The crisis in Ukraine is entering a dangerous phase of escalation. The government seems to be losing any vestige of legitimacy and is buckling under pressure from street demonstrations sprouting not just in the capital, Kiev, but in other cities and regions as well — including some in Eastern Ukraine, a region normally closer in mind and spirit to the current government and to neighboring Russia.
Meanwhile, Western countries are doing little more that voicing concern and pleading for restraint as Ukraine burns. There is a real possibility of a major bloodbath if protestors occupying government buildings refuse to leave and the military moves to forcibly evict them.
Up to now, the Ukraine military has been sitting on the sidelines. But in an ominous development on Friday, the Ukraine Ministry of Defense issued a statement censuring the protestors. It has been reported also that military officers have been asked to formally pledge their support for President Yanukovich or resign. Russian president Vladimir Putin has made no secret of the fact that he want Yanukovich to take forceful action to quell the protest and regain control.
Right now, the crisis is in a lull. President Yanukovich has taken medical leave, ostensibly for a respiratory element; he’s said to be ready to return to work. The Russians, already beleaguered by security threats to the Olymipic games in Sochi, are less likely to act provocatively (or thuggishly) in Ukraine. Putin also wants the focus during the next two weeks to be on the games, not Ukraine.
However, after the Olympics there will be less need for restraint from Moscow. The Opposition obviously knows that their opportunity for maximum leverage is in the run-up to Sochi.
Western sympathies are clearly with the opposition forces, or at least with some of them, but there is little appetite for direct engagement. Of the Europeans, the Germans have the greatest capacity for influence and the biggest stake in a stable outcome. They also have major interests with Russia that they are unwilling to jeopardize, however, and they’re especially anxious to keep Russian gas flowing during a harsh winter. Chancellor Merkel and her fellow European leaders employ rhetoric, without appreciable effect.
The United States also appears to be content once again to lead from behind. Secretary of State Kerry is too busy trying to keep the Russians onside in stalled negotiations on Syria and Iran to put pressure on Moscow over Ukraine. But now is certainly not a time for more illusory red lines.
Ukraine has a sad history of being a pawn in a much broader geopolitical chess game — squeezed between East and West because by its geography, suffering from the push and pull of great powers. For decades, Ukraine was the breadbasket of central Europe but subject more to plunder than prosperity by neighbours on both sides.
Today, its economy is a shambles, undermined by corruption at all levels and by erratic government policies that cripple development. In fact, many suggest that the real cause of protests by ordinary Ukrainians is anger over chronic political and economic corruption, as well as outrage over grotesque police brutality. What Ukrainians want most is elementary decency and honesty in public life.
The Russians are playing Ukraine for keeps. They have tangible assets to offer Ukraine — cheap loans and discounted gas — and they’re using them. Ukraine is the centerpiece in Putin’s strategic design to re-consolidate for Russia a sphere of influence that approximates that of the former Soviet Union — and to constrain any expansion from the West.
The West may have the hearts of most Ukrainians on its side, but sentiment carries little weight in any power crunch. Efforts to draw Ukraine into the EU and NATO are essentially in limbo.
Canada’s sympathies and those of the more than one million Ukrainian-Canadians clearly lie with those elements of the opposition who seek basic democratic values and a government founded on the rule of law. Statements by Prime Minister Harper and Foreign Minister Baird echo those sentiments and those fundamental principles.
However, as we and our Western allies look for a peaceful, negotiated resolution to this crisis we should not hesitate to bring the full measure of diplomatic and economic pressure to bear, in spite of Russia’s strong objections to such intervention. That includes — as urged recently by Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt — the threat to levy sanctions against Ukraine’s oligarchs who, like their Russian counterparts, have massive holdings abroad.
Putin should also be warned by his fellow G8 members that if he blots his copybook on Ukraine it would have dire consequences for Russia’s membership in the world’s leading forum.
The short-term odds lie with Ukraine’s opposition and the hope that maximum pressure will lead to early elections and a clear choice for the Ukrainian people. Unless that happens, the longer-term prospects are bleak.
The Ukrainian people have suffered far more than their share of strife, uncertainty, violence and deprivation. This is clearly no time for the West to be weak or irresolute. The result, meanwhile, will depend on what Ukrainians themselves choose to do — provided Russia can be kept at bay.