Putin ratchets up pressure on Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin put 150,000 troops at the Ukraine border on high alert and cut off $15 billion in financial aid.

What happened

Russian President Vladimir Putin put 150,000 troops at the Ukraine border on high alert this week, and cut off $15 billion in financial aid to the almost-bankrupt country, in a clear attempt to intimidate Ukraine’s interim government. Russia’s show of strength came just days after pro-European protesters toppled Ukraine’s Kremlin-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych, forcing him to flee Kiev by battling security forces and riot police in fiery street battles that left more than 80 people dead. The interim government issued a warrant for the ex-president’s arrest on charges of mass murder, but he remained at large and is believed to be hiding in the southern region of Crimea, which has a majority ethnic-Russian population. Russian officials refused to recognize Ukraine’s interim government, which they dismissed as “Kalashnikov-toting people in black masks,” and expressed concern for the safety of ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and Crimea—language similar to their justification for invading Georgia in 2008.

In Crimea, pro-Russia activists clashed with supporters of the new government and called on Moscow to intervene and protect the region from authorities in Kiev. But Secretary of State John Kerry warned Putin to respect Ukraine’s “territorial integrity” and avoid “an old Cold War confrontation.” U.S. and European officials were also scrambling to put together a financial package to prop up Ukraine’s debt-loaded economy, with the country’s finance ministry saying it would need $35 billion to survive 2014 and 2015.

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What the editorials said

Ukraine’s revolutionaries urgently need the West’s help, said The Wall Street Journal. The country has the building blocks of democracy—a parliament, opposition parties, and free media—but is hobbled by its post-Soviet, corruption-riddled economy. The International Monetary Fund must arrange a loan to keep the country afloat, and the European Union should offer Ukraine membership, giving its new leaders “an incentive and road map to reform.”

The West can’t stabilize Ukraine without Russia, said The New York Times. If Moscow is excluded from the transition process, ethnic Russians in the country’s east will feel that the West is forcing a new, nationalist government on them. That would only fuel separatist movements. The key is to persuade all Ukrainians “that a democratic Ukraine with ties to Europe can also maintain the culture, language, and history it shares with Russia.”

What the columnists said

For an autocrat like Putin, the sight of Yanukovych being driven from his palace is “a nightmare,” said John McLaughlin in USA Today. Russia’s czar knows that if liberal democracy takes hold next door, many middle class Russians will get dangerous ideas. That scenario is so terrifying to the Russian autocrat that he may look for a pretext to intervene militarily, and “install a Russian-friendly government in the east.”

Russia won’t invade, said Dmitri Trenin in The New York Times. The last thing Putin wants is a “civil war next door.” Prolonged instability would hurt the Kremlin financially, as the pipelines that carry Russian natural gas to customers in Western Europe run straight through Ukraine. Instead, Putin will use economic weapons to “intimidate, if not blackmail, the interim rulers in Kiev,” said Nicholas Burns in The Boston Globe. If the new government joins the EU and snubs Moscow, Putin could stop supplying the country with the natural gas that Ukrainians need to heat their homes. Or he could place new tariffs and restrictions on goods from Ukraine, which sends 25 percent of its exports to Russia. “Putin will be prepared to play a tough, cynical game.”

In the end, the biggest threat to this revolution is not Putin, said Simon Shuster in Time.com. It’s Ukraine’s economy, which is in “utter shambles.” Whoever wins presidential elections scheduled for May faces a possible default on the country’s national debt—causing the price of basic goods to skyrocket and the currency’s value to plummet. Demonstrators could soon be gathered outside the offices and homes of today’s revolutionaries. “Ukrainians have developed a taste for protest. They’re great at it, and they will use their people power no matter who is in charge.”

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