East of Europe

Ukraine’s election results aren’t a repudiation of the West. Kiev will still pursue the middle course it always has, courting both Europe and Russia.

With 98 percent of the ballots counted, former-Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych maintains a slim lead over current-Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko and, barring challenges in court as to the validity of the vote, Yanukovych is set to become the next president of Ukraine.

Western news media have presented the results of Ukraine's 2010 election as some sort of cataclysmic event, a reversal or even outright repudiation of 2004's Orange Revolution; some have gone so far as to paint a dark and gloomy picture of Ukraine being "brought back" under Russian hegemony.

We've heard these predictions before. In 1994, when Leonid Kravchuk was defeated by Leonid Kuchma-also the candidate of the "Russian-speaking east" of the country-there were similar prognostications. They were not borne out by the political realities of Ukraine.

First, the country continues to enjoy an uneasy but very real political equilibrium. Most Ukrainians don't support membership in NATO; most don't support Ukraine's unconditional entrance into a Russian-led "Common Economic Space." These divisions are reflected in the balance of power in the Rada. A President Yanukovych lacks the power or authority to unilaterally change policy. Kiev under Yanukovycyh, just as Kiev under Kuchma, will pursue a balanced "middle course." Over time, Ukraine may become more successful, like Kazakhstan, in wielding a "multi-vector" approach which gives it not only a better relationship with Russia, but more secure and durable ties with Europe as well.

Second, using political adjectives like "the Russian-speaking east" hides the true complexity of relations with Russia. Many east Ukrainians speak Russian, it is true; many feel a continued sense of affinity to Russia and want better economic and political relations. But east Ukraine also has a very developed sense of its own interests. East Ukrainian companies and firms want better access to the Russian market, but not at the cost of growing markets and opportunities in Europe. Yanukovych's endorsement of the "3 + 1" concept: that Ukraine should take part in the Common Economic Space, but as an associate rather than a full member, reflects his interests in preserving Ukrainian sovereignty and freedom of action. He and the elites he represents do not view Ukraine as "southern Russia."

When it comes to NATO, let's be frank: membership in the alliance is not currently an option for Ukraine even if Yuliya Tumoshenko had won the election by a resounding margin. An alliance suffering from expansion fatigue and coping with the Afghanistan mission is not eager to expand its ranks to include new members that are likely to be consumers of, rather than providers of, security.

There will be one major difference, however, between the outgoing Viktor Yushchenko administration and any team put together by Viktor Yanukovych. With Yushchenko, the West was confident that it could keep the door closed to immediate Ukrainian integration without any real loss; Yushchenko was never prepared to accept any offers coming from Moscow. But over time, he was discredited as his promises to bring Ukraine into the EU and NATO never materialized.  Yanukovych has no such problem. He will seek to maximize Ukraine's position by simultaneously reaching out to both Moscow and Brussels and searching for the "best offer" he can deliver. (I would even expect a greater effort to solicit ties with Asia-especially China, as well.)

In every election since independence in 1991, Ukrainian presidential candidates have promised to bring the country "into Europe" or "closer to Russia"-and Ukraine always finds its place in an uneasy middle between the two. Perhaps the best lesson of the 2010 elections is to help Ukraine move away from the either/or approach and instead, drawing on the literal meaning of the Slavic roots from which the name "Ukraine" is derived, have it assume its place as the meeting ground, the east of Europe and the west of Eurasia.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.