Ukraine is Heading to the Polls—What Does it Mean for the U.S.? | Opinion

Supporters hold Ukrainian flags during former Ukrainian Prime Minister and now presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko pre-election rally in Kiev, on March 29, 2019, ahead of the presidential election on March 31. Vasily MAXIMOV / AFP

It's presidential election season in Ukraine, and there are no good candidates for Moscow—although the Kremlin has its preferences. Largely seen as a referendum on President Petro Poroshenko's handling of pervasive corruption and the conflict with Russia, the March 31 presidential elections are set to shape the future of the country. Ukrainians will have their chance—unless they are living in the occupied territories or in Russia—to choose a new path for the divided nation.

Two contenders dominate the field. Leading the pack with 24 percent is comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a Jewish actor from the industrial heartland who plays the president on Ukraine's hit sitcom "Sluha Narody" (Servant of the People.) Zelenskiy founded his own political party of the same name in March last year. According to the latest data, his lead is 4 percent ahead of incumbent Poroshenko, who has been in power since 2014.

Ukraine's voting system stipulates that unless the winner break the 50 percent threshold, an April 9 runoff is all but assured. Early polls for the second round of voting predict a Zelenskiy win, but Ukraine's political landscape is notoriously murky.

From Moscow's perspective, any candidate is preferable to Poroshenko. Moscow imagines that Zelenskiy's lack of experience and his populist platform could inject further discord into a divided country. Regardless of the winner, Moscow will likely adhere to its post-election strategy—keep pushing the envelope as means to pressure Kyiv to the diplomatic negotiation table. That includes propaganda, energy, military forces—all the tools in the Kremlin's massive toolbox.

Relying on military force

Putin is increasingly relying on military force to achieve his irredentist foreign policy goals and boost his flagging domestic popularity, currently, at an all-time low of 64 percent. From Putin's perspective, as long as he stays out of the way of global and regional institutions like the EU, NATO, China, etc., he can safely push an assertive foreign policy in Russia's "near abroad."

The ruling elite's nostalgia for the USSR contributed to Russia's annexation of Crimea, and continues to give Moscow the gall to occupy Donetsk and Luhansk. These actions correlate with Russia's historic patterns for many centuries, when the state was heavily militarized and expansionist.

Russia is looking to build Anti Access Areal Denial regions (A2AD) on its Western borders, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. A2AD is classified as denying enemy forces access to a particular region. It typically involves air defenses, counter-maritime forces, and theater offensive strike weapons. Kaliningrad, Crimea, Syria, will close that gap once Russia annexes Belarus or places A2AD weapons there as intended.

Russia will also cling to the Crimea as its permanent aircraft carrier in the Black Sea: threatening Turkey, especially the Straits, and the NATO allies Bulgaria and Romania – as well as projecting power into the Mediterranean. This has been Russian strategy in the region since the last quarter of the 18th century. The latest conflicts in Ukraine and Syria only further highlighted both Russian grand strategy and exposed US and NATO weaknesses.

The Crimean Effect

Crimea's annexation was one of Putin's greatest foreign policy maneuvers. It boosted his popularity and exposed West's weakness. However, in taking the peninsula, there is a plethora of economic costs for the metropolis.

Pundits like Dmitry Butrin, a respected Deputy Editor of Kommersant – a paper owned by the oligarch Alisher Usmanov—will argue that Russian GDP growth has maintained steady at around one percent since annexing the territory. Butrin also argues that so-called "anti-American hysteria" would have contributed to Russia's less than stellar economy regardless of the Crimea effect.

The reality is that Moscow's investment in Crimea has an estimated cost of $13 billion between 2015 and 2022, when the Crimean investment program is supposed to end. While clearly Russia has been able to hold its control of the territory by sheer military presence – the economic slide does not bode well for Moscow.

Developing U.S. Policy to Curb Russian Ambitions

Regardless of who is elected President of Ukraine, if the U.S. wishes to combat Russian expansionism, it must focus its foreign policy in three distinct regions: from the Baltic to the Belarus; North and Eastern Ukraine and the Black Sea, and the greater Levant including the Eastern Mediterranean. To boost Ukraine's preparedness for combat, the US must boost Ukrainian military industrial production capabilities, whether through arms contracts or through investment and provide training.

In order to further curb Russian dominance in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, the U.S. should continue to support the building of Ukrainian anti-ship and Special Forces capacity. The strategy should be focused on asymmetric warfare, combating Russian presence in the region with fleets of small, heavily armed vessels.

NATO must also build up naval forces in the Black Sea to render Russian power uncompetitive, establish a NATO Black Sea squadron with the base in Constanta, and reflag NATO ships under the Bulgarian and Romanian flags to allow them to stay in the Black Sea indefinitely.

To deter Russia's Mediterranean ambitions we should expand NATO. as well as US naval and air involvement in the region, as increase presence in Algeria, Tunis, Libya and Egypt. To combat Russian policy objectives in the Middle East, the U.S. must boost its influence in Iraq and Turkey, derailing Turkey's rapprochement with Moscow, including the S-400 missile systems, the Turkish Stream pipelines, and the Ak Kuyu nuclear reactors. The pivotal moment in NATO's relations with Turkey is here.

Looking Ahead

Russia's empire building has been a predictable pattern for hundreds of years—creeping annexation while keeping buffer zones between themselves and other regional hegemons. While Ukrainian domestic politics might take a dramatic change after the elections, all three major candidates have made further integration with western institutions such as NATO and the EU, a priority. Knowing this, Ukraine's inevitable tilt to the West is forcing Putin's hand in the region as he seeks to reclaim some imperial glory. The U.S., as the leader of the West, cannot allow this to happen.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow with The Atlantic Council and director of the Energy, Growth and Security Program at the International Tax and Investment Center.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​