Commentary Magazine


Poroshenko Stands Up to Putin. Can He Count on the West?

Whenever tempers flare in the Middle East, a bit of a news diversion is inevitably created. And the significant foreign-policy news that seems to be flying a bit under the radar right now is that Ukraine’s new government has put Vladimir Putin on his heels. The country’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, ended the unilateral ceasefire with the rebels, a move that appears to have caught Russia off-guard. The New York Times reports:

In a stern warning that cited civilian casualties in war-torn eastern Ukraine, Russia on Wednesday demanded that the Ukrainian government reinstate a cease-fire and halt its military operation aimed at suppressing the pro-Russian separatist insurrection that has laid siege to the region for more than three months.

“Again we resolutely demand that the Ukrainian authorities — provided they are still able to evaluate sensibly the consequences of the criminal policy they conduct — to stop shelling peaceful cities and villages in their own country, to return to a real cease-fire in order to save human lives,” the Foreign Ministry said.

The statement went on to accuse the government of President Petro O. Poroshenko of the “physical annihilation of citizens of their own country” and, citing the evacuation of an orphanage in the Luhansk region, said, “the Ukrainian authorities do not even care about the fate of small children.”

Even in the context of the deeply embittered relations between the Kremlin and the government in Kiev, the Russian statement was unusually harsh and signaled blistering outrage in Moscow over the renewed military effort to end the rebellion.

Indeed it was harsh. The parenthetical phrase “provided they are still able to evaluate sensibly the consequences of the criminal policy they conduct” is diplospeak for “they have gone completely insane.” But as an accompanying Times editorial points out, it’s not clear Poroshenko had much of a choice.

The ceasefire was, after all, unilateral. Poroshenko would no doubt like to stop the violence with means other than civil war, and he is attempting to do so. This is understandable: a civil war has a way of perpetuating itself. Once a central government commits militarily to routing rebels, it can be difficult to know when the war is officially, or should be, “over.” It also can require ongoing security and surveillance of restive populations, which can have the unintended and paradoxical effect of treating a rebellious corner of the country as a breakaway province while insisting it is part of the whole.

On top of all this, such a task becomes even more complex for a new government, and doubly so for a new government with a weak army. The last thing Kiev would want to do is demonstrate that the rebels, aided by Moscow, are on a level playing field (or more). But they also can’t let yet another province just slip away without a fight. It would not only humiliate Kiev (again); it would also show Ukraine to be less than a sovereign country, a nation being looted for parts.

The Times editorialists praise the West for restraint until now, but warn the U.S. and Europe that Poroshenko has made his decision to ally with the West and they must not abandon him:

Mr. Poroshenko also has little room left to maneuver. Having signed a trade pact with the European Union that his ousted predecessor rejected, and now having sent troops to quell the rebellion in the east, he has committed Ukraine to a struggle that is bound to be long and painful. Russia has already raised Ukrainian gas prices and has threatened “serious consequences” over the trade agreement, and things are likely to get worse, economically and militarily, before any potential advantages of the European Union agreement kick in.

The United States and Europe have been right, so far, to moderate their response and to give diplomacy every chance. Nobody wants a trade war; certainly not Europe, with its heavy dependence on Russian energy, and not the American businesses that have begun lobbying against sanctions. And every effort must be made to convince the Russians that this is not about “deterrence.” But the agreement that Ukraine signed, along with Georgia and Moldova, is not only about trade. It’s also a commitment by the West to support them in their progress toward a higher standard of governance. Washington and Brussels have drawn lines and threatened serious sanctions, and the time has come to show they mean it.

That strikes me as a key point. The catalyst for the uprising in Ukraine was the fight over whether Kiev would sign a trade deal with Europe. The protests that erupted from a last-minute turn back to Moscow ended up bringing down the government and led to a Russian invasion and now a Russian-supported rebellion.

Ukraine has signed the deal, officially throwing in its lot with Europe at high (and still mounting) costs in the near term. The West must put its money where its mouth is and make sure they don’t send the message that it’s better to let Moscow dictate your foreign policy than gamble on the democracies of Europe and America.

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