Earlier today two airports in Ukraine’s Russian-influenced Crimean peninsula were overtaken by masked soldiers wearing camouflage but no other military identification. According to the New York Times, the soldiers did not interrupt normal operations at either airport. But who were they? And who sent them?
Moscow denied having anything to do with it. Yet the Times also quoted a Reuters report stating that “about 20 armed men wearing the uniform of Russia’s Black Sea fleet surrounded a Ukrainian border guard post near the [Crimean] port city of Sevastopol, 50 miles southwest of Simferopol.” The Russian navy, apparently, maintains a large force near Sevastopol.
The fledgling government in Kiev certainly believes that Putin’s Russia is behind these unsettling developments. According to the Times, Ukrainian interior minister Arsen Avakov said on his Facebook page: “Tension is building. I regard what is happening as an armed invasion and occupation in violation of all international treaties and norms. This is a direct provoking of armed bloodshed on the territory of a sovereign state.”
There is little reason to doubt that the Russians are coming to Ukraine, and that Putin is using his leverage in largely pro-Russian eastern Ukraine (which includes Crimea) to establish Russian hegemony in the region.
So what should the U.S. be doing at this juncture? How can it best help protect the rights of the Ukrainian people?
Ousted Ukrainian president Viktor F. Yanukovych was a thug whom Putin convinced to give up an alliance with the European Union in favor of Russian patronage. It is unclear whether the forces of corruption have been utterly swept from the parliament in Kiev, but the fledgling and unstable government operating there is clearly the best hope the Ukrainian people have for a just and democratic future.
So the U.S. must support it far more vigorously than it has so far.
Last week President Obama insisted that in regard to both Ukraine and Syria the U.S. is not sparring with Russia on “some Cold War chessboard.” Today’s events in Crimea puncture such jejune assessment. The U.S. is currently putting together an aid package for Ukraine. To his credit, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Wednesday that:
“Personally, I don’t think it is enough for us to be heralding the advent of democracy and to applaud the courage and conviction of the people who brought about this transition and then just not do anything. I think that is unconscionable.”
This economic package is a good start. But much more vociferous moral support might even be more precious, and effective in warding off Putin, than gold.
Charles Krauthammer has suggested a three-pronged U.S. plan to counteract Putin’s endgame: First, Obama must make “a declaration of full-throated American support for Ukraine’s revolution.” Second, the U.S. government must offer the fledgling Ukraine democratic parliament an aid package that would replace the aid that Putin took off the table when Yanukovych went into hiding. And third, the U.S. must join with the E.U. to put together a longer aid package through the International Monetary Fund.
This is a sensible approach.
To be clear: America has no military business in Ukraine. It doesn’t even need to send, as Krauthammer would like, a naval flotilla into the Black Sea to let Putin know we mean business. It simply needs to speak up and to provide substantial economic support.
And pray that the ethnic divisions in Ukraine won’t scuttle its efforts even if Putin does back off.