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 The Podium

The Ukraine muddle

Pro-Russian protestors clash with participants of a Single Ukraine rally in downtown Donetsk, Ukraine,  EPA/PHOTOMIG

EPA

EPA

Pro-Russian protestors clash with participants of a Single Ukraine rally in downtown Donetsk, Ukraine, EPA/PHOTOMIG

Several actors bear responsibility for the current crisis over Ukraine. American, Russian, European, and Ukrainian leaders allowed this perilous tangle to develop through their obtuse blundering, a willful blindness to the consequences of their actions, and the spouting of mendacious propaganda.

To begin with the most frivolous, Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, in company with the usual shills from Fox News, have been peddling a silly non-sequitor — that Russia’s boss of all bosses, Vladimir Putin, felt free to inject special forces into the Crimea because President Obama lacked the fortitude to launch cruise missiles at Syria (an option Congress overwhelmingly opposed) or because he failed to avenge the killing of American officials in Benghazi.

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If McCain, Graham, and company were more attentive to the world as it really is, they would mount a very different critique of what the Obama administration has done — or not done — as Ukraine’s domestic conflicts were billowing into a confrontation between Russia and the West.

When America’s Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs and the US ambassador in Kiev were overheard, in a tapped phone call, discussing which Ukrainian political figures to install in power, they bestowed a gift on Putin’s propaganda apparatus, seeming to confirm the claim that Washington seeks to engineer regime changes along Russia’s periphery.

There can be no excuse for US policy makers ignoring the Kremlin’s sensitivity — or paranoia — about US or European attempts to rearrange the chess pieces along Russia’s frontiers. History and geostrategic factors explain a Russian security obsession that is hardly unique to Putin. Unlike the US, Russia is not blessed with surrounding oceans, mountains, or friendly neighbors. The armies of Napoleon and Hitler rolled over open terrain to invade the Russian homeland. Hence the Russian anxiety about strategic depth — even if its value is greatly diminished in an age of ICBMs and nuclear deterrence.

It is true that the cynical Putin has sought to justify his military takeover of Crimea with inflated complaints about neo-Nazis seizing power in Kiev in defiance of constitutional rules. It is also true, however, that a compromise agreement on a coalition government for Ukraine and fresh elections to be held next December – an accord brokered in late February by the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and Poland – was violated by a mob whose prime movers were indeed fascistic nationalists.

The most prominent belong to Svoboda, a party that has been denounced by the European Parliament as racist and anti-semitic. Another extremist party, one known for its armed paramilitary, calls itself Right Sector. Leaders of these groups proudly extol Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist whose followers expressed their fealty to Nazi Germany during World War II by sadistically murdering thousands of Ukrainian Jews. In the cabinet installed after the thieving former President Viktor Yanukovych absconded, there are eight ministers from Svoboda, among them the minister of defense, the chief and the deputy head of a National Security Council in charge of police, and the prosecutor-general.

Notwithstanding Washington’s acting the part of sorcerer’s apprentice in Ukraine and European offers of credits that are too small and austerity that is too cruel, it should still be possible peacefully to undo Russia’s seizure of Crimea.

If Putin’s ultimate aim is to prevent Ukraine from starting down a path that could lead from a trade agreement with Europe to political links with the European Union and, finally, toward NATO membership, then Russian annexation of Crimea will be the surest way to bring about that Kremlin nightmare. Taking Crimea out of Ukraine would, crucially, subtract about a million pro-Russian votes from the Ukrainian electorate. The result would almost certainly be a democratically approved flight westward — for protection — by the citizens of a truncated Ukraine.

The West and sensible Ukrainian leaders should offer Putin a face-saving deal: He returns Crimea to Ukraine in return for guarantees that Ukraine will not join NATO plus enhanced autonomy for the Russian-majority regions of Ukraine. This would be the sort of deal that best satisfies Russia’s genuine, long-term interests. If Putin refuses to accept it, he will be ushering in a new Cold War, this one shorn of ideological pretenses, a self-defeating, unnecessary conflict rooted in archaic ethnic enmities.

Alan Berger is a retired Globe editorial writer.
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