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by Dick Morris PUTIN'S BIG BLUNDER e-mail this column to a friend E-mail this column to a friend!

By DICK MORRIS & EILEEN MCGANN

December 22, 2004 -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's brazen scheme to rebuild the old Soviet Empire by annexing Ukraine has backfired. The backlash is brewing throughout the former Soviet republics that Russia calls its "near abroad."

In trying to win the electoral contest in Ukraine for his pro-Russian puppet and then seeking to steal an election, Putin sacrificed valuable political capital and credibility in the region. That his allies in the KGB and the Russian Mafia likely sought to poison pro-Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko when they couldn't defeat him just compounds the blunder.

The overreaching by this would-be czar is most reminiscent of the 1991 Moscow coup attempt by hardline communists. They sought to oust Mikhail Gorbachev and turn the clock back — but instead triggered the liberation of Russia, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the victory of Boris Yeltsin.

The end result of Putin's arrogant assumption that he could take over Ukraine by manipulating its democracy is likely to be a massive rush of nearby states away from the "Confederation of Independent States," set up by Russia to dominate its sphere of influence, toward the European/U.S. camp.

The repercussions of Putin's audacity began to reverberate over the past month and are likely to accelerate after the likely Yushchenko victory in Ukraine's new election Dec. 26.

We are picking up the seismic shock from the streets of Kiev in the little nation of Moldova, where we are helping the pro-democracy forces.

This tiny nation, formerly the Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova, was once a province of Romania but was given to Moscow in the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939. Nominally independent since the Soviet Union broke up in '91, Moldova has actually been headed by a communist government that would like to go back under Russian hegemony.

Until November, the communists held a comfortable lead in the coming election. A national poll by the International Republican Institute (an international pro-democracy foundation funded by the U.S. Republican Party) found that voters saw Russia as more of a partner than a threat by the lopsided margin of 68 percent to 25 percent.

But now — in the aftermath of the Ukrainian mess — Moldovans are not so sure: They rate Russia favorably as a partner by only 52-38. Now, the polls show that Moldovans want closer relations with the European Union and the United States more than they want to be tied to Moscow.

This increasing feeling of freedom in the former Soviet empire has roiled Putin and his Kremlin cronies. They're relatively mellow in their international comments — but for Russian consumption, they are breathing fire.

Sergei Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies and a Putin buddy, was quoted in the Moscow Times as saying that relations between Russia and the West "are gradually slipping into the danger zone of possible conflict" and predicts that "a crisis in international relations could come at any moment."

And Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Politika Foundation think tank and a knowledgeable commentator on Putin's policies, wrote a blistering column in the newspaper Trud. He called the Western insistence on a free election in Ukraine a de facto anti-constitutional putsch — indeed, the "first large-scale geopolitical 'special operation' of the united West aimed at a revolutionary regime change in a CIS country, which is Russia's [strategic] ally."

Nikonov says Russia will distance itself from Europe and America and warns of specific economic steps to try to cripple the newly independent-minded Ukraine. He also threatens that Moscow will become "more strict and selective" in helping Western corporations function in Russia and will place obstacles in the path of any Western NGO or foundation that "promotes democracy or the development of civil society" in Russia.

But these are the ravings of a dragon that can still breathe fire but has no teeth. Ukraine is proving — and other Eastern European nations will follow suit — that the former slaves of the Soviet Union can look to the economic life of Europe and the military protection of NATO to lead them to political and economic freedom.

People power is triumphing, and Putin can't stand it.

Dick Morris and Eileen McGann are political consultants for Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine and for the pro-democracy forces in Moldova.


 
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