Here's what Obama should do about the Ukraine protests: Nothing

Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor

Ukraine protests
(Image credit: (Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images))

Things are getting hot in Ukraine's capital. After more than two weeks of growing, mostly peaceful protests — a statue of Vladimir Lenin was destroyed last weekend — riot police stormed into the heart of the anti-government demonstrations Tuesday night, clearing much of the protest camp in Kiev's Independence Square with the help of heavy machinery. The protests resumed as soon as the police withdrew.

Earlier, President Viktor Yanukovych — the focus of the protests — had met with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and other Western diplomats seeking to defuse the crisis. The spark for the mass demonstrations was Yanukovych's decision to scrap a free-trade agreement with the EU that he'd pledged to sign, and his signaling that he would join a Russian-led trade bloc instead. Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened punishing sanctions if Ukraine finalizes the EU deal.

The Western diplomats were not pleased with the overnight crackdown. Neither were the protest leaders. "We won't forgive this," said Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a protest organizer and opposition leader in parliament. Yanukovych just "spit in the face of America, EU countries, and 46 million Ukrainians," he added.

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There's a lot at stake in this standoff between the Russia-leaning Yanukovych and the EU-aspiring protesters. It has increasingly become a proxy battle between an interventionist Russia and the eastward-creeping European Union. Russia has the cheap natural gas Ukraine relies on; Europe has the type of economic and political systems many Ukrainians want to emulate.

It's hard for the U.S. to refrain from throwing itself into a popular protest seeking greater freedom, especially when that freedom involves diminishing the heavy-handed influence of Vladimir Putin's Russia — home to NSA leaker Edward Snowden, protector of Syria's Bashar al-Assad, quasher of gay rights, and, of course, longtime Cold War arch-rival.

Already, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed strong U.S. "disgust" at the crackdown on nonviolent protesters. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, who was in Kiev before and during the police raid, issued a more nuanced statement saying the police action was "absolutely impermissible in a European state, in a democratic state," but leaving the door open if Yanukovych wants to cut a deal "to save Ukraine's European future."

And as The Nation's Bob Dreyfuss notes, "the neoconservative anti-Russia lobby" is pushing hard to turn this into the second coming of 2004's Orange Revolution, "a good-vs.-evil struggle of titanic, Manichean proportions."

But President Obama should seriously consider leaving this fight to Europe.

First of all, the U.S. already has its plate full, diplomatically speaking: Iran is the prime example, but the Obama team is also trying to get something going in the stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks, smooth Saudi Arabia's ruffled feelings, figure out how to handle increasingly authoritarian Egypt, push back against China's claim of expansive sovereign air space, weather the constant crisis-in-waiting that is North Korea, and fight a thousand other little fires. If the Europeans can handle this, let them.

With the U.S. in a particularly isolationist mood, there's no political upside to getting involved in another foreign spat — even one against the remnants of the Evil Empire. Conservative hawks might be pushing for it, but that's not where the energy of the Republican Party is — remember how well Obama's push to slap Russian-aligned Syria went?

And finally, and most importantly, robust U.S. involvement would likely backfire. The U.S. does and should want Ukraine to move into Western Europe's orbit. But if the U.S. takes the role of "leading the Western charge, Moscow would regard it is a particularly dangerous geopolitical challenge," says the Brooking Institution's Steven Pifer:

That would introduce to the complicated politics that are now playing out in Kiev a U.S.-Russia competitive dynamic that would hardly be helpful to — and might well complicate — efforts to find a peaceful political solution to the current crisis.... While the Russians see the European Union as a geopolitical competitor, they do not see it in the same way that they see the United States. In the current political crisis in Kiev, it is appropriate that the European Union take the Western lead. [Brookings]

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.