Ukraine and Russia: Ukraine’s little to nothing is a big thing in America

For nearly two years now, pro-Moscow separatists have waged a deadly war of attrition in Ukraine against the government in Kiev. The conflict has claimed more than 10,000 lives, with thousands more displaced from their homes and towns. For those who remember the broader and more dramatic problems surrounding the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, these were worrying things — unless your sense of history was made and expanded by the 22nd century.

On this page in February 2018, the Times’s Paul Krugman made the connection. His post — called “How Germany saved Ukraine” — listed the economic benefits Germany and the other European powers received in exchange for Ukraine’s disarmament, as well as the damage the financial sanctions they levied against Russia in 2008 had inflicted on that country. All told, he wrote, “Germany reaped huge gains from the conflicts of the last half century,” and the price that had been paid for those successes “paid a terrible price on Europe’s east and south.” He couldn’t have chosen a better moment to summarize the crisis in Ukraine, and it was tempting to read that as a critique of American policy.

Now, amid the current unrest in western Ukraine, a smaller victory by the Russian government has surfaced. The region of Osh, east of Donetsk, reports The Guardian, has been allowed to join Russia: “Russian forces have moved into Osh, believed to be the birthplace of the poet Taras Shevchenko.” In early May, a Russian warplane bombed a government-held village, the paper says, and next to the town a column of trucks with about 100 men, “apparently pro-Russian rebels,” had arrived. This is the second time that Russian troops have entered Ukrainian territory this year; in March, the Russians reportedly took control of Donetsk airport, too.

Western officials have downplayed both these events. “We stand ready to help,” Vice President Mike Pence said in April, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledged on May 4, “We have seen efforts to destabilize eastern Ukraine, including rocket attacks from Russia-backed separatists.” Does it make sense for these two stories to be on the same page, with U.S. foreign policy supposedly urging restraint in one and laying blame for the other? No, and both, it seems, are based on myths.

The truth is that this fight began in 2014, before the United States had any particular interest in Ukraine. That is the year when Ukrainian leaders elected Petro Poroshenko as president, and the next one would be Yulia Tymoshenko, the fiery former prime minister who was once imprisoned on corruption charges. Poroshenko had moved to re-arm Ukraine against Russian aggression and was soon pursuing economic and trade deals with Europe and China. As more Ukrainian troops became casualties, however, the anti-government protests turned increasingly militant and the Ukrainian military took control of the Crimean peninsula. After Russia seized the peninsula, NATO held military exercises in the area and, in December of that year, the alliance sent battalions into the region.

In the spring of 2014, President Barack Obama also directed American foreign policy away from pressuring Russia and toward Ukraine. He shunned Putin publicly — again — and aimed many of his gestures at Russia’s immediate neighbors, making them feel secure that America’s commitment to their well-being was not always an empty gesture. “People aren’t going to come over and steal the neighbors’ dogs or steal whatever else they think,” Obama said, in a talk in 2014. “Just saying, ‘This country, we’re committed to your security,’ isn’t enough.” After Putin intervened in Ukraine, the White House’s response was equally defiant: sanctions in the form of freezing assets and suspending bilateral military engagements. (In fact, the American government rejected Russian appeals for economic help.) These measures, among others, played to Russia’s weakness. And by strengthening NATO, the United States helped destroy the Soviet Union and establish what has become a powerful barrier to Russia’s ambitions.

Russia always knew it had a double-edged sword, a vulnerability that it used to its advantage. That weakness can be revealed just as clearly by events now on the eastern side of Europe. The West is sending warning signals, but those statements are often mixed with obfuscation. It is better to just let the story continue, lurching from crisis to crisis.

Read more in the Times and The Guardian.

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