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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

So You Say You Want a Revolution

When Ukraine's Orange Revolution, coming on the heels of a rigged presidential election in 2004, seemed to put that country on the path to join the West, it was top news in the U.S. media and the stuff of countless emotional commentaries. Many of them focused on the iniquity of Russia, which had backed the existing Ukrainian regime.

Since then, the events of 2004 have proved to be no revolution at all, in the sense of a fundamental change in the Ukrainian state. The Orange coalition split, economic growth declined drastically, reform stagnated and in free and fair parliamentary elections this March, the pro-Russian grouping led by the ousted candidate of 2004, Viktor Yanukovich, emerged as the largest party. After months of political chaos, including hooliganism by both sides in the Ukrainian parliament, Yanukovich will now probably lead a coalition government under the presidency of his rival, Viktor Yushchenko.

These developments have barely been reported by most of the U.S. media, however, let alone commented on. This silence marks a response to ideological and geopolitical embarrassment of which the old Soviet media might have been proud. It also misses an opportunity to conduct a searching public debate on U.S. and Western strategy in the former Soviet Union.

Developments in and concerning Ukraine have contradicted an important assumption on which U.S. and, to a lesser extent, European strategies have been based. They have demonstrated that the processes the West has encouraged in Central Europe and the Baltic states cannot be extended seamlessly to the other former Soviet states.

Societies, economies and national identities and affinities are very different; links to Russia are closer; and both the United States and the European Union are weaker than they appeared to be a few years ago.

The failure of the Orange Revolution is, in many ways, a great pity for Ukraine. Irrespective of whether Ukraine can join Western institutions, westernizing reform is a good thing in itself and should be pursued. But the latest developments have also saved Ukraine, Europe and, indeed, the United States from a great danger.

That danger was the prospect of early NATO enlargement to Ukraine, which until a few weeks ago was being pushed by powerful forces in Washington. This strategy is dead for the foreseeable future and we urgently need to develop an alternative one.

The danger from NATO expansion was threefold: the certainty of Russian retaliation; the opposition of a large majority of Ukrainians, especially in the Russian-speaking east and south; and the fact that NATO membership was not going to be backed up by membership in the EU, thereby anchoring that country in the West.

At a conference on Ukraine in Rome this June, a majority of EU officials and West European diplomats declared EU membership for Ukraine to be an impossibility. Several expressed profound skepticism that even enhanced partnership would amount to anything serious. The reason was Ukraine's lack of development, but equally important was the revolt of West European electorates against further EU enlargement and its costs to the West European taxpayer. This in turn reflects the faltering West European economic growth of recent years. The engine of EU enlargement, which did most of the heavy lifting when it came to bringing other former communist states into the West, is close to the limits of its strength.

We may regret these new circumstances, but we should also treat them as an opportunity for new thought. We have tended to treat as truly legitimate and democratic only those Ukrainian politicians who lead their country away from Russia -- whether their electorate wants it or not. The divided affinities of Ukrainians are not a problem for us to solve, but a deeply rooted historical and democratic reality. The West and Russia should agree not to inflame one or other Ukrainian grouping in order to avoid violent clashes and regional destabilization.

For Russia, this means not intervening in Ukraine's democratic process. For the West, it means not trying to draw Ukraine into an anti-Russian alliance. Neither side should try to claim exclusive economic influence. If we are sensible, the result will be a Ukraine that is free, independent, neutral, open to international investment and economically tied to both Russia and the West. By all the standards of Ukrainian history, that would be a wonderful fate.

Anatol Lieven is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation. This comment was published in the Financial Times.