The May 25 election long has been viewed a potential pivotal moment for embattled Ukraine. It presented a chance for the country’s voters to speak amid the turmoil of recent months, Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, allied with separatists in eastern Ukraine, consuming Crimea and otherwise pressuring and seeking to weaken the government in Kiev.
On Sunday, those voters spoke, delivering a clear victor to Petro Poroschenko, a familiar figure in many respects, a billionaire businessman and former government minister. Yet he also appears well positioned. He knows Putin. He has tangled with the Russian leadership through his business interests. He represents something of a fresh start, as suggested by the stronger response of the Ukrainian military to separatists seizing government buildings and then the airport in Donetsk.
His pledge to restore calm will not be easily or quickly kept, but it does carry the clout of voters, or what serves as an invitation for the Obama White House and European leaders to bring clarity, firmness and unity to their own response. All of this may appear far removed, Crimea hardly a decisive piece of the landscape. Yet the stakes are high for Washington and its allies.
There are real worries about what Putin intends. Before the election, he talked about respecting the results. The Russian foreign minister, in the aftermath, spoke about pursuing “a dialogue of mutual respect” with the new Ukrainian leadership. Those are words. Actions will be telling. Will Putin give up the leverage from continuing disorder in Ukraine? And which part of the former Soviet empire will he target next? Moldova? Rattle nerves in the Baltic countries?
What would such actions mean for the relationship between Washington and Moscow? Put aside the concept of a “reset.” Is there a way to return the focus to such difficult matters as the Iranian nuclear program and the civil war in Syria? These and other subjects become much harder without a consistent dialogue. And so does sustaining the idea that emerged from the end of the Cold War, a free, democratic and whole Europe, engaged increasingly with a more open Russia.
That Russian aspect may seem like a pipe dream today. Still, the core resonates in the Ukrainian vote. From the start of this crisis, the many elements in play, from energy contracts to the remnants of empire, have pointed to the options for a negotiated settlement. The challenge for the White House and its European allies has been developing a position that allows them to negotiate from some strength.
After the vote in Ukraine, U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican and one of the American election observers, pressed for increased pressure on Russia, such tougher sanctions and military aid to Kiev. The moment does present a new opening to bolster any leverage. Ukrainians have spoken. Americans and Europeans have good reason to support their desire to decide for themselves the future of their country.