraine's election, but is widely perceived as backing Yanukovych.
But Moscow's direct involvement seems overstated. Some allegedly "pro-Russian" initiatives are primarily matters of domestic politics. For instance, Yanukovych advocates raising the Russian language to quasi-official status, hardly unreasonable in a nation where many people speak only Russian, the language of the former Soviet Union.
Moreover, the candidates' disagreements over relations toward the United States and Russia seem small. Economically, Kiev has little choice but to increase investment and trade ties with America and Europe; geographically, Ukraine's security inevitably will be linked to Russia.
Yushchenko advocates membership in the European Union and NATO. In contrast, Yanukovych emphasizes the so-called "Single Economic Space," or free trade zone, with Russia.
Yet Yanukovych also supports, more cautiously, joining the EU: "Ukraine will move into the EU slowly." Explains Sergei Tigipko, Yanukovych's campaign manager and former governor of the National Bank, "We need to carefully negotiate favorable terms for Ukraine."
He says ties with Russia "do not prevent Ukraine from getting integrated into the World Trade Organization and the EU." Adds Tigipko: "The only pragmatic course is one that looks both east and west."
Rostyslav Khotin, editor of the Ukrainian section of the British Broadcasting Corp., sees the issue as one of timing: "There is a consensus amongst the Ukrainian ruling elite that Ukraine must be in the EU and NATO." If Yanukovych "wins, the delay may be three or four years."
The assumption that Yushchenko would better serve American interests is dubious. For instance, Yushchenko has promised to withdraw Ukrainian troops from Iraq. In contrast, Yanukovych has offered to help train the Iraqi military.
Both candidates also are likely to work with Moscow. After all, one poll found that 80 percent of Ukrainians believe Ukrainian-Russian relations should be a priority.
Vyacheslav Igrunov, Director of the Institute for Humanitarian and Political Studies in Moscow, says that "Russia will not lose anything, no matter who wins the Ukrainian elections." Indeed, Yushchenko publicly denounced as a myth the perception that he was anti-Russian.
Konstantin Bondarenko, Director of the Institute of National Strategy in Moscow, puts it another way: "Even though there are a lot of simplistic assessments that Yushchenko is pro-West and Yanukovych is pro-Russia, everyone understands that they will have to take a center position that can go any way." Bondarenko suggests that "if Yushchenko becomes president, his first visit will be to Moscow. If Yanukovych wins, his first visit will be to Washington."
U.S. officials recognize that some of Kiev's moves are simply "tactical," but nevertheless worry about Moscow's activities. Still, Washington has little credibility in complaining about Russian influence.
After all, Russian President Putin expressed his election support for George W. Bush. Moreover, though the administration says it favors neither candidate in Ukraine, its unstated preference seems clear.
Sergei Markov, a Russian political consultant active in the so-called "Russian Club," denounced by Yushchenko's supporters for backing Yanukovych, observes: "Look at what the U.S. is doing here - supporting foundations, analytical centers, round tables. It's how contemporary foreign policy is pursued. And it's exactly what we're doing."
Unfortunately, America has become an issue in the election.
Yushchenko has been attacked for being a pawn of the United States. Oleg Medvedev terms such antagonism an "inheritance from Soviet times," which "is costing us several million votes."
The Nov. 21 runoff is likely to be close. Yushchenko long was the country's most popular politician, but even Medvedev acknowledged that through a smart campaign "Yanukovych was able to do what he couldn't do for the last two years, equal the popularity ratings of Yushchenko."
Washington should press for an honest poll. But American policy-makers should accept the result with equanimity. The United States isn't going to "lose" Ukraine. Whichever candidate wins, Kiev will want remain a friend of America.