THE ONLY way the United States can stabilize Ukraine is to help return it to a state of neutrality between Russia and the European Union, while demonstrating to Vladimir Putin that efforts to annex the eastern part of the country will irreparably damage Russia’s relationship with the West.
Right now, there is little doubt that Putin is fomenting unrest in the industrial cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, near the Russian border, where pro-Russian militants have taken over government buildings and demanded annexation by Russia. But as contrived as the pro-Russian protests in eastern Ukraine appear to be, Putin is capitalizing on real resentments. Eastern Ukraine voted overwhelmingly for Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian president who was ousted by activists in Kiev after choosing a trade deal with Russia over one with the European Union. Yanukovych’s political party, the Party of Regions, has its stronghold in the east. Some of his political allies there are still loyal to him, and are furious that he was ousted from power.
It does not help that the new Ukrainian government formed with the blessing of the United States and European Union contains few politicians from the eastern part of the country and virtually no members of the Party of Regions. The interim prime minister, deputy prime minister, and acting president are all members of the pro-Europe Fatherland Party, which Yanukovych narrowly defeated in 2010. The new cabinet also contains a disturbing number of politicians from Svoboda, a far-right, ultra-nationalist party that has expressed hostility toward ethnic Russians.
Although polls indicate that fewer than a third of the people in eastern Ukraine desire to unite with Russia, they also show a deep divide between Ukraine’s east and west. Seventy-two percent in the Russian-speaking east think Ukraine is going in the wrong direction, compared with only 36 percent in the Ukrainian-speaking west.
Ultimately, Ukraine should be neither a protectorate of the West nor an extension of Russia. Ukraine needs ties with both to survive. An agreement struck this week in Geneva to de-escalate the conflict appears to be a step in the right direction. But so far, pro-Russian groups have refused to end their occupation of city halls and town squares until a new government is elected in May. It is important that the people in the east view the new elections as legitimate.
An increasing number of voices are calling for the United States to arm the new government of Ukraine. US officials are rightly wary of his dangerous path. The current government in Kiev is a weak and divided collection of individuals thrown together temporarily by a hasty agreement. It faces enormous economic problems, even without the uprising in the east. It cannot fight a former superpower and win.
It would be wiser for the United States to show Putin how costly intervention would be for him. In order to do that, the United States and Europe must do a much better job coordinating their sanctions. So far, each has come up with its own separate list, leading Putin to assume that any future sanctions will be timid and piecemeal. “If they can’t even act together to come up with the same list of people that they are going to act against, then what are the Russians supposed to think?” asked Stephen Sestanovich, a Russia specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Putin must be made to understand that if he moves to dismantle eastern Ukraine, it will be impossible for France to deliver the four amphibious landing ships for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, and that Boeing and Lockheed Martin will have no choice but to stop cooperating on a satellite launch program. If Putin sees US and European officials making plans to wean Europe off of Russian oil and gas, he will begin to understand the long-term consquences of his actions.
Lastly, it is worth considering a federal system for Ukraine, which would give the eastern region more autonomy. The proposal has been dismissed out of hand, because it is an idea Putin is pushing. But any proposal to keep Ukraine whole, and avoid a civil war in Europe, ought to be discussed.