There were seldom any genuine fears that the fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Egypt or Sudan could bring us dangerously closer to a third world war, but the situation in Ukraine is different — this time it is clearly East against West — and so the level of anxiety has soared.
Don’t blame it on the Ukrainian people, who were totally fed up with the way their corrupt elected leaders were behaving and therefore willing to risk their lives to bring about change.
And the change most of them — but by no means all of them — desired was a closer relationship with the European Union in general and the enviably successful government in neighboring Poland in particular.
What most of them clearly didn’t want and are determined to avoid was a return to the dismal days when Ukraine was under the political, economic and military thumb of the old Soviet Union.
Yes, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but under Vladimir Putin’s leadership Moscow still covets its influence over Ukraine, the largest nation in Europe and, as Putin sees it, a buffer against the west and in particular the military capabilities of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
True, there are strong cultural and political ties to Russia among a majority of the people of Crimea, Ukraine’s province on the Black Sea, and undoubtedly that majority will vote tomorrow to officially renew their connection to Moscow.
And although the Crimean referendum is seriously flawed, and the presence of Russian soldiers a gross act of intimidation, its outcome nevertheless will augment Putin’s brazen ambitions and conceivably do great damage to Ukraine’s perfectly plausible quest for independence and prosperity.
Adding to the drama is the presence of 10,000 of Putin’s troops and weaponry in those parts of Ukraine closest to the Russian border. No wonder the Ukrainian people fear an invasion.
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, met in London yesterday with Secretary of State John Kerry, whose primary goal was to somehow derail the Crimean referendum that the United States and the European Union have declared illegal. But Western diplomats expressed no hope the referendum will be scrapped.
Kerry had previously warned him that Russia will face fresh sanctions if there isn’t a reversal of its strategy toward Ukraine.
German chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday that the consequences for Russia would be huge if it failed to enter into negotiations, and although she ruled out military force, she warned that the crisis would cause “massive damage to Russia, economically and politically”.
Meanwhile, speaking to the United Nations Security Council this week, Ukraine’s young prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, accused Russia of unacceptable “military aggression.”
However, Yatsenyuk also said he is convinced Russia does not really want war, and he urged Moscow to engage in a dialog with Ukraine. The West’s case for peace in Ukraine may be admirable and practical, but the decision that will settle the issue will be made not by Westerners but by a man whose apparent top priority is to restore Russia to its former dominance.
Whatever it takes, Washington and its European allies must be prepared to make Putin’s cost more than he can afford.