How the West Is Losing Ukraine
U.S. President Barack Obama has joined German Chancellor Angela Merkel in saying that the West should take a patient, long-term approach to dealing with Russia's aggression in Ukraine. The real message to Kiev: You're on your own in fighting pro-Russian rebels and Russian troops.
Obama, in an interview on Sunday with CNN's Fareed Zakaria, said the West's limited arsenal prevented it from taking on Russian President Vladimir Putin. "Given the size of the Russian military, given the fact that Ukraine is not a NATO country, and so as a consequence there are clear limits in terms of what we would do militarily, Mr. Putin has not been stopped so far," he said. His words echoed those of Merkel, who said in November that the only weapon the West could use was its economic strength, which could work only over time. "One should not lose hope too quickly," she said. "For 40 years we heard radio broadcasts about the imminent collapse" of East Germany, "and after 40 years, when everyone had lost hope, it happened."
Both leaders have rebuffed calls from Ukraine and from a group of retired U.S. officials for the West to supply weapons to the Ukrainian army, now engaged in some of the toughest fighting since the conflict in the country's eastern regions began. Merkel said Germany would not arm Ukraine even if the U.S. changes its mind. All that remains for the U.S., according to Obama, is to put more pressure on Russia, bolster Ukraine's reform efforts and protect European allies. As for Putin, Obama is "not wildly optimistic" that his attitude is going to change, because his behavior appears to be boosting his popularity in Russia. "Perhaps over time he changes his mind."
So the two most powerful Western leaders appear to be in complete agreement about, figuratively speaking, sitting on the riverbank and waiting for Putin's corpse to float by. The West is concerned about containing Russia and preventing it from attacking some obvious targets such as Latvia and Estonia, which are both members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and have large Russian minorities, but it sees no urgency about helping Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the situation in Ukraine is deteriorating. For the last four days, Russian-backed separatists have been trying to encircle about 7,000 Ukrainian troops around the railroad junction of Debaltsevo. On the map, the directions of rebel strikes are marked purple:
The Ukrainian military has given up a few small settlements but has held on to Debaltsevo and a path out of the potential cauldron. That could change at any moment if Russian regulars enter the fray. Last summer, their interference crushed Ukrainian resistance near Ilovaysk and forced Kiev to seek a peace agreement.
Even if Western financial help arrives in time to save Ukraine from the ignominy of seeing its international reserves run out -- they now cover about five weeks of imports, and the International Monetary Fund is working at its own pace on providing a more long-term aid package to Ukraine -- the military situation can be resolved only by Ukraine and Russia, the guiding force behind the rebel attack. No matter what happens in eastern Ukraine and what new red lines Putin crosses there, the West is staying out on the thin pretext that Ukraine is not a NATO member -- though neither was Kuwait when Iraq invaded in the early 1990s, and the U.S. did send troops there.
"We have simply been abandoned without promised protection," Oleksandr Kirsh, an adviser to Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, wrote on Inforesist.org yesterday, accusing the "failed, brainless leaders of the West" of giving up Ukraine, and with it all Europe, to an "Asian aggressor." "Yes, the civilized ones also make mistakes," he added bitterly. "Their brains sometimes clog up with fat from satiety and overeating."
That is not yet Ukraine's official attitude, but those fighting in the east are understandably bitter about all the supportive Western rhetoric not materializing into weapons and reinforcements. They are certainly not interested in hearing stories about how economic pressure may someday bring Putin low. The long-game strategies of Merkel and Obama are likely to give rise to an anti-Western backlash in Ukraine. If the U.S. and Europe are not willing to provide any meaningful support to Ukraine's fight, they should work harder at searching for a negotiated solution and at bringing both Kiev and Moscow to the table. Otherwise, Ukraine may be lost to the Western world.
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