Sunday, September 5, 2004:  Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko met and dined with that country's intelligence chief, General Ihor Smeshko. He came to ask the general and his forces to stay out of the October 31 election. When Mr. Yushchenko returned home, his wife says she smelled something odd on his breath.

The next day, the candidate turned deathly ill. Soon his face discolored and aged incredibly. Suspicions of a deliberate poisoning arose, which also triggered speculation as to who might be responsible. Some wondered if it was Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma's government, which favored Mr. Yushenko's pro-Russian opponent, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. Others thought Russia might have been involved.

When doctors in Vienna announced that the poison dioxin was found in Mr. Yushchenko's system, the candidate's chief of staff, Oleh Rybachuk, asserted that sophisticated hands were at work. "It was done by professionals who knew very well that it would be almost impossible to prove it," he says. The doctors' dioxin verdict has revived probes by both Ukraine's prosecutor general and parliament into who might be responsible. Speculation has become a significant element in the next runoff election on December 26. Victor Yushenko adamantly says it was an opponent, but won't name whom.

When Ukrainians cast their most recent ballots in November, Prime Minister Yanukovych was declared the winner over Mr. Yushchenko. While Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Mr. Yanukovych on his victory, the United States, the European Union and others in the west refused to accept the results. They charge there were suspiciously high turnout levels and intimidation of election monitors in pro-Russian areas along with other irregularities. The Ukrainian government dismissed those accusations as baseless.

Ukraine's location gives it geopolitical importance to both east and west. The European Union and NATO want Ukraine to be a democratic nation, posing no threat to neighboring Poland which belongs to both. Russia has historically considered Ukraine to be in its sphere of influence and a buffer state on its border. Charles Gati at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies says Ukraine internally reflects its outside influences. "It is a divided country," he says. "In the Donetsk basin near the Russian border, there are many Russian-speaking and indeed pro-Russian people. The further west you go, closer toward Europe, everything is far more European."

Because of Ukraine's value to both east and west, outsiders became directly involved in its presidential campaign. Western non-governmental organizations such as George Soros' Open Society Institute, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace sent money and people to Ukraine to assist opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko. Vladimir Putin came to Ukraine to campaign directly on behalf of Viktor Yanukovych and also poured in cash and people to bolster the effort.

While the west decried Vladimir Putin's involvement, George Washington University's Taras Kuzio explains why the Russian president had no second thoughts. "He sees his involvement or Russia's involvement in the elections as being absolutely normal because Ukrainians are not really separate people," adding "They are close to Russians. They are de-facto basically Russians."

But Rand Corporation analyst Olga Oliker says the Russian leader's actions in Ukraine cannot be justified because of history or proximity.  "There was clear interference by Russia. I don't know of many cases where actual campaigning by the president of one country for a candidate for the presidency of another cannot be viewed as interference. "

Moscow countered western complaints by strongly criticizing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitored Ukraine's election proceedings. That caused some observers to voice concerns that Ukraine is creating a new divide between Moscow and Washington. Elizabeth Sherwood Randall at the Council on Foreign Relations says both sides should keep important common goals in sight. "The United States and Russia share a long agenda of issues. Ukraine should not become the issue over which U.S. - Russian relations founder," she says.  She cites as one example the cooperation that made possible the nuclear disarmament of Ukraine after it became independent.

In what some see as a sign of conciliation, NATO and Moscow have stated jointly the December 26 runoff election must be free, transparent and without outside interference. Many eyes will be watching to see if that indeed happens.