April 8, 2014

Putin’s Protests Put Eastern Ukraine in Danger

Kremlin-inspired protests in several cities mean that Putin is once again turning the screws.

Russia appears to be positioning itself to take over parts of eastern Ukraine, just as we feared. Prior to annexing Crimea, a peninsula jutting out into the Black Sea at the southern end of Ukraine, Russia sent in its military and instigated pro-Russian factions to seize government buildings while clamoring for “independence,” by which they meant a return to Kremlin control. Before Barack Obama had time to pull out his red pen and draw a line, Crimea was in Russian hands.

That scenario seems to be playing out all over again in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Donetsk, Kharkiv and Lugansk, three regions with a high concentration of Russian-speaking residents. “Protesters” no doubt commissioned by Moscow seized government buildings on Sunday and created a “people’s republic” in Donetsk and an “independent republic” in Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine. This is likely a precursor to joining Russia, which lies just across the border. The State Department says the protests were not a “spontaneous set of events,” so perhaps they have learned something from Benghazi.

According to Ukraine Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, “The plan is to destabilize the situation. The plan is for foreign troops to cross the border and seize the country’s territory, which we will not allow.” But what is Yatsenyuk going to do? He started with calling on police to clear out protesters, which they did in Kharkiv, but if he escalates too far, Vladimir Putin then has “legitimate cause” to save “oppressed Russians.” Not that he needs a pretext – if Yatsenyuk does nothing, Putin may very well sweep in anyway. The Russian president has made no secret of his desire to rebuild at least some of the Soviet empire. And Moscow’s parliament rubber-stamped Putin’s desire to use Russian soldiers to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine. Tens of thousands of those troops are stationed at Ukraine’s border for just such a moment of need.

Meanwhile, Putin is demanding the farce of “federalism” in Ukraine, by which he means that all Russian-speaking areas should become autonomous – before submitting to effective rule by the Kremlin, of course. Perhaps by using a term so dear to American history, Putin thinks he can once again outmaneuver the Obama White House in negotiations over the future of Ukraine. He’s probably right, because all Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry can do is keep warning of “further costs for Russia.”

Last week, Putin turned the economic screws on Ukraine by raising natural gas prices by 80%. Ukraine is so far the only nation experiencing “further costs” because Putin’s language, offers and actions amount to this: “Nice country you have there. Shame if anything happened to it.”

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