FACED WITH extraordinary demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of citizens demanding democracy, Ukraine's corrupt and thuggish government wavered this week, hinting that it might be willing to negotiate about the outcome of the presidential election that took place Sunday. Yet yesterday its official electoral commission ratified the fraudulent result that brought those crowds into the streets of the capital: It declared that Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych had won despite abundant evidence to the contrary. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell rightly responded that the United States "cannot accept this result as legitimate" and "stands with the people of Ukraine and their effort to ensure their democratic choice." In the coming days the United States and its European allies must follow up on those words by demanding that the Ukrainian authorities -- and their backers in Moscow -- listen to, rather than repress, the majority that now seeks to prevent their country from becoming an authoritarian state.
Some have described the crisis in Ukraine as a contest for influence between Russia and the West, with the West backing opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko in the same measure that Russian President Vladimir Putin has supported the official candidate. That is a gross distortion. For the Ukrainians who have spent four freezing nights in the streets of Kiev, the fight is not about geopolitical orientation -- most favor close relations with Moscow -- but about whether theirs will be a free country, with an independent press and courts and leaders who are chosen by genuine democratic vote. Mr. Putin, who has channeled hundreds of millions of dollars into the prime minister's campaign, is backing the imposition of an authoritarian system along the lines of the one he is creating in Russia -- with a propagandistic regime, controlled media, official persecution of dissent, business executives who take orders from the state, and elections that are neither free nor fair.
By protesting the fraud in Ukraine, the United States and European Union are seeking not to recruit a new Western client but to defend the democracy and independence that most Ukrainians want. If they succeed, they will not create an East-West divide but will prevent Mr. Putin from doing so. His actions, in Ukraine and elsewhere, point toward the establishment of a new bloc of non-democratic countries controlled by the Kremlin that would sharply contrast with the neighboring European Union.
The Bush administration has been admirably frank and forceful this week in denouncing the fraud in Ukraine and in making clear to Ukrainians that it is on their side. In the coming days it must drive home the message to Mr. Yanukovych that he will be a pariah in Washington -- notwithstanding his cynical offer to extend the deployment of Ukrainian troops in Iraq -- if he accepts his illegitimate mandate, and that he and all of his governmental and business allies will be held personally responsible for any violence against the opposition. At the same time, President Bush needs to accept that U.S. hopes of cooperation with Russia, in the Middle East or elsewhere, cannot be insulated from Mr. Putin's anti-democratic imperialism in Eastern Europe. The West must take a clear stand against that policy, before it is too late to prevent a redivision of the continent.