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Charles Krauthammer: Putin's Ukraine gambit

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By Charles Krauthammer
February 28, 2014

WASHINGTON—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. And 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, refuses to recognize the new government created by parliament, withholds all economic assistance and, in a highly provocative escalation, mobilizes its military forces on the Ukrainian border.

The response? The EU dithers and Barack Obama slumbers. After near total silence during the first three months of Ukraine's struggle for freedom, Obama said on camera last week that in his view Ukraine is no “Cold War chessboard.”

Unfortunately, this is exactly what it is for Putin. He wants Ukraine back.

Obama wants stability, The New York Times reports, quoting internal sources. He sees Ukraine as merely 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. Must not be imposed by outside intervention, but develop on its own.

But Ukraine is never on its own. Not with a bear next door. American neutrality doesn't allow an authentic Ukrainian polity to emerge. It leaves Ukraine naked to Russian pressure.

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 Obama's writing off Syria invited in Russia, Iran and Hezbollah to reverse the tide of battle.

Putin fully occupies vacuums. In Ukraine, he keeps flaunting his leverage. He's withdrawn the multibillion-dollar aid package with which he had pulled the now-deposed Ukrainian president away from the EU. He has suddenly mobilized Russian forces bordering Ukraine. His health officials are even questioning the safety of Ukrainian food exports.

This is no dietary hygiene campaign. This is a message to Kiev: We can shut down your agricultural exports today, your natural gas supplies tomorrow. We can make you broke and we can make you freeze.  

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.

Secretary of State John Kerry says Russian intervention would be a mistake. Alas, any such declaration from this administration carries the weight of a feather. But better that than nothing. Better still would be backing these words with a naval flotilla in the Black Sea.

Whether anything Obama says or does would stop anyone remains questionable. But surely the West has more financial clout than Russia's kleptocratic extraction economy that exports little but oil, gas and vodka.

The point is for the U.S., leading Europe, to counter Russian pressure and make up for its blandishments/punishments until Ukraine is on firm financial footing.

Yes, $15 billion is a lot of money. But it's less than one-half of one-tenth of 1 percent of the combined EU and U.S. GDP. And 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? 

Charles Krauthammer's email address is letters@charleskrauthammer.com



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