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Farah Stockman

Solomon’s choice in Ukraine

If the United States and Russia tear Ukraine apart, everyone loses

Ukrainian soldiers guard the gate of a Ukrainian infantry base in Perevalne Sunday. Hundreds of armed men in trucks and armored vehicles surrounded the military base Sunday, blocking its soldiers from leaving.

Associated Press

Ukrainian soldiers guard the gate of a Ukrainian infantry base in Crimea on Sunday.

In these recent days of international crisis, there’s just one thing that all sides claim to agree on: Ukraine shouldn’t be forced to choose between Europe and Russia, the two great powers that it is sandwiched between.

Everybody has always known that forcing Ukraine to choose will split up the country, since roughly half of the population leans toward Russia while the other half leans toward Europe and the United States.

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That’s why Secretary of State John Kerry said that we shouldn’t be trying to “draw Ukraine towards the West or the East.” That’s why German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged the end of “either-or” thinking. That’s why Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned of the danger of telling Ukraine, “you are either with us or against us.”

Yet, for years, both Russia and the West have dangled their goodies in front of Ukraine, like divorced parents competing for the affection of a child. For years, each side whispered dark warnings about the other.

Who can blame former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych for behaving like a clever kid who plays his estranged parents off each other? For seeking bigger and bigger promises of support in exchange for his love and affection?

It was this dynamic that allowed Ukraine’s corrupt government to go on for so long, squirreling away billions into private foreign bank accounts, while the economy struggled.

Despite the sorry state of Ukraine’s finances, Europe offered a fast-track to increased trade. Then Mother Russia opened her wallet and offered a $15 billion bailout, plus big discounts on Russian gas.

Had Russia and the West cooperated, they might have instilled some fiscal discipline. But instead, each side pushed Ukraine to join its own team and spurn the other.

Putin pressured Yanukovych to at least become an observer to its Customs Union, a trade zone of former Soviet Republics that includes Belarus and Kazakhstan. Meanwhile, Europe wooed Yanukovych with a “Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area” agreement that would speed up Ukraine’s acceptance into Europe’s exclusive economic club.

On paper, the 300-page European agreement looks mundane. It’s full of fine print about tariffs, fishery standards, and which yogurt products are considered sanitary. But, after years of trying to be part of both worlds, Ukraine was forced to choose: Which standards would it follow? Russian standards? Or Europe’s?

Last fall, after more than a year of negotiations with Europe, Yanukovych abruptly chose Russia. Maybe he was scared of Putin. Or maybe Putin offered a better deal. Protesters, egged on by the West, made Yanukovych pay for his decision. They chased him from power. In recent days, a new pro-Western government emerged out of backroom deals brokered by the West. It swiftly alienated Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population by abolishing a law that allowed Russian to be considered a second official language. Russian speakers protested. The country began to come apart at the seams.

It’s hard not to think of the term “splitting the baby.” It’s derived from the Biblical tale of King Solomon, who was approached by two women who were arguing over an infant. Each claimed to be the mother. Solomon proposed cutting the baby in half, and giving each woman a part. He figured out who the real mother was by seeing which one preferred to let the baby live — even if she lost it — rather than have it cut in half.

“The Solomon analogy is a really good analogy,” said Keith Darden, associate professor at the School of International Service at American University. “The more you care about the baby, or in this case, the country, the less you are going to be willing to see it fall apart.”

Up until this week, Darden said, Western powers were cutting the baby. They egged on protesters who were trying to take down an elected government, even though it would have been better to just vote Yanukovych out of office next year. After Yanukovych fled, it looked like the tug-of-war over Ukraine was over. The West had won. But then Russia sent its army into Crimea and began stoking separatist sentiments in the eastern part of the country.

“Up until this week, Russia was standing back, because they didn’t want to split the baby,” Darden said. “But that changed. They started to feel like they were going to lose the whole baby.”

With two false mothers, this baby is getting split.

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.
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