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Thursday, July 31, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 3/9/2014

COMMENTARY

Ukraine crisis tests American, global resolve

BY DAVID KUSHMA
BLADE EDITOR
Kushma Kushma
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Marcy Kaptur’s stake in the turmoil in Ukraine extends far beyond policy or politics. The congressman from Toledo has Ukrainian roots; on a visit to the country last July, she encountered a distant relative — a 73-year-old grandfather who confided: “Here, we only survive.”

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Even the survival of the fragile and deeply divided European nation has grown more perilous after its invasion by Russia. In the tradition of autocratic rulers of the old Soviet Union, Russian President Vladimir Putin seized effective control of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula after an interim Ukrainian government emerged from popular protests and forced out his corrupt and brutal ally, former president Viktor Yanukovych.

Mr. Putin’s flimsy assertion that “local defense forces” are protecting Russian-speaking Ukrainians from the new government’s fascist oppression isn’t fooling anyone who doesn’t want to be fooled. The crisis continues to grow, with Crimea preparing to break away, grab public assets, and annex itself to Russia without the approval of Ukraine’s government — an act President Obama says would break international law.

“The world community has to rise to this occasion,” Miss Kaptur told me last week. “We can’t let this kind of invasion of another country just stand.”

Miss Kaptur is cochairman of the Congressional Ukrainian Caucus, a bipartisan group of some 40 lawmakers who pay special attention to events in Ukraine. The challenge, she concedes, is getting Americans to care about what’s happening in Ukraine when, by her estimate, 80 percent of them couldn’t find the country on a map.

Protesters hold banners and shout during a rally against the conflict between Russia and Ukraine near the Russian embassy in Kiev, Ukraine, last Friday. Protesters hold banners and shout during a rally against the conflict between Russia and Ukraine near the Russian embassy in Kiev, Ukraine, last Friday.
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But if this nation and the world don’t stand up for freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in Ukraine, Miss Kaptur argues, these precious values will be diminished everywhere. She proposes a comprehensive response by Washington and the West that includes diplomatic, economic, humanitarian, and military elements aimed at turning back the Russian occupation.

The consequences of Mr. Putin’s overreaching are becoming clear in his own country, if he is prepared to acknowledge them. Russia’s stock market and the value of its currency plunged immediately after the Ukraine invasion, and have only partially recovered.

A credible poll of Russian citizens concluded that nearly three-fourths of them oppose intervention in Ukraine. Opposition political leaders and antiwar protesters have denounced the invasion — and have been arrested.

Perhaps Mr. Putin has lost touch with reality, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly suggested to President Obama. If so, the message that the United States and other Western nations send must be strong enough to persuade the Russian leader to abandon his delusions of becoming a 21st-century Stalin.

Economically, Miss Kaptur calls for Russia’s suspension from the Group of 8 large industrial nations. I’d argue for its expulsion, with the understanding that its status could change along with its behavior.

Travel bans and asset freezes can isolate Russian leaders and oligarchs, and deprive them of their wealth. Denying Russian banks access to the U.S. financial system and suspending talks on an expanded U.S.-Russian trade relationship would make our resolve clear.

At the same time, the West needs to help Ukraine’s new government achieve political and economic stability. National elections scheduled for May need to go forward, and they will require international monitoring to ensure they are free and fair. Ukraine’s desire to resist Russia’s dominance and join the European Union, which so enraged Mr. Putin, still deserves to be fulfilled.

Ukraine’s treasury is virtually empty after Mr. Yanukovych got done looting it. The country needs immediate humanitarian and financial aid and technical help.

But Miss Kaptur is right to suggest that the government must be held to tough performance and repayment standards, given the rampant thievery of its previous leaders. “They need to clean out a lot of bad eggs,” she says.

One sure way to restrain Mr. Putin’s power is to reduce the dependence of Ukraine and the rest of Europe on Russian natural gas. Ukraine gets 60 percent of its gas from Russia; for all of Europe, it’s about one-third. Over the past decade, by withholding gas exports, raising prices, or threatening to do so, Mr. Putin has used energy blackmail to get what he wants.

That dependence has muted European support for economic sanctions against Russia in the current crisis. It doesn’t have to be that way. Gas reserves are currently high in parts of Europe. Ukraine has substantial shale gas resources of its own, if it can figure out how to tap them productively with the help of Western investment and expertise.

Some gas pipelines in Europe bypass Russia. More countries, including ours, are finding economical ways to ship gas in liquid form; places such as Ukraine need to build the terminals to receive it.

And the boom in hydraulic fracturing in this country — including Ohio — has made the United States the world’s largest producer of natural gas, ahead of Russia. Much of that gas could be exported without threatening the adequacy of domestic supplies or forcing prices higher, if political obstacles can be overcome. All of these options can hit export-reliant Russia where it hurts, and further isolate its president politically.

What won’t help is loose talk in this country, from Republican politicians and their allies, about how Mr. Obama’s weakness is encouraging Mr. Putin’s aggression. So far, the President and Secretary of State John Kerry have reacted credibly to Russia’s provocations, balancing appropriate punishment of its bad behavior with the promise of potential rewards for more-civilized conduct.

Although a military response remains the last resort, it can’t be dismissed. Miss Kaptur proposes making Ukraine a “provisional” member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, recognizing the Ukrainian military’s past willingness to join NATO to battle terrorism.

If Russia gets away with its aggression in Ukraine, it may turn next to other parts of the old Soviet Union — Moldova, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia — whose sovereignty it also promised to respect. So Mr. Putin’s adventurism needs to end in Ukraine, quickly.

“We need to give [Ukraine] a chance to meet the rest of the world, not under the domination of tyrannical regimes,” Miss Kaptur says. “This is a test of our commitment to liberty, halfway around the world.”

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com or on Twitter @dkushma1



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