Exit strategy

December 03, 2004

AS THE PROSPECTS for a sensible solution to the Ukrainian election crisis increase, so too does the emphasis on face-saving. Outgoing President Leonid D. Kuchma zigs and zags; yesterday he flew unexpectedly to Moscow, to meet his hard-line backer, President Vladimir V. Putin, but it's becoming evident that he's quite prepared to throw his hand-picked successor, Viktor F. Yanukovych, overboard if need be. Mr. Yanukovych, declared the winner of an unsavory vote more than a week ago, now agrees with the opposition crowds in the streets of Kiev that the results should be thrown out - because he was shocked to find evidence that he was defrauded of some votes in the balloting. Whatever.

The planets are aligning in Ukraine for some way out of this mess. Any solution, admittedly, will have to take into account the reality that both Mr. Yanukovych and his opponent, Viktor A. Yushchenko, have the legitimate support of millions of Ukrainians, and that their voices must be heard. It could happen. Fears of a breakup between the Russian-speaking east and the more nationalist, Ukrainian-speaking west are overblown, because such a fracture is in the interest of neither side.

The maneuvering, naturally, will be intense until that solution is reached. More and more, though, it appears that the odd man out won't be a Ukrainian at all, but President Putin of Russia.

The Kremlin has flagrantly weighed in on Mr. Yanukovych's side, while its lackeys accuse the United States of whipping up the protests against him. Mr. Putin has twice declared Mr. Yanukovych the winner; earlier this week, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov flew to Ukraine to take part in rallies for him. All this may backfire in a big way. If Mr. Kuchma is as reliable a friend as he has been made out to be, that's what he should have been telling Mr. Putin when they hurriedly met yesterday on Russian soil.

Ukraine is ready to move on. The popular will does count for something, which Mr. Putin appears not to have realized at all. (It's never been a problem for him at home.) While Mr. Putin rants on the sidelines, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski has emerged as the good-faith broker and the true friend of Ukraine. But consider Russia's position: If Mr. Yushchenko prevails, the Kremlin will have lost. But even if Mr. Yanukovych assumes office, practically the first thing he will have to do in these circumstances is establish his independence from Moscow.

The Russian president may yet find a way to save face in Ukraine, though he's got a long way to go in not much time. The biggest risk for him is at home, and that is that democratically minded Russians might once again begin to understand the power of an aroused populace.

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