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Ukraine election looms [Commentary]

Amid the storm created by Russian President Vladimir Putin's extralegal incursion into the Crimean peninsula, the U.S. and Europe risk allowing an event equally important to Ukraine's future to fall out of focus: the May 25 election in which the divided country is set to select a new president. The credibility, inclusivity and peacefulness of this event are vital to U.S. and European interests.

To that end, as the Obama administration and its core European allies work together to respond to Russia's aggressive stance, they must also take care to provide the support necessary to enable Ukraine to hold a relatively free and fair vote. In so doing, and in helping Ukraine move closer to the West, they should consider taking three immediate steps:

First and foremost, the U.S. should take the lead by devoting sufficient resources to preventing and managing violence before, during and after the election. The threat of violence should not be allowed to intimidate candidates and voters. Given its nimble operational structure and ability to deploy quickly, the U.S. State Department's Bureau for Conflict and Stabilization Operations is well-suited to take this on in partnership with conflict-prevention experts from the United States Agency for International Development. The two agencies should work together to perform an electoral security assessment and prescribe associated, locally-led programming — this could involve messaging campaigns to promote peaceful participation as well as coordination mechanisms among police to ensure protection for candidates and their staffers.

Second, the election requires the participation of each core segment of the population — from the largely Russia-leaning East to the Europe-inclined West. This means the U.S. and Europe should push prospective political party participants to agree to a code of conduct and back indigenous voter education efforts throughout the country. The latter should involve providing targeted funding to local civil society organizations to complete "get out the vote" campaigns.

Ousted president Viktor Yanukovych is already engaged in an opposing campaign, telling reporters this week that the elections — and his expulsion — are illegal. The U.S. and Europe must counter that message.

Third and finally, they must support efforts to thwart interference, both internal and external, and ensure that the vote is seen as valid. Even if the election is relatively peaceful and sees participation by a largely representative swath of Ukraine's population, all will be for naught if the result is skewed or seen as such. To balance this risk, the U.S. should work with its European allies to support a robust delegation of election observers, led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE). The delegation should deploy immediately and be of sufficient size to place staff throughout all regions and for the duration of the process.

The transatlantic allies have made important moves in recent days to support Ukraine as it navigates the transition away from Mr. Yanukovych's repressive administration and toward a new government. This includes Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to Ukraine and the offer of $1 billion in economic support; the planned U.S. sanctions against key individuals; President Obama's meeting with the new Ukrainian prime minister this week, as well as the G-7 canceling participation in the forthcoming G-8 summit and condemning in a statement "the Russian Federation's clear violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine." These are important signals of Western resolve in the face of Russia's recent actions — and vital to safeguarding U.S. and European interests in the region.

Framing the conflict as East versus West and focusing on Mr. Putin alone, however, risks ignoring core Ukrainian needs for the forthcoming election. In the two months ahead, therefore, the U.S. and Europe need to manage all the parts of this important puzzle, which includes supporting a peaceful transition of power to the next president of Ukraine.

Patrick W. Quirk is a Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy of the German Marshall Fund in Washington DC. His email is; Twitter: @patrickwquirk.

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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