Henry Kissinger once pointed out that since Peter the Great, Russia had been expanding at the rate of one Belgium per year. All undone, of course, by the collapse of the Soviet Union, which Russian President Vladimir Putin called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”
Putin’s mission is restoration. First, restore traditional Russian despotism by dismantling its nascent democracy. Then, having created iron-fisted “stability,” march.
Use the 2008 war with Georgia to detach two of its provinces, returning them to the bosom of mother Russia (by way of Potemkin independence). Then late last year, pressure Ukraine to reject a long-negotiated deal for association with the European Union, to draw Ukraine into Putin’s planned “Eurasian Union” as the core of a new Russian mini-empire.
Turns out, however, Ukraine had other ideas. It overthrew Moscow’s man in Kiev, Viktor Yanukovych, and turned to the West. But the West — the EU and America — had no idea what to do.
Russia does. Moscow denounces the overthrow as the illegal work of fascist bandits, withholds economic assistance and, in a highly provocative escalation, mobilizes its military forces on the Ukrainian border and into the Crimean peninsula.
The response? The EU dithers and President Barack Obama slumbers.
Obama wants stability, The New York Times reports. He sees Ukraine as a crisis to be managed rather than an opportunity to alter the increasingly autocratic trajectory of the region, allow Ukrainians to join their destiny to the West and block Russian neo-imperialism.
Sure, Obama is sympathetic to democracy. But it must come organically, from internal developments, you see, not imposed by outside intervention.
But Ukraine is never on its own. Not with a bear next door. American neutrality doesn’t allow an authentic Ukrainian polity to emerge.
What Obama doesn’t seem to understand is that American inaction creates a vacuum. His evacuation from Iraq consigned that country to Iranian hegemony, just as his writing off Syria invited in Russia, Iran and Hezbollah to reverse the tide.
Putin fully occupies vacuums. In Ukraine, he keeps flaunting his leverage. He has withdrawn the multibillion-dollar aid package with which he had pulled the now-deposed Ukrainian president away from the EU. He has mobilized Russian forces. His health officials are even questioning the safety of Ukrainian food exports.
This is a message to Kiev: We can shut down your agricultural exports today, your natural gas supplies tomorrow.
Kissinger once also said “in the end, peace can be achieved only by hegemony or by balance of power.” Ukraine will either fall to Russian hegemony, or finally determine its own future — if America balances Russia’s power.
How? Start with a declaration of full-throated American support for Ukraine’s revolution. Follow that with a serious loan/aid package — say, replacing Moscow’s $15 billion — to get Ukraine through its immediate financial crisis. Then join with the EU to extend a longer substitute package, preferably through the International Monetary Fund.
Whether anything Obama says or does would stop anyone remains questionable. But surely the West has more financial clout than Russia’s kleptocratic economy that exports little but oil, gas and vodka.
The point is for the U.S., leading Europe, to counter Russian pressure until Ukraine is on firm financial footing.
Yes, $15 billion is a lot of money. But expending treasure is infinitely preferable to expending blood. Especially given the strategic stakes: Without Ukraine, there’s no Russian empire.
Putin knows that. Which is why he keeps ratcheting up the pressure. The question is, can this administration muster the counterpressure to give Ukraine a chance to breathe?