An authentic revolution is now occurring in Ukraine, with uprisings in the capital city of Kyiv (Kiev) and throughout both Western and Eastern Ukraine. This groundswell of popular unrest underscores not only the loss of legitimacy suffered by Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, but also the danger of the country’s potential disintegration if a resolution is not reached soon.
Indeed, Russian media sources are openly speculating about the prospects of a civil war and, worse still, the possibility of a partition of Ukraine. Typically, Moscow now blames unnamed outside forces for both Ukraine’s original crisis and its latest, violent turn. Ironically, Russia is correct — because it is Moscow itself which deliberately has triggered this crisis.
Moscow threatened Ukraine (along with Moldova and Armenia) with economic war and catastrophe if they signed an Association Agreement with the European Union. Except for Moldova, the countries folded in the face of this brutal pressure.
In Ukraine, the results were immediately apparent. Russian pressure highlighted the fact that the Kremlin accepts neither Ukraine’s sovereignty nor its territorial integrity as fixed principles of international law (or that of other post-Soviet states, like Georgia or Moldova, for that matter). As well, since November, in return for cutting gas prices and underwriting Ukrainian state bonds, Moscow has extracted some key concessions from Ukraine, including the building of a bridge over the disputed Kerch Strait into the Sea of Azov — a transit route that furnishes Russia with an excellent highway for either seizing the Crimea or invading Ukraine, should it be of a mind to do either.
Ukraine likewise has been strong-armed into ceasing purchases of non-Russian gas, thereby deepening its addiction to Russian energy. And the Ukrainian government has taken steps to reorient Ukrainian civil and defense industry toward the Russian market, effectively turning away from Europe and creating even more points of leverage for Moscow within the Ukrainian economy and politics.
But this was not enough for Russia. Moscow has also likely told its man in Kyiv that he needs to squelch the country’s opposition protests. Predictably, laws passed by the Yanukovych government in January have effectively criminalized the Ukrainian people’s exercise of basic civil rights, representing an obvious attempt to replicate Putinism in Ukraine, ensure Yanukovych’s reelection in 2015, and silence the opposition. These laws are what triggered the latest bout of unrest, which began on January 16.
So the situation stands. The Yanukovych government, entrenched in Kyiv and bolstered by Russian backing and funds, is not eager to negotiate with its opponents — a dialogue that is likely to hinge upon the current president’s departure from the political scene. It is also quick to use violence to suppress the protests, and state security services are already responsible for the death of three protesters, one by torture. Meanwhile Russia’s clients in Kyiv are trying to entrench themselves and avert another revolution that could only end with their ouster.
To avert such extreme outcomes, Washington and its allies in Europe must grasp the strategic consequences of chaos or of a Russian takeover of Ukraine. Either option — revolution or overwhelming state force — would make adjoining countries (namely Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania) front-line states in every sense of the word. They would also bisect Europe into two hostile alliance systems. Moreover, either of those outcomes further undermines the principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act and the accords ratifying the post-1989-91 European settlement. Effectively, they would return Europe and Eurasia to the law of the jungle, where insecurity replaces peace and prosperity as the dominant fact of life in the region.
Therefore, Washington and the EU must act together to rescue Ukraine economically and politically from the Yanukovych family and entourage — and from Russia. They must also make clear to Russia that the West has a vital interest in defending Ukraine’s sovereignty and integrity, and that commitment will be backed by concrete political action.
This would entail quickly devising a large-scale, comprehensive program of economic relief for Ukraine, and announcing that if Ukraine is willing to resume negotiations with Brussels then over time it will qualify for EU membership. The message should be clear: if Kyiv undertakes the heavy lifting, Washington and Brussels will stand ready to substantially assist it in righting its ship of state.
Such change won’t happen with the current regime in place, however, so a prerequisite must be that the Yanukovych regime departs, to be replaced by a caretaker government that will implement immediate relief measures but also conduct a free and fair election. The government thereby elected can then continue implementing the relief and reform program outlined above.
Should Yanukovych resist, he must be put on notice that his family and entourage risk losing access to their stolen assets in the West, and face the prospect of criminal investigations at home. To deter Russian threats and pressure, meanwhile, Moscow should be referred to the WTO for its economic blackmail of Ukraine, as well as Armenia and Moldova.
Unfortunately, neither Brussels nor Washington has shown the strategic vision or imagination to formulate such a coordinated action program to date. But while it might not be too late to do so now, time is rapidly running out for a peaceful solution to Ukraine’s crisis. Business as usual simply won’t do; the United States and its allies must act vigorously together in order for Ukraine to have a chance to save itself.