Worldview: What Ukraine crisis can mean to America

Thousands of bouquets have been piled up under a footbridge in Kiev, Ukraine, in memory of those killed in recent clashes between protesters and government troops.
Thousands of bouquets have been piled up under a footbridge in Kiev, Ukraine, in memory of those killed in recent clashes between protesters and government troops. (DAVID AZIA / AP)
Posted: March 10, 2014

Last week, I wrote that the Ukraine crisis did not mean the return of the Cold War. Since then, I've received e-mails from readers confused about what it does mean and why it should matter to Americans.

Their confusion is warranted. The Ukraine crisis is far more complex than a simple matter of East vs. West or Obama vs. Putin. So here are some answers to a few of the queries I've received.

If the Cold War is over - meaning the end of an existential and global conflict between two superpowers armed with nukes - why should the United States involve itself with Ukraine? Why not leave it to Europe?

Moscow's invasion of a sovereign country with historical ties to the West (as well as to Russia) unsettles Europe, especially those countries once under Kremlin control. Vladimir Putin can't militarily threaten NATO members, nor is he likely to. But Europe and the United States together need to signal clearly that what he's done is unacceptable, and to ensure that the Russian leader doesn't move troops into areas of Ukraine beyond Crimea.

Isn't there an element of hypocrisy in denouncing an unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine, given that the United States invaded Iraq on a false pretense?

Putin claims so, but if he really thinks the U.S. invasion of Iraq was wrong, why is he invading another sovereign country? That's real hypocrisy.

The more appropriate historical parallel is Kosovo, the former province of Serbia populated mainly by ethnic Albanians, which declared its independence from Serbia in 2008 despite opposition from the government in Belgrade. The United States and most of the European Union recognized Kosovo's independence. This undercuts arguments against accepting the wishes of the Russian ethnic majority in Crimea should it vote to secede from Ukraine.

Does Putin have any legitimate reason for his actions in Ukraine?

Yes and no. Ukraine lies on the East-West divide: Its western territory, once part of Poland, was incorporated into the Soviet Union only in 1939 and looks to Europe. But Russia has deep historical and religious ties to the rest of Ukraine, where Moscow ruled for centuries, and Putin wants the country to be part of a new Eurasian alliance. More to the point, Russia has a long-term treaty allowing its naval fleet to be based in Sevastopol, Crimea. Putin clearly fears the West might encourage Ukraine to abrogate Russia's basing rights or even invite Ukraine to join NATO (a bad idea).

However, it is not legitimate to use force, dire economic pressure, or even murder to keep a country in Russia's orbit. I recall a 2005 interview with then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, his face scarred with pockmarks caused by an attempt to poison him by putting dioxin in his food. He was certain the orders had come from Moscow. Legitimate behavior? I think not.

Do Ukrainians themselves bear any blame for the current mess?

Certainly the Ukrainian elite does. Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution, in which massive street protests overturned a rigged election and deposed a pro-Russia candidate, was hailed by the West as a triumph for democracy. It propelled Yushchenko into the presidency. In 2005, he spoke to me of his plans to establish rule of law and crack down on sickening corruption.

Yet within a few years, he and the Orange Revolution had been discredited by continuing corruption and failure to reform the economy. In 2010, Yushchenko was defeated in a fair election by Viktor Yanukovych, the same pro-Russian president protesters ousted in 2004.

Now demonstrators in Kiev have in turn deposed Yanukovych a second time. But this will make little difference if more corrupt opposition leaders take power.

So what is the way out of this crisis?

The only way out is compromise. Ukraine sits on a fault line between historical Russia and Europe, and Putin, no matter how obnoxious, can't be ignored.

There's probably no way to prevent Crimea from going its own way if a pro-Russian majority and Putin so desire. Washington and the European Union should not promise more than they can deliver or make threats they can't fulfill.

Better to talk behind the scenes with Putin, drawing the line on any further Russian military incursions and ensuring free Ukrainian elections. If Putin resists, targeted sanctions against key Russian officials and businessmen should be expanded.

Meanwhile, the West should provide a new Ukrainian government with aid and loans, contingent on the ouster of corrupt politicians. Aid should also depend on a guarantee that a new government in Kiev will protect the language rights of Russian-speaking citizens (a right that the opposition foolishly tried to nullify last month).

Then the West should play a long game, solidifying NATO and decreasing European reliance on gas and dirty money from Russia. In the long run, Putin's tactics will fail - they're already dragging Russia down - but in the short term, Europe should keep its guard up. This formula should be one that Republicans and Democrats can agree on.

Did Obama lose Ukraine?

Ukraine isn't lost, nor do its troubles foreshadow a Russian invasion of Europe. (Those who want to critique Obama's foreign policy weakness should focus on the Syrian crisis, which is more strategically important.) The real danger is that partisan politics and Cold War rhetoric may blow this conflict up into something much bigger than it is.


trubin@phillynews.com

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