For a few days after protesters of varied political stripes and legislators of different motives deposed President Viktor Yanukovych, you could call Ukraine a story of new possibilities. In a weekend, it turned into a story of limits and futility.
It was daunting enough when the provisional government faced an urgent fiscal and economic crisis as its No. 1 task without quite knowing who would extend a hand. Now it stares full front at questions it wanted to brush aside:
• Is the new administration legal according to Ukraine's constitution?
• Who, exactly, does it represent?
• How is it going to re-assert its authority in Crimea, which is decisively given to its historical bonds with Russia, and how will it respond to Vladimir Putin's new signals that he has no intention of standing by as Kiev attempts to pull the nation westward with one swift yank?
You cannot answer any of these questions without addressing all of them. The legitimacy of the interim regime is shaky and in all likelihood non-existent, as even its supporters agree. In any case, it speaks for part of Ukraine's 46 million citizens, and many of its members are veteran losers in past elections. Street mayhem, in part instigated by right-wing extremists, has done for the new regime what they could not get done in polling booths.
Finally, there is little prospect of Kiev regaining control in Crimea unless Putin, who now deploys troops already stationed there, chooses to give it back to them. This is a simple, on-the-ground reality. Another, buried in news reports, is that Sergei Aksyonov, prime minister of the constitutionally autonomous Crimea, telephoned Putin to request Russian assistance.
I see three key limits that protesters, the provisional government, and the Europeans and Americans in support of both have reached.
First, there are the limits of wishful thinking. Even as Ukraine is now on the brink of dividing into two or three, it is incessantly repeated that its people have spoken. "What has taken place is a popular revolution, with all of the messiness, confusion, and opposition that entails," Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian, wrote in strident tones in a New York Review of Books blog Saturday.
Part of Ukraine's political constellation appeals to Western strategists and policy planners. Well and good. No magic can make it stand for the whole in a nation self-evidently perched between East and West.
This leads to the second item — the limits of Western influence. Recognizing this limit is a post-Cold War project, essential to achieving a secure 21st century. One cannot find a purer case in point than Ukraine as we have it today.
Fooling around in Russia's backyard by manipulating ambitious, self-interested oppositionists, as Washington was doing at least since anti–Yanukovych demonstrations began last November, was a drastic miscalculation. It is difficult to understand how the nation that lived by the Monroe Doctrine for two centuries could imagine that Putin, vigorously a man of "Great Russia," would stand by as Washington (and the European Union more subtly) played on sectional discontent to shake Ukraine loose.
Ukraine is now unhinged all right. A high school history student could have anticipated the consequences. Putin has quietly built to full boil these past days. Late Saturday he declared he had the right to intervene in Ukraine on the pretext of protecting Russian interests.
In a day the Obama administration went from portentous threats — "There will be costs," the president declared — to the shriveling reality that it has little chance of influencing Putin with sanctions, a boycott of the June G–8 session in Sochi, or any other available move. It is not a new story.
The administration was full of assurances, just as the George W. Bush team had encouraged Mikheil Saakashvili, president of Georgia, to stand up to Moscow in 2008, only to leave him twisting. John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower's secretary of state, did the same thing to the Hungarians in 1956: We are behind you, he promised, but we were not in the hour of need.
In this way the Ukraine tragedy is real estate with a lot of names on the deed.
Finally, the limits of Western economic power. The EU and Washington began bobbing and weaving about how much aid they could extend to Ukraine instantly after Putin suspended the $15 billion bailout he had committed last year. This past week Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign minister, urged Ukrainians not to forget "the importance of the strong links between Ukraine and Russia and the importance of having them maintained."
It is rather late in the game to cite history, culture, politics, and so on. Were I Ukrainian, it would come over as an insult following the talks on a trade and political deal intended to pull the nation decisively westward with promises of a cheery future in the mode of Western-style prosperity.
To put this in perspective, many experts believe Ukraine needs $35 billion over two years to get out of its hole; Putin was on for the first half. In the deal Yanukovych rejected last year, the EU's offer was $839 million, and that would have come with politically dangerous demands for austerity attached.
There is a wise course forward for the U.S. and Europeans within these limits. First, combine the economics of the crisis: the technocratic realities with the political realities and Russia's obvious and real interests. Next, disillusion the rambunctious pols in Kiev as to just what is possible.
Then talk Putin away from Ukraine's borders and structure a joint deal deploying Moscow's money with the EU's, Washington's, and the International Monetary Fund's. Caveat: The IMF would have to loosen significantly its customary conditionality in recognition of the nation's fragility.
The immediate question facing potential givers of aid is to whom they would offer aid. Negotiating and then dropping billions of dollars on a self-appointed government that may be or (probably) is not legal brings obvious complications. Apart from this, will European and American leaders along with the IMF's Christine Lagarde avail of such thinking?
Doubtful. It will probably turn out to be another story of limits.
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