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A Free Ukraine is Russia's Gain

Vladimir Putin may not recognize it now, but "losing" Ukraine can mean great gain for Russia.

The freedoms that a truly democratic Ukraine might bring to Russia are not likely to appeal to the autocratic Mr. Putin. But perhaps he might soften his views when he considers the economic benefit of a functioning market economy next door.

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A Ukraine that cleaned up its corruption and oligarchs would be a more prosperous trading partner for Russia, and a more secure destination for Russian investment. Russia is Ukraine's principal oil supplier, and about 25 percent of Ukraine's exports (mostly steel and machinery) go to Russia and 11 other countries that once belonged to the Soviet Union.

Were Ukrainian economic reforms to influence Russia, both countries would be better positioned to attain membership in the World Trade Organization - a shared goal.

At the same time, Moscow need not fear a Ukraine headed by democrat Viktor Yushchenko, who has been strenuously protesting the results of the rigged Nov. 21 presidential election. Mr. Yushchenko may be pro-West, but contrary to his portrayal in the Russian and Ukrainian media, he is decidedly not anti-Russia.

When Yushchenko was prime minister from late 1999 to 2001, Russian investment in Ukraine peaked. Thanks to Yushchenko's economic reforms and rising steel prices, Ukraine's economy emerged from its bleak, post-Soviet period after Ukrainian independence in 1991.

Putin erred by strongly backing the more stridently pro-Moscow but discredited Viktor Yanukovich for Ukraine's president. The Russian leader violated diplomatic norms by openly stumping for and prematurely congratulating the disputed winner.

It's easy to understand why Putin made this mistake. He's dismayed at Western encroachment on Russia's borders and is trying to restore, however he can, Russian greatness.

The former Soviet Baltic states now belong to the European Union. After 9/11, the US opened bases in Muslim Central Asia on Russia's southern flank. Last year's "rose revolution" in Georgia knocked that country further from Moscow's orbit. Ukraine, the literal birthplace of Slavic Russia and a large and strategic buffer to the West, can't be also set adrift, so Putin thinks.

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But this line-in-the-sand approach is cold-war thinking (and not a little false pride). A democratic Ukraine could help turn around that outmoded way of thinking, but so, too, can Europe and the US. They must refrain from win-lose rhetoric and treat Russia's security concerns seriously. If Brussels and Washington act as if the cold-war competition is over, Moscow might get the idea, too.