The dramatic victory of Leonid Kuchma over his Communist Party opponent in the Nov. 14th presidential election in Ukraine has provoked a flood of Western press criticism and very little appreciation of the strategic significance of the outcome.

Independent international poll watchers confirm that 80 percent of eligible voters participated and not one of them contends that campaign irregularities would have changed the outcome. The results were a decided victory for Western ideals and should be heartening to Western policy-makers, including President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, who will be meeting with Kuchma when he visits Washington this week.Despite nine years of a steadily declining standard of living, the Ukrainian people went to the polls, rejected Communist appeals to return to the Soviet society and reunite with Russia and Stalinist Belarus, and restated their desire to become an integral part of the European community.

To its credit, U.S. business, although frustrated by residual Soviet-style bureaucracy, nationalistic protectionism, and corruption, has remained steadfast in its commitment to Ukraine and is ready to help the nation realize its vast economic potential.

An independent, free-market Ukraine could easily be a shining model among the nations that suffered under the Soviet yoke. Its population of 52 million is 98 percent literate. Its work force is highly trained, hard-working and quickto adopt to information age technology.

Long-known as the ''bread basket of Europe,'' Ukraine has millions of acres of the world's richest soil. Yet the road ahead is not an easy one. President Kuchma must be more aggressive now in pushing much-needed reforms through a recalcitrant left-leaning legislature, including such essentials as privatization of industry, private ownership of farm lands and elimination of government agencies that exercise iron-clad control over harvests.

Kuchma's post-election public statement admitting that reforms have stalled and declaring his intent to move urgently to ignite free-market development sent exactly the right message to the West. A prosperous, democratic Ukraine should be an essential piece of our overall policy toward Russia, Belarus and other nations that may be tempted to return to a ''dictatorship of the proletariat.''

Many observers focus on Ukraine's $3.1 billion dollar debt to the International Monetary Fund, which comes due in the first quarter of 2000 and the IMF's demands for accelerated transparent privatization.

In fact, the $3.1 billion debt is the strongest possible incentive to brush aside obstructionists and move to privatize major valuable assets like the telecommunications monopoly Ukrtel - which reportedly would produce $3 billion by itself.

Most criticism of the election has concentrated on abuse of television access, harassment of local government employees and campaign finance corruption. Deplorable though such things are, they are hardly unknown in the United States or Europe. Nor do they obviate the importance of the electorate's choice. Had voters chosen Petro Symonenko's Communist path of renationalization, confiscation, and full ''partnership'' with Moscow and Minsk (the capital of Belarus), Western investors would have written off Ukraine.

Ukrainian voters and President Kuchma have reaffirmed their commitment to political and economic freedom. The United States and the European Union should embrace that commitment.