Yesterday both sides in Ukraine took a step back from civil war. Kiev’s protesters began to leave the government buildings they have occupied for the last few weeks, and the government of President Yanukovych extended a promised amnesty to them. This exchange of concessions followed earlier ones, in particular the release of 243 prisoners arrested during the riots and demonstrations of the previous two months, and the repeal of a blanket anti-protest law by MPs who had passed it only days before. This gradual stepping back from armed conflict by both sides is a sober reaction to the deaths of four demonstrators at the hands of police at the height of the demonstrations. In the moment after those deaths, Ukraine hesitated on the edge of an unrestrained civil war that might have led to a Russian intervention. Then both sides paused, reflected . . . and stepped back.
That was sensible. But today’s compromise is only the uncertain start of a political solution to Ukraine’s crisis. To begin with, not everyone supports it. Some radical demonstrators opposed ending the occupations and are trying to blockade the buildings their fellow demonstrators left yesterday morning. Kiev’s central square, or maidan, is still held by anti-government protesters of all stripes. Not only radicals argue that it was the demonstrations that extracted concessions from the government. Ending them might therefore encourage Yanukovych to restore stability without making additional concessions. A test of the government’s intentions will come on Tuesday, when Parliament debates a bill to restore constitutional limits on the president’s power. This is a key opposition demand, and its rejection by the government would reverse the trend toward the peaceful resolution of the political crisis. Since arms and armed gangs are widely dispersed throughout Ukraine, that in turn would risk a renewed drift to civil war. And there is at least the possibility that Russia’s President Putin, who sees Ukraine as essential to his project for restoring a post-Communist USSR, would intervene either to help Yanukovych or to partition Ukraine.
These unresolved and dangerous tensions make a strong case for Western diplomatic intervention. No one is suggesting armed intervention, and knee-jerk warnings against gung-ho “neocon” militarism are simply silly. Diplomacy exists for precisely such situations. And the West has a clear interest in discouraging any Russian attempt to overturn the post–Cold War settlement and make America’s allies in Central and Eastern Europe subordinate partners in a new Russian sphere of influence. Its positive aims should be to strengthen Ukrainian independence and to revive the agreement for Ukraine to become an associate member of the European Union, thus cementing the country’s attachment to the West and to Euro-Atlantic institutions.
Consider how it obstructs the kind of policy instruments that are directly attuned to the crisis.
Yanukovych has two major sources of support: Putin’s Russia and Ukraine’s native oligarchs (who finance his “Party of the Regions”). Instrument No. 1 should be informing Putin with brutal directness that Russia would pay a heavy price in economic and diplomatic sanctions — and that he and other prominent Russians would pay a heavier one in personal financial sanctions — if Russia were to intervene militarily in Ukraine. That threat would have force, however, only if the West had shown a willingness to employ such sanctions elsewhere — in, for example, Ukraine.
That brings us to the second point: Ukraine’s oligarchs are both domestically powerful and internationally vulnerable. As many as 60 Ukrainian MPs are said to take orders from one oligarch. But that same oligarch lives in London and, among much else, owns mines in West Virginia. All of them want to travel freely and enjoy unfettered access to their own assets, and to the markets more generally. Targeted financial sanctions would make them consider very carefully just how much they are prepared to risk in order to keep their discredited protégé in office. They are already having doubts on purely domestic scores. A threat of Western sanctions would probably tip the balance — and make oligarchs the reluctant supporters of political reform and a new broad-based post-Yanukovych government in Ukraine. Tuesday’s constitutional debate will therefore be a test for the oligarchs too. But the European Union, in addition to shrinking from a direct challenge to the Kremlin, is resisting the application of targeted sanctions to them too. In Ukraine the EU is an interested bystander, but not an entirely innocent one.
In effect its policy is to hope that Yanukovych and Putin will show continued restraint while Ukraine’s democratic protesters and long-term economic evolution will between them push the country towards a new political system and the West. And if that policy were to fail, as seems likely, the price would be the renewed threat of civil war and turmoil on the borders of the EU and NATO. This is outright fecklessness.
Democracy promotion has had a bad press in recent years, largely because of cases where the domestic support for democracy was much weaker than its foreign sponsorship. Ukraine is the opposite example: a country where the democratic commitment of Ukrainians, especially young Ukrainians, far outshines the tepid support for it given by their German and Western European neighbors. The full transcript of Ambassador Nuland’s comments shows that, even under this administration, the U.S. is actively trying to nudge Ukraine toward reform, democracy, and a Euro-Atlantic identity by a peaceful road. This policy has strong backing from, among others, the EU’s Eastern European members. And despite Berlin’s dominance within the EU structure, it is hard to think that EU policy would be so passive in this crisis if its foreign-policy chief were not the mild Catherine Ashton but Poland’s hard-driving and charismatic Radoslaw Sikorski, who is a longstanding enthusiast for the EU’s Eastern Partnership.
Maybe the time has come for Ambassador Nuland to make a public speech elaborating her trenchant criticism in non-profane and friendlier terms. Ukraine needs a new “European” political settlement; “Europe” needs one too.