Ukraine is nearly at war.
The war began in Kyiv on the Maidan in February, when Yanukovych's pro-Russian snipers cut down as many as 100 protesters.
Then Crimea, which Putin "won" but will eventually regret winning. The cost will be long-term and high.
Now in eastern and southern Ukraine. My first visits to Ukraine were in the "soviet" era; my most recent not long ago. Although most scholarly, diplomatic and NGO visits focus on Kyiv -- not just the political capital for more than 20 years, but also the most hospitable, cultured urban setting -- the Dnieper (Dnipro) River is truly a divide as much if not more than the Mason-Dixon Line in U.S. history. The river invokes a separation of ethnicity, history, language, politics and economics -- broadly, identity. In the Old Town of Lviv, a large and historic city on the far west of Ukraine's territory, the architecture and ambiance is that of middle not east Europe. Sit at a café in central Lviv and one hears German, Polish, English and French and experiences little difference from most of Hapsburg Europe.
A civilization abruptly ends as one moves east. From Lviv to Donetsk oblast (province), and especially in smaller cities such as Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, there are two days of hard driving (15-18 hours) if the weather cooperates. These are different worlds... as are Massachusetts and Mississippi, but perhaps even more so. We understand in the USA that cattle ranchers and their militia friends, or billionaire NBA owners, live on a different planet than those in Cambridge, MA, NW Washington, DC, Madison, WI or La Jolla, CA.
In Ukraine, however, there is the added and dangerous complication of Putin's Russia. Notwithstanding Putin's many biases, he has thus far eschewed intervention on behalf of Donald Sterling or Cliven Bundy. But, as we all know, Putin is no laughing matter regarding life and death in Ukraine. With Putin's ominous actions, both overt and covert, Russia has added volatile fuel and vitriol to what otherwise might have been non-violent interethnic tension. Now it has gone far, far beyond that line. In Ukraine, even more so than in Georgia or Moldova, recreating a Muscovite sphere of interest has become the subtext of everything.
Kramatorsk's 180,000 or so people still live under the aegis of Soviet-era influence in Ukraine. It is a miserable industrial habitat of blocs of flats and antiquated factories. Russian speakers are the vast majority. Poverty is the leitmotiv. Given the intense corruption of Yanukovych and his henchmen, most of whom are now comfortably ensconced in Russian protection (perhaps next door to Edward Snowden?), Ukraine's agricultural and economic wealth was siphoned off to procure both vast luxury and global bank accounts. Places like Kramatorsk wallowed in the swill of post-USSR destitution for decades.
Now, buttressed by Kremlin provocateurs and no doubt ample infiltrated weaponry, emboldened by Putin and the absence of concerted Western response, one sees the bitter harvest of years of neglect. Eastern Ukraine has been an industrial cesspool, a battleground during World War II and a place for Stalinist genocide (the starvation tactics of the Holodomor of 1932-33 killed millions of Ukrainian peasants). From Kharkiv and Donetsk, the stark reminders of the horror of Stalin, then war, and then vicious industrial servitude created the ripe conditions for today's extremism.
The young men in masks carrying Kalashnikovs and RPGs are not, by any means, the typical residents of eastern Ukraine. Sure, there are allegedly pro-Russian supporters in the hundreds or thousands... but most parents are worried for their children as in an email I received from a friend in Donetsk -- "Where can we send our children... they are afraid as are we." If polls could be faithfully conducted, I am sure that peace would win over conflagration, and that some accommodation within a loosely federated Ukraine would prevail over changing to Moscow's suzerainty. Remember, that has not been a history that most would want to see repeated.
Stymied by Putin's bare-chested, late middle-aged testosterone and Europe's reluctance for confrontation, what is to be done (apologies to Chernyshevsky and Lenin)?
Obama and team have been right in ratcheting up the economic costs to Moscow, if only Merkel and the EU would match the American effort. The Administration was right to send CIA Director Brennan to Kyiv in mid-April and to enhance intelligence sharing and strategic guidance. Thus far, the U.S. and NATO, despite Senator McCain and others, have justifiably avoided heightening Russian propensities to invade by saying no to shipments of lethal weaponry to Ukraine.
Hence, the answer is evident: Avoid exacerbating violence while helping Ukraine know more and better plan its responses. This was evident in the recent ruse involving acting President Turchynov's statement that Ukraine had lost control of the east when, in fact, there were imminent plans for a major offensive to re-take Slaviansk and Kramatorsk.
Alas, this interim government until elections later in May is populated by individuals without substantial credibility even west of the Dneiper -- too many hands having been in on the grab bag of corruption for too long. In this war, there will be no victors but losers throughout Ukraine and as far east as Moscow.