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Ukraine held its presidential elections on Sunday in the conditions of an undeclared but very active war in its eastern region initiated by Russia through its proxies. Displaying the same sense of organization, calm and resilience that they brought to ousting Viktor Yanukovych's corrupt regime in February, Ukrainians elected Petro Poroshenko, who was the best choice among all the candidates, considering the challenges of the moment.
I've known President-elect Poroshenko since the years in the late 1980s when we studied international relations together at Kiev University. He was a brilliant student and started businesses while still in school. Among his ventures, he ran a video salon in the student dorm, which during the early years of perestroika reform in the former Soviet Union was the students' only exposure to Western movies and culture.
After Ukraine became independent in 1991, Mr. Poroshenko started his business life in earnest and became quite wealthy in the years that followed. But unlike other Ukrainian oligarchs—who never really considered Mr. Poroshenko to be one of their own—he couldn't gain access to the Ukrainian economy's cash machines, such as natural resources and the steel industry. As a result, his main business is a string of chocolate factories. They have turned out to be highly vulnerable to a Russian embargo on Ukrainian goods enacted over the winter. The embargo seems to have been be intentionally targeted at Mr. Poroshenko after he took an active role in the pro-Europe, pro-democracy protests in Kiev that brought down the Yanukovych regime.
Though his business acumen may help him to revive Ukraine's struggling economy, Mr. Poroshenko seems to be the best qualified for the presidency because of his government experience. He was a brilliant foreign minister during the Orange Revolution government that was formed after the disputed elections of 2004, and he held a number of other key positions. Remarkably, he is the first Ukrainian president since independence to be fluent in English.
Mr. Poroshenko will need to use all of his skills now. No matter what Russian President Vladimir Putin might say to mislead the West, he will not easily let go of Ukraine. His militias are in control of large areas in the east, and he is continuing a military buildup in the annexed Crimea. This creates an infrastructure for further undermining the new government in Kiev. As president, Mr. Poroshenko, in addition to dealing with the daunting task of fixing Ukraine's economy, will have to contain the Russians and push through the legislature painful but necessary reforms. The only recipe for success is ending the crippling corruption that plagues Ukraine.
He can deal with Russia only with Western help. What we have observed recently is a major international discrepancy: Russia is weak, but it has a strong will to pursue adventurist policies. The West is much stronger but cannot agree on a unified response, and thereby is projecting weakness. Mr. Putin knows he is vulnerable, and that makes him even more willing to exploit to the max his window of opportunity. The West knows well what Mr. Putin's vulnerabilities are, but the European Union and the U.S. have been unwilling to endure even a minimum of pain to exploit them.
Now the West has another chance—it has as a partner a legitimate president in Ukraine who is clearly pro-Western but is moderate by all accounts. He will not seek conflict, but has a clear obligation, as well as an electoral mandate, to save Ukrainian statehood. Ukrainians have shown their commitment to Western values on a number of dramatic occasions in the past decade. Many of them have died and continue to die for their choice: making Ukraine a Western-style democracy aligned with Europe. On Sunday, the nation again stood united in its determination to build a new future as a free country.
The West will have to act in any case; the issue will not disappear by itself. The later the action comes, the higher the price that will be paid. Moscow should be put on notice that further subversion of Ukrainian democracy will result in the blocking of Mr. Putin's cash machine by targeted sanctions on the Russian oil and gas sector, and that a Russian failure to engage constructively with the new Ukrainian leadership will mean stepped-up Western efforts to undermine Mr. Putin's own grip on power.
—Mr. Saakashvili, a senior statesman at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, was president of Georgia from 2004-13.