By Anna Borshchevskaya, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Anna Borshchevskaya is assistant director at the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center. The views expressed are solely her own.
On Sunday, Ukrainians will head to the polls to elect a new parliament. The elections will be pivotal. Once a promising democracy, Ukraine has become increasingly authoritarian over the past two years.
In a close 2010 election, Ukrainians elected Viktor Yanukovych to the presidency. Yanukovych hails from eastern Ukraine, which is traditionally pro-Russian and, during his first two years in office, he has pushed Ukraine slowly but surely away from the West and back into the Russian sphere.
Yanukovych not only stopped his predecessor’s push for NATO membership, but also extended Russia’s lease over its Sevastopol naval base for 25 years, despite public outcry. Russia now “silently dominates” that city, according to the Kyiv Post. Yanukovych also accepted the Russian position on Holodomor, the great 1933 famine, which many Ukrainians believe was deliberate genocide perpetrated against them by Josef Stalin. He also supported South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence, puppet breakaway states supported by Russia in the wake of its 2008 invasion of Georgia. This past summer, his Party of Regions pushed through a controversial bill to give Russian official language status in Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine (13 out of 27) and, in August, Ukraine joined Russia and Belarus in a Russian-led free-trade zone for former Soviet republics.
The Obama administration has been largely silent over Ukraine’s backslide toward Russia. Perhaps the White House feared antagonizing Russia against the backdrop of President Barack Obama’s marquee “reset” policy. Many American diplomats also suggested that criticizing Yanukovych’s policies could push him and his supporters further into a Russian embrace.
They are wrong. Pressure could be welcome, not least because Yanukovych has been unable to curb Russia’s aggressive position towards his country despite many concessions. While the Kremlin traditionally prefers leaders from Ukraine’s pro-Russian east, Putin would be mistaken to believe that those like Yanukovych and his eastern Ukrainian supporters would turn their back on Ukrainian nationalism. Many eastern Ukrainians are far more sympathetic to Russian culture more than its politics, and Yanukovych has lost much popular support over the past two years.
As Brookings Institution scholar Steven Pifer has noted, the West should not be afraid to call Yanukovych on the Russia bluff. Yanukovych’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin is complicated, and infused with mistrust.
Putin has, for his part, humiliated Yanukovych. During one recent visit to Moscow, Putin reportedly made Yanukovych wait for four hours. Putin’s proffered reason? He had to stop on the way to the meeting to talk to some bikers. As one senior Ukrainian official explained, according to Jamestown, “It is not we who are moving away from Russia, but the latter that pushes us off.”
Yanukovych tried to pursue what he perceived to be a multi-vector policy – to balance European and Russian interests in the Ukraine. In the end, that has not been enough for the Kremlin. When push comes to shove, Putin and the Russian leadership refuse to accept that Ukraine is a separate nation. In 2008, Putin famously told President George W. Bush that Ukraine “is not even a state.” Facing such attitudes, it is unlikely Yanukovych will run eagerly into the Kremlin’s arms should President Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton use their bully pulpit to criticize Ukraine’s democratic backslide.
Almost a quarter century after George H.W. Bush’s “Chicken Kiev” speech sought to subordinate Ukraine’s interests to Russia’s, it is time for the United States to recognize that Ukrainian freedom matters, and that the former Soviet Union's second-largest state is too big to lose. A Western-oriented Ukraine will not only bolster freedom and liberty, but will also advance American strategic interests.