Having lived in Poland for five years from 2004 to 2009 as the U.S. ambassador to Poland, I had a front-row seat observing the Orange Revolution in the adjacent nation to the east, Ukraine. In that case, a rigged election was thrown out, new fair elections held and a democratically elected president emerged.
He was Viktor Yushchenko, whose face had been disfigured a few years earlier by dioxin poisoning. Hopes for success for enjoying freedom and economic vitality with him were high. Celebrations were everywhere.
Then disappointment set in as he fell far short of moving Ukraine to economic stability. The rising economic tide, such as it was, lifted only some of the boats. During the current crisis, Yushchenko has been silent.
Ukraine is a nation of 47 million people situated between Russia and Poland. It suffered the Stalin-sanctioned famine of the 1930s, which resulted in millions of deaths by starvation. It was a major battleground in World War II. It has great potential that has not become a reality. Oligarchs play a huge role in the governmental structure.
The country itself is somewhat artificially created in certain areas. Crimea had been part of Russia until 1954, when it was transferred to Ukraine, then one of the Soviet Republics. It made no difference then, as all Soviet Republics reported to the Kremlin. Lviv in the west was part of Poland prior to World War II before Stalin annexed it into Ukraine. It retains a strong pro-western view and Ukrainian, not Russian, is the major language there.
During my time there I visited Lviv, Kiev and Odessa on the Black Sea. In Lviv and Odessa, I spoke to young political leaders of several parties on how to organize and what to do if elected to local offices. I was there under the auspices of the International Republican Institute, which is federally funded in large part, as is the National Democratic Institute. Former Knoxville finance director Randy Vineyard (now Blount County finance director) participated in the seminar in Lviv with me on the section dealing with municipal finances.
Crimea, which is currently occupied by Russian troops, is home to the Russian fleet in the Black Sea. It is overwhelmingly Russian in its population, and Russian is the dominant language. This crisis has played into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hands, as he has never fully accepted the independence of Ukraine from Russia. A divided or fragmented Ukraine that does not join the European Union or NATO is what Putin wants. Whether this occupation will end with Russian withdrawal or a new quasi-nation such as South Ossetia in Georgia is still an open question.
President Barack Obama’s past actions have emboldened Putin to make the moves he has made. Missile defense was weakened in Eastern Europe from what Obama inherited from President George W. Bush, a reset policy with Russia that has failed to produce meaningful results and an announcement recently to reduce the size of the U.S. military to pre-World War II levels. There does not appear to be an appreciation in the White House as to how Putin interprets these actions as weakness.
It is obvious the U.S. is not going to engage in military action, nor does any serious American leader suggest such. However, there must be consequences to what Putin is doing. Simply announcing there will be consequences and leaving the Russian guessing what they may be is useless.
When Putin invaded Georgia in 2008 there were no meaningful consequences to the creation of two new “nations” that the United Nations does not recognize. Putin may assume the same will happen here. After all, six years after the invasion of Georgia he hosted the winter Olympics in Sochi — next door to the nation he invaded. No one seemed to recognize the incredible irony of this except Putin, a former KBG agent who is still one at heart.
The current nonelected government of Ukraine is powerless to act, and it represents several warring factions within Ukrainian society. But it is all Ukraine has at present. Elections are planned for May. But will circumstances allow that to happen? Western powers will have to undertake meaningful sanctions, which may have to last for some time to have an effect.
The U.S. can under current federal law deny visas and entry to the U.S. for Russian leaders and citizens. The G8 meeting in Sochi can be canceled. Bank accounts of Russian oligarchs in the U.S. can be frozen.
If Putin gets away with the seizure of Crimea, then eastern Ukraine, which is also closely tied to Russia, will be next. Ukraine will become a substantially reduced nation in size and influence. Poles will be even more worried as to Russian intentions — and with good reason.
Ukrainians who have looked with envy at Poland for its free democratic system and successful economy will feel they have been abandoned. Obama’s legacy in world affairs will suffer, but so will freedom everywhere.Top