The most electrifying moment at the Munich Security Conference, which I attended this weekend, occurred during a panel discussion on Eastern Europe. (And, yes I know, “electrifying” and “conference” are not usually words that go together.)
After Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Leonid Koschara accused the opposition of harboring terrorists, opposition leader (and former boxer) Vitali Klitschko, who was sitting right next to him, got out of his seat. No doubt some were expecting the former professional pugilist to punch out the bespectacled and well-coiffed government apparatchik next to him. Instead Klitschko went over to an aide who gave him a stack of pamphlets illustrating, in graphic pictures, how security forces have attacked demonstrators. Klitschko then shared the pictures with his fellow panelists, including Koschara, who had to make at least a show of looking at the photos, much to his obvious discomfort.
This was a small sign of how the pro-Western opposition has outmaneuvered the pro-Moscow government of President Viktor Yanukovych. He sparked the protests with his November decision not to sign political and trade agreements with the European Union in return for a $15 billion aid package from Russia. This was widely seen as a victory for the wily Vladimir Putin, but it has been a hollow victory because it has brought large numbers of Ukrainians into the streets to protest. They have not been deterred by thuggish police attempts to disperse them, nor by Yanukovych’s attempts to pass Russian-style legislation that would have curtailed freedom to speak out or protest and that would have forced civic groups that received foreign funding to register as “foreign agents.”
Those laws have now been repealed by Ukraine’s parliament, and the pro-Russian prime minister, Mykola Azarov, has been forced to resign. In dismay Putin has suspended further aid payments to Ukraine after having delivered just $3 billion. Yanukovych was reported last week to be on a leave of absence due to “illness.” He has now returned to Kiev, vowing not to use force to clear out the demonstrators. His confusion is palpable.
There is now a prime opportunity for the U.S. and its European allies to step into the vacuum, deal a major defeat to Putin, and pull Ukraine into the Western orbit where most of its people clearly would like to go. This will not be easy to do. It must require high-level attention from American and European officials to keep the heat on Yanukovych not to stage a reprise of the Tiananmen Square massacre while offering attractive financial incentives for Ukraine to align with the West. Reportedly, Western officials are plotting to do just that.
I would feel more confident about the outcome, however, if President Obama were personally involved rather than delegating this matter–along with so many other crucial foreign-policy issues–to Vice President Biden, whose track record has not been one, as Bob Gates pointed out, to inspire much confidence. Obama claims to admire President George H.W. Bush, but he has been unwilling to engage in the kind of intensive presidential diplomacy or to form the kind of close relationships with foreign leaders that were Bush hallmarks. In essence this is another issue on which the U.S. is “leading from behind.” We can only hope that Angela Merkel and other European leaders can fill the vacuum and save Ukraine from Moscow’s machinations.