Unfolding drama in the Ukraine

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By John J. Metzler

The fate of Ukraine, one of Eastern Europe’s largest countries, hangs in the balance. On the one hand, “spontaneous” political demonstrations and government building seizures by pro-Russian separatists, are bringing an air of deliberately planned disorder to the country’s eastern regions bordering Russia. On the other, rhetorical posturing by the United States and European Union, while clearly warranted, creates a sense of an impending clash with Moscow. We all know the timeline. Late last year when Ukraine’s government turned down a lucrative trade pact with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Moscow, clashes erupted in the capital Kiev. The political opinions then and now reflect Ukraine’s cultural “fault lines,” namely the eastern regions tend to favor Russia while the larger western regions look toward Europe. After the pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych was toppled in February and fled to Russia, an interim Ukrainian government was established in Kiev. Moscow was not amused. Ukraine’s orchestrated disorder stems from the political choreography of Russian President Vladimir Putin who is using this controlled crisis to facilitate a step by step destabilization and possibly dismemberment of a sovereign country. In the afterglow of the successful Sochi Winter Olympics, the Kremlin went for an encore and annexed Crimea, a majority Russian ethnic peninsula. While Washington and European capitals offered sympathy and echoed support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, beyond slapping Putin’s wrist with some sanctions, not much could be done.

Russia’s annexation of strategic Crimea was viewed as a fait accompli, a done deal. After a brief pause, Putin then presented Act 2, the encouragement and possibly coordination of pro-Russian armed separatists to create chaos in the Donetsk region. The supporting cast here includes over 40,000 Russian troops who are coincidently and conveniently just across the border from this Ukrainian region. Clearly while this industrial area is steeped in Russian sympathies, it does not mean it wishes to formally join the Motherland. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned that Moscow’s actions represent “an illegal and illegitimate effort to destabilize a sovereign state. This could potentially be a contrived pretext for military intervention, just as we saw in Crimea.”

Knowing the possibilities, NATO has militarily reinforced vulnerable members bordering Russia such as the Baltic states.