Last week, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution demanding the immediate release of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and calling for sanctions against officials responsible for her imprisonment. Some Senators had sought even harsher penalties – freezing NATO-Ukraine cooperation, recalling the U.S. ambassador, and boycotting Ukraine’s 2013 OSCE Chairmanship – yet the resolution ignored the bigger picture of U.S. relations with Ukraine, an important country of nearly 50 million at the crossroads of Europe and Eurasia.

Matthew Rojansky
Rojansky, formerly executive director of the Partnership for a Secure America, is an expert on U.S. and Russian national security and nuclear-weapon policies.
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The Tymoshenko case has imposed a kind of foreign policy myopia on many in Washington that does not serve U.S. national interests. Americans benefit greatly from security cooperation and economic engagement with Ukraine, and the success of ongoing reforms and free and fair parliamentary elections in October will determine the shape of U.S.-Ukraine ties for years to come. With so much at stake, it is important to recall a few guiding principles for effective U.S. policy towards Ukraine.

No policy will succeed without a baseline level of trust between officials in Washington and Kiev. To secure and sustain that trust requires consistency, including on sensitive political issues. It is therefore essential that as U.S. officials underscore the need for Ukraine’s upcoming elections to meet the highest international standards of freedom and fairness, they match their rhetoric to reality during and after the election. An oft heard complaint from Kiev is that Washington “moves the goalposts” on Ukraine’s democracy – that Ukraine delivers on specific requests for transparency or reform only to discover that Washington now wants something more or different altogether.

This goes as much for the wider community of U.S. and European election observers, whose initial reports and statements seem already to lay the groundwork for post-election criticism, while providing few specific, actionable recommendations to improve the situation while it is still possible to do so. It might be expedient for observers to preserve some wiggle room for addressing credible post-election challenges, but anything short of a clear conclusion based on widely recognized standards and concrete evidence will deepen an already acute persecution complex on the part of Ukraine’s leadership. The bottom line is that to instill and preserve trust between Washington and Kiev, Americans must make clear in every possible way that they care about the process and conduct of the elections, not merely the result.

Foreign policy is a delicate art, and steps that foreclose options or limit the U.S. toolkit will have the effect of weakening U.S. influence in Ukraine over the long term. The trials and incarceration of Ukraine’s opposition leaders are deeply disturbing, and have no place in a modern European democracy. Yet if Washington responds to Kiev’s intransigence on this issue with ever harsher coercive measures, including the sanctions some senators have demanded, there is a very real chance that we will lose Ukraine. Let us be clear: Ukraine will not simply fall prey to Russia’s machinations, like some helpless pawn, but rather, if faced with a single stark a choice from the West – toe Europe and America’s line or be isolated from them – Ukrainians may simply cease paying attention. In a post-Soviet society already plagued by apathy and distrust, Ukrainians can ill afford to lose hope that patience and engagement can yield progress.

Economics 101 defines the problem of scarcity as unlimited wants with limited resources, and, to paraphrase George Shultz, the laws of economics apply as much in foreign policy as they do at home. While it may be rhetorically satisfying and politically convenient for Americans to assert an equal commitment to every priority in Ukraine, ranging from democratic development to removal of weapons-grade uranium, the reality is that some priorities are achievable, at an acceptable cost and within a realistic timeframe, while others are not.

If we cannot advance all of our values and all of our interests all of the time, then we are left with the necessity of ranking our national priorities. While it is clearly important that Ukraine put an end to politically motivated prosecutions, it bears asking whether resources and attention from Washington that have been focused exclusively on this issue are crowding out other compelling U.S. national interests. Ukrainian officials have responded positively to encouragement from U.S. and E.U. leadership to stay the course on free and fair elections, and new guarantees are now in place. Kiev has also undertaken an ambitious regulatory reform process that could ease the burden of taxes, red tape, and corruption, but U.S. investments in Ukraine worth over a billion dollars are still highly vulnerable. Finally, Ukraine has a critical role to play in assuring European energy security, combating trafficking and cyber crime, and resolving protracted post-Soviet conflicts, especially as the incoming Chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2013. Progress in any of these areas is arguably more central to U.S. national interests than the ongoing fight over Tymoshenko, despite the disproportionate level of attention it receives.

Above all, strategic patience is a vital concept for U.S. foreign policy in general, and for relations with Ukraine in particular. Ukraine is barely 20 years-old as an independent state within its current borders. The country suffers from ethnic, linguistic and regional fragmentation, exacerbated by the push and pull of powerful external actors. Ukraine’s adolescent democracy is fragile, and politicians of every stripe perpetuate many of the worst practices of the Soviet and post-Soviet eras. It will take time and patience for Ukrainians themselves to overcome such severe impediments, but that is the only path forward, even if it means curbing the ambitions of U.S. policy for the time being.

This article was originally published by CNN.