In canceling his trip to Ukraine this week, Secretary of State John Kerry passed up a chance to support hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian protesters who took to the streets seeking to oust President Viktor Yanukovych and his government so their country can exercise its right to self-determination.
The official excuse is that Mr. Kerry canceled the visit to show his disapproval of Mr. Yanukovych’s failure to sign a trade deal that would have brought Ukraine closer to integration into the European Union — as opposed to yielding to Russia’s effort to make the country a part of a Russia-led customs union.
The excuse doesn’t work.
Ukraine — a country of 45 million people — is Russia’s largest former Soviet vassal. It is central to European security.
The last time Ukraine defied the Kremlin was 2004, during the Orange Revolution, which put the country on the way to integration with Europe.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has since used Ukraine’s dependence on Russian natural gas to twist its arm and help bring to power Mr. Yanukovych, a Kremlin puppet who has recently grown more independent by playing Europe against Russia as he sought economic benefits for Ukraine’s shaky economy and corrupt bureaucracy.
Last weekend, protesters against Mr. Yanukovych’s pivot toward Russia took to the streets, notably in Kiev, where they occupied a government building and forced the Parliament to consider a “no confidence” resolution after a student protest was brutally dispersed by police. If passed, the resolution would have ousted the government.
Unfortunately, the measure did not pass, partly because the liberal-minded pro-Europe opposition leaders failed to gain the support of the Communist faction in the Parliament.
The government then tried to use the momentum and turn the tables on the opposition by calling on the protesters to “show respect for the law” and thus demonstrate their adherence to the “European way.”
Now would be a perfect time for Mr. Kerry as a representative of the United States, the leader of the free world, to lean in by following through with a long-planned visit to Kiev and — instead of Mr. Yanukovych — meet with the parliamentary opposition leaders to show the protesters that the United States supports their fight for democracy.
Alas, this will not happen.
Moreover, the European Union and the United States have issued statements condemning both excessive use of force by police and the seizure of buildings by the opposition while giving lip service to free speech and the right to assemble.
It is hard not to agree with those protesters who see such a reaction as selling Ukraine down the river to Big Brother, Russia, and to Mr. Putin, in particular.
Mr. Putin called a prospective Ukraine-E.U. deal a major threat to Russia’s economy.
His fear, though, is that Ukraine’s integration into the European Union very likely would bring the country into NATO, which he sees as a primarily anti-Russian military alliance.
In the past, he interrupted natural gas supplies in the middle of winter to show Ukraine who was boss.
More recently, the Kremlin has threatened economic war should Ukraine continue to seek integration into the European Union. And after a Russian Parliament member called for authorizing the use of Russia’s military in Ukraine, some Kremlin watchers suspected that Russia had already made such a threat — clearly a possibility after Russia’s five-day “successful little war” in Georgia in 2008 disrupted the former Soviet vassal’s aspirations to join NATO.
Absent signs of equivocal support of the protesters by the United States and the European Union — America’s closest ally — Mr. Yanukovych appears determined to win, threatening to use force if the protests persist.
Should the situation in Ukraine escalate, there is a threat that the country will split into a pro-European west and pro-Russian east.
Whether he gets all Ukraine or just half, it appears that Mr. Putin has played chicken with Washington and won.
Mike Sigov, a former Russian journalist in Moscow, is a U.S. citizen and a staff writer for The Blade.