A wave of violence is sweeping Ukraine this week in clashes between anti-government protesters and the police. At least 25 people are dead, and Kiev’s Independence Square (Maidan) is set ablaze. Since protests broke out in November following Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union and move closer to Russia instead, Ukrainian citizens continue to demand a government that is democratic, transparent, and puts its citizens first — everything Yanukovych’s is not.
This is one battle the U.S. cannot ignore. Now is the time for the U.S. to show decisive leadership, to stand on the right side of history — alongside with freedom and liberty in Ukraine.
America has made wrong choices on Ukraine before. In August 1991, as the Soviet Union was crumbling, George H. W. Bush made a famous “Chicken Kiev” speech in Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament). As Ukraine deliberated independence, Bush warned of “suicidal nationalism,” which rang as advice to remain loyal to the Kremlin. For those who knew life under Soviet tyranny and looked to the West for support of their aspirations of freedom, this was a bitter pill to swallow.
George H. W. Bush had made a realist choice in favor of what his administration perceived as stability. Real stability, however, is inseparable from real freedom. The Arab Spring, and the latest events in Ukraine prove this point. President Obama now has an opportunity to redeem the U.S. after the “Chicken Kiev speech,” and put political and economic pressure on Yanukovych, rather than stand on the sidelines.
The Kremlin, for its part, will not stay out of Ukraine’s affairs. Russian president Vladimir Putin wants nothing less than to subordinate Ukraine’s interests to Russia’s. Putin once famously remarked that Ukraine is not even a state. He has pressured Kiev to join the Russia-led Customs Union and stay clear of Europe, and he intensified pressure in the months before November. Ukraine matters to Putin above all other post-Soviet Republics for Russia traces its very creation as a state to Kiev. Ukraine is a key element of Putin’s Soviet Union 2.0, which he is trying to build with his Customs Union — a precursor to the Eurasian Union.
Putin’s $15 billion loan that Yanukovych chose over an Association Agreement with Europe does not address the fundamental economic problems of Ukraine — for which Yanukovych is responsible. It only solidifies Ukraine’s dependence on Moscow. Association with Europe, however, would address these issues. But beyond a choice of Russia vs. Europe, ultimately the Ukrainian people themselves must choose what course to take. And while Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the Association Agreement was a catalyst for the protests, more broadly, the Ukrainians are tired of Yanukovych’s corrupt regime that took away their freedom and bankrupted their country. They want democracy, which Ukraine will never get from a close association with Putin’s Russia.
No matter what President Obama may think of the importance of having the Kremlin’s cooperation on Syria and Iran, Ukrainian freedom matters. The former Soviet Union’s second-largest state of 45 million, which lies on the fault line of East and West, is too big and too important to lose. A Western-oriented Ukraine will advance American strategic interests. Standing up for liberty in Ukraine at this critical moment will send a message to Ukraine — and the world — that the U.S. stands with allies who share its values.
Over 2,000 people reportedly have been injured in Ukraine since the protests began in November, and many activists have gone missing. Activists on the ground suspect the real numbers are higher. The police used unprecedented violence against peaceful demonstrators. The latest reports indicate that Ukraine may be on the brink of a civil war. And many in Ukraine who are fighting for their freedom feel abandoned by the West.
As events in Ukraine continue to unfold, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and other U.S. allies in the region are watching. What happens in Ukraine and how the U.S. responds will reverberate beyond.
— Anna Borshchevskaya is a fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy. Follow her on Twitter at @annaborsh