Worldview: On Ukraine, stay calm

Posted: March 14, 2014

It will take cool heads to deal with Vladimir Putin after he dismembers Ukraine. And that moment is coming soon.

Even as President Obama welcomed the acting prime minister of Ukraine, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, to the White House, the Russian leader advanced toward annexation of Crimea. Putin continues to deny what the whole world sees - that Russian troops have invaded Crimea - while hinting that he might send forces into eastern Ukraine to "protect" ethnic Russians.

It's time for Obama and European leaders to look beyond Crimea to how they can prevent Putin from making even more dangerous moves.

Of course, the situation in Crimea remains extremely troubling. On Sunday, under the "protective" eyes of Russian troops, Crimeans will vote on whether they want to become independent and join up with Russia. Even though Russians are 60 percent of Crimea's population and the region has historic ties to Russia, only a minority of its people want to unite with Moscow, according to recent polls.

But Moscow's minions will guarantee the outcome of Sunday's vote.

Moreover, despite any legitimate gripes Putin may have with the West, the invasion of Crimea is blatantly illegal. In 1994, Russian, U.S., and European leaders pledged to respect Ukraine's borders in return for that country's surrendering its nuclear weapons. Moreover, the 1997 agreement with Ukraine that permits its ships to base in Crimea requires the approval of the Kiev government for any Russian troops to operate outside the port city of Sevastopol. Clearly that accord has been breached.

Still, the consequences of losing Crimea - which only became part of Ukraine in 1954 - pale beside what would happen if Russia invades mainland Ukraine. The Crimean takeover has seen little violence, but a Russian invasion of the Ukrainian mainland would be bloody and shake all of Ukraine's neighbors. It would blow a manageable crisis up into a military threat that could destabilize Europe.

So the West's response to Putin's landgrab must be firm enough to prevent him from making such a mistake.

Economic sanctions and visa restrictions on Russian officials are already on the table. There will be costs to Western businesses with investments in Russia, much more onerous to Europeans, with their heavy energy links to Moscow. But without sanctions, Putin may think he has a green light in Ukraine.

Beyond sanctions, Washington and the European Union also must make a firm commitment to help Ukraine's bankrupt economy recover. This will be painful, since Ukraine has developed a corrupt, oligarch-ridden economy dependent on Russian gas.

U.S. and EU officials must also press Ukrainians to reassure ethnic Russians that they have a future in Ukraine. One of Putin's strongest cards (besides force) in stirring up trouble in Ukraine is to persuade ethnic Russians that Ukrainian "fascists" threaten their future. That distorted message is spewed nonstop by Russian TV, and is the excuse Putin might use to invade eastern Ukraine.

The months-long popular revolt that led to the downfall of President Viktor Yanukovych was fueled by widespread revulsion at corruption and comprised members of every ethnic group from across the political spectrum. But, toward the end, right-wing nationalist groups played a larger role than during previous months in the protests.

In Ukraine's transitional government, Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Sych is a member of the nationalist Svoboda party. Its leader Oleh Tyahnybok famously argued, in a 2004 speech, that a "Moscow-Jewish mafia" was ruling Ukraine.

Several other interim ministers are current or former members of Svoboda, and the deputy secretary of national security, Dmytro Yarosh, is the leader of Right Sector, a group even more nationalist than Svoboda. Such groups glorify Stepan Bandera, a nationalist who battled Soviet domination during and after World War II, but is also accused of collaborating with the Nazis and killing Poles and Jews.

With Crimea lost and Putin threatening the Ukrainian mainland, far-right groups may gain traction. Already, Ukraine's transitional government briefly tried to drop Russian as one of Ukraine's official languages, before reversing course.

Any policies that make Russian citizens feel threatened will play into Putin's game plan. Western governments should strongly advise their Ukrainian counterparts to avoid such mistakes. Yatsenyuk did just that in Washington, insisting that close ties with Europe would not rule out friendship with Russia.

"We will preserve the rights of all minorities," he added.

Still, says Columbia University professor Tarik Cyril Amar, "There should be conditionality on Western aid. They should insist that far-right tendencies be kept in check. This would be doing Ukraine a great favor."

Putin will try his best to terrify Ukraine's ethnic Russians into begging for Russian help. Ukraine must deprive him of that possibility - with Western help.


trubin@phillynews.com

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