What does the West — in particular, the European Union — want out of the current crisis in Ukraine? What do the Ukrainians as a nation want? What do the protesters in Kiev want?
Almost certainly the Kiev protesters can answer that question more straightforwardly than anyone in the first three groups. After all, they have taken to the streets and are braving police brutality to obtain their objectives. And indeed, when a Telegraph reporter put that question to them, they responded with largely moderate and sensible (if also understandably vague) proposals. Here, for instance, is a 22-year-old student, Sergey Fedorchuk:
“First of all, we don’t want an ex-convict running our country. That’s what the president is and everybody knows it. Personally, I only want trade links with Europe. I don’t want to open the borders. People often talk about how Ukraine is stuck between Europe on one side and Russia on the other. But now we must decide ourselves. Every move at the moment is toward something better, and that’s what the whole country wants. But our president doesn’t want change. He wants to keep things as they are so he can rob the country.”
Stripped of its angry rhetoric — and with one important exception, discussed below — that reply amounts to a practical government program: Get rid of a corrupt president who is too close to the Kremlin; negotiate a free-trade deal with the EU; revive a more hopeful democratic politics that weakens the oligarchs; reduce the links between Ukraine and Russia. Such a program could probably attract a strong majority of those in the crowd and also in the western half of Ukraine. Sure, some protesters say they want a more complete absorption of Ukraine into the EU. But in the post-Soviet half of the continent, “Europe” is often shorthand for being a “normal” democratic country that doesn’t imprison politicians simply for losing elections. Its details are blurry. Most Western and opposition Ukrainians would go along with Mr. Fedorchuk.
But what about Eastern Ukraine, which is the other half of the country — and the Russian-speaking half, at that? Would the voters there be happy about the ousting of a government installed mainly by their votes? And what would happen if the protesters were to win new elections that then produced another majority for that government? That doesn’t look likely in the immediate aftermath of the weekend’s police brutality. After a week or two of campaigning fueled by generous Kremlin subsidies, however, a second Yanukovych victory is a live possibility.
The specter of election and post-election revolutionary violence stalks through all these possibilities. Revolutions should not be encouraged by or against anyone unless there is strong evidence that they are likely to succeed without serious casualties and massive social upheaval. That reassuring evidence does not exist here.
What the European Union should want in these circumstances, therefore, is the peaceful evolution of Ukraine toward Mr. Fedorchuk’s broad approach. The strategic prize for the West in this crisis — a prize that President Putin seemed to have snatched away last week — is the permanent separation of an independent Ukraine from Russia. That is such a major prize that it should not be made conditional on the release of imprisoned opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko by the Yanukovych regime. Her imprisonment is indeed unjust — and cruel. But it is unlikely to continue more than a few months after a Ukrainian–EU rapprochement; it might last until her death if the status quo remains.
That said, a decisive separation of Ukraine from Russia needs support across the entire country. It cannot be achieved and sustained over the opposition of 40 to 50 percent of Ukrainians or over the politically dead body of an elected president. Or if it could be so achieved for the moment, it would create an unstable situation that Putin and his local allies might exploit with the same kind of ruthless destructiveness they have shown in southeastern Europe and the Caucasus.
“Europe” should therefore make every effort — and offer every financial, economic, and political guarantee — to persuade Yanukovych and his supporting cast of oligarchs to break with Putin’s Russia and sign onto an association agreement with the European Union that will more than compensate them for Putin’s threatened trade war. Inevitably, Yanukovych himself would have to be accepted as part of the deal, temporarily at least — that is the important exception to Mr. Fedorchuk’s program mentioned above. The blurry details can be settled later. In this case the devil is not in the details but in the Kremlin.
Alas, this strategy is the longest of long shots. “Europe,” despite the hopes reposed in it by the Kiev protesters, is incapable of the prompt and decisive action needed to trump Putin’s ace in this way. Among other reasons, it is hampered by a common foreign policy. But there is, fortunately, the United States available to intervene with helpful . . .
Oh no, we’re sorry, there isn’t. Of course. What were we thinking?