Monday, February 24, 2014

Ukraine, Putin, Obama and the art of watchful waiting

ON WEDNESDAY, protests by Ukrainians outraged at the government’s deliverance of their economic future to Russia escalated into waves of fighting in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, bloody clashes that were almost apocalyptic in their imagery.

What a difference three or four days can make. On Saturday, the Ukrainian parliament voted to remove President Viktor Yanukovich, who bolted from the capital, bound for parts unknown. The Ukrainian parliament appointed Oleksandr Turchynov as Ukraine's new interim president. BBC News reported that, after his appointment, Turchynov pledged to institute a "government of the people,” saying "we have to return to the family of European countries,” an implicit statement of an intention to return to the orbit of the European Union, and away from Moscow.

“We are ready for a dialogue with Russia ... on a new, fair, equal and neighborly basis, acknowledging and taking into account Ukraine's European choice,” he said.

The parliament also freed from prison former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a Yanukovich political foe. Sky News reported that Tymoshenko said she was “sure” Ukraine will join the European Union “and this will change everything.”

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Yanukovich’s overthrow — amid days of violence in which 88 people were killed and parts of Kiev’s Independence Square became an operatic inferno — was an unalloyed repudiation of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his hopes of effectively building a New Soviet Union, one with Ukraine as a crown jewel satellite. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Ukraine's opposition “had in effect seized power in Kiev, refused to disarm and continued to place its bets on violence,” BBC reported.

The collapse of Yanukovich was symbolized in comic fashion on Saturday. People arrived by the hundreds at Mezhygirya, the president’s abandoned private estate outside Kiev, to stroll around the grounds and take photos of the loot amassed at this Xanadu by the Dnepr River: His private zoo fat with ostriches, peacocks and deer. Sparkling waterfalls and an 18-hole golf course. A tennis court and bowling alley. An underground shooting range. Extensive private gardens. A car park with a 1950 Rolls-Royce and a 1963 Chevrolet Impala.

If only Yanukovich had been as democratic in wielding his presidential authority as he was in picking his cars.

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AS TURCHYNOV considers what’s next, and as Ukraine readies for new elections (now set for May), the United States will wait on tenterhooks for a more final resolution along with everyone else. But for now, President Obama’s gradualist approach to the situation in Kiev has turned out to be the right one. Once again, just like in Syria, the president resisted the reflex among conservatives — Arizona Sen. John McCain among them — to immediately start ratcheting up the tension with sanctions or threats of use of military force.

McCain, remember, was the one who just days ago condemned the president, even as he quickly called for targeted sanctions against Ukraine — the kind of thing that was likely to hurt the very people already being hurt by the Ukrainian government.

“This is the most naive president in history,” McCain said Thursday on Phoenix radio station KFYI, as reported by Politico. “The naiveté of Barack Obama and [Secretary of State] John Kerry is stunning ... This thing could easily spiral out of control into a major international crisis. The first thing we need to do is impose sanctions on those people who are in leadership positions,” McCain said.

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The senator had company. Niall Ferguson, drawn Wilkinson Sword flashing in the sun as usual, weighed in on Friday, in The Wall Street Journal. Lamenting what he called the U.S.’ “geopolitical taper,” Ferguson said that what was then the first blush of a deal for a coalition government in Ukraine “may or may not spell the end of the crisis. In any case, the negotiations were conducted without concern for Mr. Obama.”

The Journal, elsewhere in full scathing mode, took Obama to task in a Friday editorial: “As for the U.S., it's no coincidence that Mr. Putin asserted himself in Ukraine not long after Mr. Obama retreated in humiliating fashion from his "red line" in Syria. As always in history, such timidity invites the aggression it purports to prevent. If this American President won't even bomb Damascus airfields to stop the use of chemical weapons, why would Mr. Putin think Mr. Obama would do anything for eastern Europe?”

It escapes Ferguson — who wrote his piece before events changed the very next day — that the negotiations were supposed to be “conducted without concern for Mr. Obama.” What played out in Kiev over the last week was internal to Ukraine, and a matter to be settled by Ukrainians. The fact that it was at least temporarily settled without geopolitical meddling, from the United States or anyone else, underscores just what can be accomplished when solutions to crises are allowed to develop organically on their own.

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THIS CAN’T be an unalterable model; in an increasingly chaotic world whose nations are more and more interdependent, situations do not always lend themselves to protracted deliberative strategy.

But that’s exactly why what’s called for — what Obama seems to understand — is having a situational reaction to global crises: gauging the specific threat, weighing the particular risks, engaging regional partners with skin in the game, evaluating all the options — not just the confrontational ones — and pushing back on reflexive, ritual eagerness to templatize solutions involving the use of, or the immediate threat of, armed or economic response.

The way events in Independence Square have so far played out, swiftly, without interference or sanctions, is an implicit proof of the value of watchful waiting. What looked to saber-rattlers like “timidity” or “naiveté” on Kiev was more precisely the art of diligent observation. The results for now confirm the importance of letting a short-term conflict play itself out on its own terms.

The benefits to the U.S., beyond achieving a geopolitical triumph of optics (Putin’s in a serious box right now, Sochi Olympics notwithstanding), include a grassroots embrace of democratic principles consistent with America’s own, and (from the Ukrainian perspective) the inevitable pride in having achieved this themselves. Something that Thomas Friedman of The New York Times understands.

“This happened from the bottom up,” he told Fox News over the weekend. “The West didn’t do this, the United States didn’t do this, the EU didn’t do this, the Ukrainian people did this.”

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On Friday, Obama said “we’ll be monitoring very carefully the situation,” adding that “there will be consequences if people step over the line.”

We may never know what those “consequences” would have been, although with that statement’s rhetorical echo of the “red line” Obama set over the atrocities in Syria, we’re invited to think they wouldn’t have come to much more in Ukraine than they did in Syria.

The president's statement was vague and general, and maybe that was by design. There was discussion of how Washington should react, but practically there no immediate options available to him; no sanctions regime or military option could possibly have been exercised. But as events unfolded, and by not being goaded into rash actions for the sake of appearing to Do Something, President Obama achieved several objectives by taking no direct action beyond the expected outrage at the loss of human life, and a general consideration of formal reaction.

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THE PRINCIPLE of self-determination, if not exactly democracy, was powerfully upheld in Ukraine by Ukrainians with (to this point) a relatively small loss of life. The domestic Republican wind machine, the one that howls for sanctions and rancor at the earliest opportunity, just had its clock cleaned, if only for a moment.

And most importantly, Putin’s naked overreach, his bid to extend Russia’s sphere of influence over a neighboring sovereign nation, has been soundly rebuffed by the people and the parliament of that nation, the trade deal he conjured to keep Ukraine in thrall now a thing of the past — just like the government he signed that deal with.

“Mr. Putin's agenda in Ukraine is part of his larger plans to solidify his own authoritarian control and revive Greater Russia,” The Journal said on Friday. “Without Ukraine, the most important of the former Soviet satellites, a new Russian empire is impossible.”

Now, in the wake of what’s happened in the two days since, how is Putin closer to achieving that agenda? Simply put, he’s not. What the Russian president does next bears watching.

President Obama will tell you that.

Image credits: Ukrainian flag: via The National. Tymoshenko: Bulent Kilic/Getty Images. Protester on fire, Street clash in Kiev: Alexey Furman/EPA. Putin: via The Huffington Post. Obama: Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press.

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