Charles Krauthammer: U.S. should give Ukraine a chance to breathe

03/01/2014 12:00 AM

02/28/2014 6:28 PM

Henry Kissinger once pointed out that since Peter the Great, Russia had been expanding at the rate of one Belgium per year. All undone, of course, by the collapse of the Soviet Union, which Russian President Vladimir Putin called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the (20th) century.”

Putin’s mission is restoration. First, restore traditional Russian despotism by dismantling its nascent democracy. And then, having created iron-fisted “stability,” march.

Use the 2008 war with Georgia to detach two of its provinces, returning them to the bosom of Mother Russia (by way of Potemkin independence). Then late last year, pressure Ukraine to reject a long-negotiated deal for association with the European Union, to draw Ukraine into Putin’s planned “Eurasian Union” as the core of a new Russian mini-empire.

Turns out, however, Ukraine had other ideas. It overthrew Moscow’s man in Kiev, Viktor Yanukovych, and turned to the West. But the West – the European Union and America – had no idea what to do.

Russia does. Moscow denounces the overthrow as the illegal work of fascist bandits; refuses to recognize the new government created by parliament; withholds all economic assistance; and, in a highly provocative escalation, mobilizes its military forces on the Ukrainian border.

The response? The EU dithers and Barack Obama slumbers. After near-total silence during the first three months of Ukraine’s struggle for freedom, Obama said on camera last week that in his view Ukraine is no “Cold War chessboard.”

Unfortunately, this is exactly what it is for Putin. He wants Ukraine back.

What Obama doesn’t seem to understand is that American inaction creates a vacuum. His evacuation from Iraq consigned that country to Iranian hegemony, just as Obama’s writing off Syria invited in Russia, Iran and Hezbollah to reverse the tide of battle.

Putin fully occupies vacuums. In Ukraine, he keeps flaunting his leverage. He’s withdrawn the multibillion-dollar aid package with which he had pulled the now-deposed Ukrainian president away from the EU. He has suddenly mobilized Russian forces bordering Ukraine. His health officials are even questioning the safety of Ukrainian food exports.

This is a message to Kiev: We can shut down your agricultural exports today, your natural-gas supplies tomorrow. We can make you broke and we can make you freeze.

Either Ukraine will fall to Russian hegemony or finally determine its own future – if America balances Russia’s power.

How? Start with a declaration of full-throated American support for Ukraine’s revolution. Follow that with a serious loan/aid package – say, replacing Moscow’s $15 billion – to get Ukraine through its immediate financial crisis (the announcement of a $1 billion pledge of U.S. loan guarantees is a good first step). Then join with the EU to extend a longer substitute package, preferably through the International Monetary Fund.

The point is for the United States, leading Europe, to counter Russian pressure and make up for its blandishments and punishments until Ukraine is on firm financial footing.

Yes, $15 billion is a lot of money. But it’s less than one-half of one-tenth of 1 percent of the combined EU and U.S. gross domestic product. And expending treasure is infinitely preferable to expending blood. Especially given the strategic stakes: Without Ukraine, there’s no Russian empire.

Putin knows that. Which is why he keeps ratcheting up the pressure. The question is, can this administration muster the counterpressure to give Ukraine a chance to breathe?

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