Imagine an election in Mexico that produces a president favourable to the United States, as elections there have done for 70 years now. But this time international observers, God forbid, detect electoral abuse. Vladimir Putin demands a recount, a rerun. Consider the outcry in the US. Unthinkable? Not really. Has there ever been a really fraud-free election in Mexico?
Now consider Ukraine. For 70 years it was an intrinsic part of the Soviet Union and for centuries before that Kiev was inseparably twinned with Moscow. In 1991 it made its dash for independence. In doing so it shattered the assumptions on which the old Soviet economy and Soviet defence were built. Moscow and Kiev then tried laboriously to divide the old Soviet Union's assets between them. Over such difficult issues as nuclear weapons and the Soviet Black Sea fleet they found solutions the world approved. Their economic problems that remain can be solved only if they work together. So if any outsider has a legitimate interest in the outcome of the Ukrainian elections, President Putin does.
But was not Putin trying to prop up an unconscionable dictator? Maybe, but it is naive to think that the election was a clear clash of baddies and goodies. No one disputes that the election was at the very least deeply flawed. But it is childishness to imagine that all the abuse was on one side. Yulia Tymoshenko, for example, whom we saw on TV preaching democracy beside Viktor Yushchenko, made herself a billionaire from nothing in 10 years. The fruit of honest enterprise alone? It seems unlikely. A truly convinced democrat? Perhaps.
All the same, the Ukrainians invited in observers who have condemned the outcome of the election in forthright terms. The next move is the Ukrainians'. But for the West to go eyeball to eyeball with Putin over the outcome merely complicates Ukraine's domestic problems and takes East-West relations back a dangerous step to the bad old days. By all means tell Putin privately to keep his nose out of Ukrainian affairs - and keep our own out too.
While we are about it, we might make an effort to see Ukraine and the world through Putin's eyes. His job is to make Russia rich and strong. To do so he needs neighbours who want to co-operate with him. But in the past five years he has seen most of eastern Europe absorbed into the European Union and Nato. Fifteen years ago the Russians had an army on the Elbe. Now Nato's reach extends to within 100 miles of St Petersburg. Must Putin now ask proud Russians to accept that Ukraine too should go down that path: new elections this year, then Nato bases, then European Union membership by 2020?
For that is the road Ukraine will take if the electoral result is reversed. A new regime in Ukraine brought into power by the Western support and pressure we have seen would be bound to seek EU and Nato membership. Having intervened so egregiously in Ukrainian affairs, the West would be hard put to say no. Yet Moscow could see Nato bases in Ukraine only as a mortal threat to Russia. And with Ukraine as an EU member, Putin would see the end of his last hope of building an economic community out of the ruins of the Soviet Union.
Look at all this, lastly, in terms of western Europe's interests. Do we really want to see the EU take in 50 million Ukrainians as well as 70 million Turks? Do we want a union so disparate that it can never make itself effective as a political voice in tomorrow's world? Do we, for that matter, want an EU facing an implacably hostile Russia, hostile to us because we have so recklessly forced our way into Russia's back yard? American neo-cons may want that, but we should not.
It is time for Britain and for western Europe to get real. For too long now we have gone along with the idea that spreading democracy on our terms is all good. Where there is a real demand for it, we should do what we can to help; but democracy that grows out of the barrels of Western guns will not endure. And we have to factor in other, more old-fashioned considerations too - the need for stability in international relations, for one, the stability that comes from respecting your opponent's interests as well as your own. Acceptance of diversity, for another, of the fact that the whole world does not want to be emptied into an Anglo-Saxon mould. Acceptance, finally, of the reality that in the long run only home-grown solutions to ancient political and social problems will stick.
Peter Unwin was British ambassador to Hungary in the mid-1980s, and is the author of 'Baltic Approaches and Where East Met West'
© 2004 Independent Newspapers, Ltd.