Saturday, March 1, 2014

Saving What's Left of Ukraine

AP image. Crimea, Russia. Above, CNN map of Ukraine,
showing Crimean penisula and its strategic location on Black Sea. 

I'm thinking like a Ukrainian, pessimistic and dark. I'm feeling like a Cassandra, predicting the fate of Crimea as Russia occupied and took it over, just like that. All the words seem empty. All the rhetoric and platitudes. Of course the Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine, where I served as a PCV, are being whipped up against efforts to form a new unity government in Kyiv. Sure Russia moved into Crimea,with stealth. might and efficiency. Sure the Russian parliament unanimously gave Putin the okay to use military force,the military intervention already well underway. Crimea is gone, without a shot being fired.

So what if this aggression and occupation is absolutely, clearly against international law and all international agreements? Putin doesn't care.  But we should.

"So what do you want the US to do, Fran.  Send in the troops?"

No. But anything short of that will be good.  The president said there would be "costs" if Russia militarily intervenes in Ukraine. Okay. That's happened (even as he spoke). What are the "costs?" Economic sanctions against Russia? Trade restrictions? A financial package for Ukraine?  An international economic plan? Mobilization of public and private organizations to put pressure on and isolate Russia and strengthen the infrastructure of Ukraine?

I understand the "wait and see" policy.  I understand the reluctance to get involved early as the crisis unfolded in Kyiv, forcing Yanukovich out. Some of us with close ties to Ukraine could see what was happening.  We knew about the grassroots frustrations.  Social media lit up; emails flew back and forth. Still, Ukraine is not a priority in US foreign policy. Economics has always drivern our foreign policy, as William Appleman WIlliams taught, and Ukraine has not been important to us in that way. So the Obama administration watched as the repression and violence escalated without much comment or apparent public interest, without warning about the consequences.

The consequences are upon us.  The Obama administration needs to spell out the strategic importance of Ukraine in the world, to the US and Europe, build the case for support, "galvanize the international comunity," as one CNN reporter put it. Christiane Amenpour expressed outrage at Russia's violation of Ukraine's borders. European nations especially, she noted, should be on top of this; Ukraine is on their doorsteps and many of them get their oil and gas from Russia via pipelines running through Ukraine, which is being squeezed with higher prices. Deliberately squeezed. This is one of Russia's most powerful leverages against Ukraine. Russia does not hesitate to use it.

So any sanctions the western nations and international organizations impose on Russia have to hurt and the economic intervention in Ukraine has to be strong and strategic, designed to help the Ukrainian people without burdening them too much more than they are now.  Obama has been measured but he did note that the Ukrainians have a right to self-determination and to shape their own future, without fear of foreign intervention. Alas, it seems that rhetoric is the main weapon in his arsenal at this point.

Yes, it's complicated. Ukraine is complicated, as I learned while serving there. Putin has what he wants and will stand firm.  But so should America, EU and the international community as far as strengthening what's left of Ukraine. Will America take a lead in some international coalition that works together to help create the "United Ukraine" about which so many people dream?  Can we help save Ukraine?
AP image from Kyiv.

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