The Ukraine balancing act

The crisis in Ukraine appears to be receding. After the coup against President Viktor Yanukovych and his flight to Russia, mysterious paramilitary forces — which all, save Russian President Vladimir Putin, believe are Russian special operations soldiers — have seized control of Crimea, and the region appears set to vote on its future in a referendum later this month.

Russian war games on the border with Ukraine have ended, and Putin says he has no intention of moving his troops into the eastern parts of the country. The threat to Russian nationals and national interests has apparently diminished.

The West is still mustering its response to this surreptitious aggression by Moscow. U.S. President Barack Obama has said that Russian moves will incur a cost, but that price is not yet clear. A military response is not in the works, but diplomatic and economic moves are under way.

Members of the Group of Eight have suspended preparations for the upcoming summit scheduled to be held this summer in Sochi — a blow to the international prestige that Putin holds dear — and the United States has passed sanctions against individuals it accuses of threatening Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Europe has suspended talks with Russia on an economic pact and on a visa deal, and threatened additional sanctions if Moscow does not engage in talks to resolve the crisis.

Amid fears that a new Cold War is descending upon Europe, it is important to acknowledge three important facts that have been obscured by the headlines.

The first is the hardest to heed and that is recognizing the important national interest that Russia has in Ukraine. Russians have a special connection to Ukraine, which many of them see as the spiritual center of their country.

Ukraine was part of Russia for 300 years and its separation at the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 was one of the most painful parts of that calamitous event.

In addition to that connection, there is Crimea, which was given to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev 60 years ago. Crimea holds a strategic outpost — the home port of Russia’s Black Sea fleet — and is home to many Russian pensioners.

The prospect of a Ukraine divorced from Moscow is a terrible future for any Russian leader to contemplate, one that would compel an extreme reaction, such as a violation of its borders and international law. The idea of NATO forces in Ukraine, which would effectively put them on Russia’s borders, is equally alarming.

Recognizing this fact does not mean that Ukraine must cede its sovereignty to Moscow. It does mean that decisions must be sensitive to Russian concerns, and that the West and Kiev must act in ways that do not ignore them or gratuitously provoke Moscow.

The second key fact is that, among Western powers, Europe has a vital interest in Ukraine, and it should be leading the response to Moscow’s invasion. This point is easily obscured as pundits in the West decry Obama’s “weakness” and focus on Washington rather than Brussels.

Given Russian concerns, Europe’s lead would help defuse fears of military encroachment. Moreover, economic ties to Ukraine, including the prospect of eventual membership in the European Union, would actually anchor Ukraine more firmly in the West and would produce the economic stability and the protection of human rights that best serve Western and Russian interests.

Russia’s economic ties to European nations also facilitate a more balanced approach to resolution of this conflict. Those governments are more sensitive to Russian interests and better able to forge a workable compromise.

Moscow is also less likely to see negotiations with Europe in the zero-sum terms that it sees talks with Washington. At the same time, European economic sanctions would have much more bite than those of the U.S.

The final fact to consider is that the move into Crimea was a sign of Putin’s weakness, not his strength. There is an inclination to score this as a victory for Putin, a bold move by a strong leader who acts without hesitation to protect his nation’s interests. In fact, Putin was forced to respond to the appalling failures of his ally Yanukovych, who was overthrown and now is recognized even by Russia as having handed over power to the opposition.

Putin’s bold intervention erased any doubts about his objectives and the lengths to which he will go to achieve them. The glow from the success of the Sochi Olympics has dimmed, and talk of a Nobel Prize for engineering a solution to the Syrian crisis has evaporated. Putin has been revealed as an authoritarian with scant respect for international law as many have long charged.

The developments in Ukraine pose dilemmas for Japan’s leadership. While some suggest that the prospect of Moscow’s isolation might increase its willingness to make a deal with Japan, the move in the Crimea should strip away all illusions about Putin’s readiness to hand over any of the disputed islands that comprise the Northern Territories.

And while Japan is increasingly engaging with Russia to secure much needed energy supplies, Tokyo must not be seen as unconcerned about solidarity with the West.

There is a fine diplomatic line to be walked that acknowledges Russian interests in Ukraine without conceding the dismembering of a sovereign state. That balancing act is just beginning.

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