While Russia was busy winning an unofficial medal count at the $51 billion Olympics it just hosted in Sochi, it was losing its grip on nearby Ukraine — a 45-million population European country central to the Kremlin's empire-building efforts in the post-Soviet territories.
A revolution in Ukraine's capital city of Kiev toppled a broke, kleptocratic regime that was increasingly turning pro-Russian.
Many in the West rushed to celebrate.
But such a celebration was both premature and in bad taste.
Scores of human lives claimed by the revolution have further divided the people of Ukraine, which has been split almost evenly between the majority who are looking to the European Union and the United States for financial support and those who are looking to Russian President Vladimir Putin for money.
So has Mr. Putin’s provocative announcement of Russian military exercises on Ukraine's border and the ensuing seizure of the parliament and government offices and the two main airports in southern Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, reportedly by security contractors controlled by the Russian government. The Russian flag was raised over the Crimean parliament building.
Also split are the leaders of the new Ukraine, with its most viable figure — former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko — tainted by corruption scandals that helped nullify the results of a previous pro-Western revolution in Ukraine 10 years ago.
The good part is that an all-out Russian military intervention in Ukraine would make no sense.
Mr. Putin is not likely to broaden Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine beyond the peninsula, where he has the support of the Russian-speaking majority in the regional capital city of Simferopol and in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, where Russia has a major naval base a stone's throw from the strategically important Mediterranean Sea. A broader intervention is unlikely because the Russian economy is too dependent on the European energy market to further antagonize the West and because Russia's military is not nearly a match for that of the United States.
However, the economic leverage Russia holds over Ukraine is more than enough to compensate for that deficiency. Ukraine’s largest trading partner, Russia, also has control of it as its natural gas supplier. Russia has not hesitated to use gas pricing as political leverage in the past and when that was not enough resorted to outright gas-supply interruptions.
So, uncomfortable and face-losing as it may be, the United States and the E.U. have no other choice but to seek Mr. Putin's cooperation in Ukraine.
Such cooperation is not altogether impossible.
First, Russia is interested in a peaceful settlement of the crisis because it has natural gas pipelines transporting Russian natural gas through Ukraine to Europe, and Russia relies on that export to keep its economy going.
Second, the Russian elite sees itself as worldly, loves to travel, and prefers to educate its offspring in Europe, where it also keeps a good share of the money it has plundered. Feezing such assets wouldn't be in their interest.
Third, if the E.U. and the United States put their heads together and agree to bail out Ukraine, collectively it would be more affordable for them than for the Putin regime, which has so far scraped up only $15 billion for the purpose. The new Ukrainian authorities claim they need $35 billion just for the first two years.
But there is a major difficulty on the road toward integrating Ukraine into Europe — Ukraine's all-pervasive corruption.
In order to make sure that Ukrainian politicians don't use their country to plunder the country and cause yet another revolution, the West may want to make that bailout contingent upon reforming Ukraine's political, judicial, and economic institutions that eventually would turn Ukraine into a meritocracy.
As the persistent and systemic corruption in Russia has demonstrated, however, such changes take generations. So the West faces a daunting task of helping the leaders of Ukraine's revolution — many of whom were involved in Ukraine's former governments — stay on a straight and narrow if it doesn't want Ukraine's loyalties to continue to be divided between Europe and Russia.
That task will most likely be further complicated by the Kremlin’s meddling, which the average Russian is bound to support. While Russians tend to see Ukrainians as a culturally insignificant minority and while Ukrainians are largely vehemently opposed to Russian domination, the two people are linguistically close and have so much in common that both claim Kiev as the cradle of their respective cultures.
Mike Sigov, a former Russian journalist in Moscow, is a U.S. citizen and a staff writer for The Blade.
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