Q: The former US ambassador to Ukraine, Steven Pifer, wrote last week at 2paragraphs that “Russia cares more about losing Ukraine than Europe and the West care about gaining it.” Do you think that’s still true–if it ever was? Has care perhaps deepened in the West, with the new developments? Are the Ukraine people in a legitimate position to choose between these poles–and must they?
A: Prior to the fall of the Yanukovych government, officials from the Department of State and dignitaries from the EU had offered their support for the Ukrainians at Maidan Square by shaking hands and handing out cookies. Then the old regime collapsed, President Yanukovych escaped to Russia, and violence shifted to Crimea and the city of Sevastopol. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and NATO Secretary-General Anders Rasmussen announced that they expected “other nations to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and to avoid provocative action.” Putin’s reaction was to put on alert elements of the Russian Army in the military districts that might be called upon to launch a “fraternal assistance” to those ethnic Russians who have been victimized by the Ukrainian “fascists” and their Western supporters. The echo of the language used before the Soviet invasions of Poland in 1939, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968 is loud and clear.
Having slumbered for the past 23 years, the West now, finally, seems to care about Ukraine. But how deeply? The answer is – not much. Putin assured George W. Bush in April 2008 that Ukraine was not a real state. As a good chauvinist he believes that it is merely an antechamber of Russia. If Ukraine were free from internal strife and economically stabilized, the EU would be happy to offer an association agreement, although not membership. By contrast, Putin would be willing to tie Ukraine to his neck even if it were a millstone likely to sink him into a major recession. The West has developed sympathy for the gutsy demonstrators in Kyiv. But its goodwill is empty. The gap between Western diplomats handing out cookies at Maidan and the roar of Russian armor could hardly be any bigger.
—Igor Lukes is a Professor of International Relations and History at Boston University, specializing in Central European History, East European Politics, Contemporary Russia.