Without firing a shot, the United States and the European Union may deliver an embarrassing blow to Vladimir Putin’s imperial ambitions. Just over two weeks ago, the Ukrainian capital of Kiev erupted in massive protests when President Viktor Yanukovych submitted to Russian pressure and rejected an agreement with the EU widely expected to spur Ukrainian growth after years of stagnation. While focused on the EU pact, the protests are also a means of resistance to Yanukovych’s corruption and increasingly authoritarian behavior. The protesters’ top demand is that Yanukovych resign immediately.
The American decision to support the protesters seems like an easy call. They are pro-Western, have strong democratic credentials, and want to draw closer to the EU, rather than seeking security guarantees from NATO. Yet some conservatives have hoisted the banner of “realism” to argue that supporting the protesters amounts to yet another example of moralistic naïveté that will damage our true national interests. But they are wrong. In this instance, promoting democracy and civil liberty are integral to advancing our interest in a peaceful and independent Europe.
So far, Western diplomacy has raised the spirits of the masses in Kiev’s Independence Square, now referred to as “Euromaidan.” On Sunday, as the crowd swelled to more than 200,000 protesters, Sen. John McCain visited to tell the protesters that they were inspiring their country and the world. Echoing the White House as well as top State Department officials, McCain warned that the Yanukovych regime would face sanctions if he once again sought to break up the protests with violence.
The case against intervention – if such limited action deserves that name – consists of two basic arguments. First, that if the protesters win and Ukraine signs an agreement with the EU, the West will be on the hook for bailing out a basket case economy with a population of 45 million. Second, it is simply not a good idea to provoke Vladimir Putin, who has heavily invested his prestige in the farce of a Eurasian Customs Union, which currently includes Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.
Since Yanukovych is rapidly burning through his currency reserves and the cost of borrowing has spiraled, Ukraine may require a rapid bailout in order to prevent a default on its foreign debts. Yet the International Monetary Fund has already identified the conditions necessary for a major loan. If Yanukovych steps down, the Fund would be likely to reach a favorable agreement with a successor committed to democratic reforms. The EU would also be strongly inclined to support a country that resisted Russian intimidation in entering the European fold.
As for provoking Putin, why should the United States defer to a thug who has done his best to frustrate and embarrass us, especially with regard to Syria and Iran? At the beginning of their terms, both President Bush and President Obama presumed that Putin’s antagonism grew out of a misperception of American hostility. Yet their gestures of good will accomplished nothing, because the Russian president is determined to subordinate both his neighbors and his own population.
With his legitimacy flagging at home, Putin has turned to aggressive propaganda campaigns that portray Russia as a unique civilization whose destiny is to serve as an alternative to the degenerate West. Ukrainian independence would be a harsh blow to this vision, because Putin, like many Russians, considers Ukraine to be a spiritual and cultural sibling that is not truly distinct from Russia.
While the current debate focuses on Ukraine, it is essential to remember that the United States’ broader goal should be to undermine Putin’s legitimacy. Last year, he faced widespread protests after the rigging of parliamentary elections. While Russia is more prosperous than Ukraine and its democratic opposition less influential, the U.S. should be thinking long-term. We simply don’t know when the opportunity will come to detach a satellite like Belarus or even to support a democratic triumph in Russia itself.
For now, the outcome in Ukraine is uncertain. Just hours ago, Putin finalized an agreement with Yanukovych to purchase $15 billion of Ukrainian debt and sharply reduce the price of Russian gas exports. Clearly, Putin is on the defensive and is offering carrots because he is afraid of the backlash against potential sticks. Perhaps the appearance of generosity will sap the protesters’ will. Or perhaps their anger will flare at yet another brazen demonstration of Putin’s disregard for the popular will. Without reforms, the Russian bailout amounts to little more than a stopgap measure. The struggle will continue. The U.S. and Europe should continue to stand behind the Ukrainian majority, because our interests and theirs are now the same.