However Ukraine’s crisis is resolved, it is clear that interference by Russia and the United States has been massive. Viktor Yanukovich, the current Prime Minister, was Moscow’s favorite. Viktor Yushchenko, a former chairman of the Central Bank, was Washington’s. In this long-range competition Moscow’s partisanship was the more blatant and clumsy, highlighted by Vladimir Putin’s two visits to Ukraine to appear alongside Yanukovich and publicly endorse him. Russian state-controlled TV, which can be seen in large areas of Ukraine, has also done what it can to influence voters with the same one-sided coverage it serves up in Russia’s elections.
By contrast, US interference has been subtle and sophisticated, but the degree of American involvement appears to be more comprehensive than anything emanating from Moscow. And it has had minimal coverage in the largely partisan picture the Western media have painted of the Ukrainian crisis.
US funding has ranged from bankrolling opposition websites and radio stations to paying for the exit polls, which play a powerful role in mobilizing street protesters. It follows a template used four times in the past four years. The overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade in 2000 and of Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia in 2003 were US successes. A similar effort to topple Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus in 2001 failed. So too did the campaign against Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe in 2002.
The pattern is that US diplomats orchestrate a campaign of financial help and marketing advice to civil groups, which is described as nonpartisan although in practice it is only put at the service of one side. Using consultants and poll experts, they explain how to choose catchy slogans and punchy logos and organize street comedy and rock concerts to create attractive grassroots campaigns to mobilize young people. Exit polls are a crucial tool. By getting their data on the table as soon as voting ends and being widely disseminated in the opposition media, they create an alleged truth against which the official results are measured. Any divergence of the official count is seen as proof that fraud is under way. Crowds pour into the streets, ready to block public buildings and engage in civil disobedience. This in turn puts the police and security forces under pressure, with the aim (successful in Belgrade and Tbilisi) of getting individual policemen and then whole units to mutiny against their commanders and switch sides. It can also have an intimidating effect on the Parliament and the courts, when they are asked to find compromises or adjudicate, as in Kiev.
America’s first effort of this kind in modern times was in Asia–in 1986 in the Philippines when dictator Ferdinand Marcos tried to rig what turned out to be his last election. Senator Richard Lugar, who has been active as an observer in Ukraine, cut his foreign electoral teeth as head of the US observer team in Manila in 1986. When Marcos cheated, crowds came into the streets, eventually prompting two key army commanders to break ranks and join the protesters. One of them, Gen. Fidel Ramos, was later elected to the presidency.
So it was no surprise that after the cold war the United States would dust off the template and refine it for post-Communist conditions, taking advantage of the new democratic space and bringing it up to date with the use of imaginative marketing, the burgeoning of websites and exit polling. As my colleague Ian Traynor recently reported in the Guardian, the same actors have sometimes played in more than one production. Richard Miles, the US ambassador in Belgrade during the election protests in 2000, moved on to Georgia, where he coached Mikhail Saakashvili in how to topple Shevardnadze. Michael Kozak, the US ambassador in Belarus in 2001, was a veteran of US operations in Central America.