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How Europe Can Defeat Putin in Ukraine

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Jan. 23 (Bloomberg) -- From the start of the recent turmoil in Ukraine, President Viktor Yanukovych had said he was committed to democracy and to closer ties with the European Union, things that most of his fellow Ukrainians say they want. That pretense has now collapsed.

Yanukovych’s decision in November not to sign a trade agreement with the EU and instead cut a deal with Russia sparked protests. These turned violent last week after the government announced new laws to criminalize demonstrations and make it easier to prosecute opposition politicians who support them. Police have shot dead at least two protesters.

The new laws won’t just turn Ukraine toward Russia; they will turn Ukraine into a version of Russia. Following the example set by Vladimir Putin, they provide the tools for suppression of protest and political opposition at will. With these laws in effect, a $15 billion loan from Russia to use as a campaign fund, and opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko in jail on trumped-up charges, the idea that elections next year could be free and fair is absurd.

The new laws will also make it all but impossible for Ukraine to sign the EU trade deal -- which Yanukovych says he still wants to do. The pact requires evidence of movement toward democracy and the rule of law. Under Yanukovych, the movement is in the other direction.

The EU should respond for once with clarity and sense of purpose. Granted, its options are mostly limited to jawboning, but done with conviction, that isn’t worthless. It should tell Ukrainians that Europe will support them wholeheartedly once they have a government that chooses economic reform and the rule of law over corruption and oppression. And it should tell Ukraine’s leaders -- both the government and its business allies -- that their authoritarian path rules out closer economic cooperation.

Up to now the EU has refused to say that Ukraine can one day join the bloc if it meets the union’s increasingly demanding membership requirements. Hesitation is understandable, especially with Ukraine in such turmoil, but Europe should say that, in principle, it is open to Ukraine’s eventual accession and that it desires closer economic cooperation in the meantime. Easing visa procedures for ordinary Ukrainians and encouraging exchanges would also send a powerful message of support -- one that other countries stuck in post-Soviet limbo, such as Moldova and Georgia, would welcome, too.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt suggested this week that the EU join the U.S. in imposing targeted sanctions, including a visa blacklist. Good idea: The measures ought to focus on human-rights abusers and officials and businessmen suspected of large-scale corruption.

Determined EU action would also send a message to Moscow -- that it’s willing to strain relations with Russia to do the right thing. Europe’s lack of resolve and intelligent calculation on Ukraine has gone on too long.

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