I think the Bush administration went about this just about right. I called someone I knew in the US on that Tuesday after the election and told him I thought Bush would ignore Ukraine in favor of protecting his relationship with Russia. On that very day, though, Powell came out with a strong statement on Ukraine that ticked off the Kremlin. That Bush later looked to be more conciliatory was just the good cop bad cop routine. Powell gave them the tough talk but Bush took a softer tone to keep the communication open and to allow them to deal.
Some wanted Bush to come out harder on Putin. I don't think that would have served American interests in the end. Sure it would have warned Russia off and prevented the meddling, but it would also have ruined any potential with a signficant ally in the war on terrorism. And the war on terrorism still remains crucial. We don't talk about it a lot but the rise of fundamentalist Islam in Central Asia is a real problem. The Taliban was only one part of it. Putin's cooperation in his own backyard is going to be needed to confront it.
Some think that we risked too much by the response of the administration. Our relationship with Russia is more important than our relationship with Ukraine, they say. That is the post war view of some conservatives. (It was also the pre-war view of some conservatives. The war is over there and it doesn't affect us anyway. It is not in our interests. Besides the German's have a point.) We construe our interests narrowly, mostly down to self-preservation, and deal with anybody who can help us guarantee it. And that has put us in league with some not so savory people over the years. It also suffers from the fact that it is not a particularly moral foreign policy. The neo-cons have taken a lot of hits recently over Iraq, but whatever you say about their point of view, the one thing that can be said about it is that it is a more moral position than what we have had before.
Did the US have an interest in Ukraine? A lot of people have said yes and that is the position of the Russian elite. But what could it have been? Enticing Ukraine out of the Russian orbit? What does that get us in the end that placating Russia wouldn't serve better? Markets for our goods? Russia is larger. A new country for foreign investment? Russia is better for that and the country is awash in money right now from oil. [No blood for] Oil? There is some here but it's a trickle compared to Russia's vast reserves. The war on terror? The Russians could contribute more. Besides, the Ukrainian opposition campaigned on pulling out the troops from Iraq. The Russians are just Russian and we need to defeat them wherever they are? This is the Cold War thinking that some are saying the US used to justify it. And it is the way the Kremlin views it. But it is not very realistic and agitates against what Bush has seen as his one foreign policy priority: terrorism.
What did we get from acting as we did that was of more value to us than what we risked by alienating the Russians? I can't think of a thing except that it was the right thing to do.
As it is, the Bush Administration may have caused a rupture anyway by acting as it did. The talk coming out of the Kremlin and Putin these days might suggest that. We'll just have to see.
But I think they did just fine in the face of what was risked. And I think they did the right thing.