Russian President Vladimir Putin has been making an effort not only to catapult Russia back on the world stage, but also to cobble together portions of the old Soviet empire. Ukraine, with its 45 million people, would be the jewel in the crown. However, it is proving to be a stumbling block for Putin's dreams of empire. Public sentiment in Ukraine favored an association agreement with the EU, which at last was possible after five years of negotiation. The agreement was ready for execution.
Putin refused to let it happen. He imposed price hikes and threatened to cut off the supply of vital natural gas. He also imposed trade restrictions to block the deal with Brussels, which represented a shift westward for Ukraine and away from Russia's sphere to influence. As a further step, the Russians made a direct appeal to the personal financial interests of Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovich and that country's corrupt ruling elite (Financial Times, Dec. 3, p. 13).
This approach of carrots and sticks did the job. Yanukovich announced he was forsaking the EU agreement. Instead, the Ukraine would move under Russia's umbrella. The country would participate in what Moscow called a customs union, which is an alternative trade bloc to the EU.
The people of the Ukraine were outraged. They viewed the EU agreement as the first step leading to real democracy. Crowds of hundreds of thousands poured out into Independence Square in Kiev in freezing temperatures to protest their government's domination by Moscow. They wanted their country to move closer to the EU and further from Russia.
Predictably, they were met with riot police brutally wielding truncheons. Putin threw his support behind the embattled Yanukovich, lashing out against the protestors.
And what did the United States, the great beacon of freedom for the rest of the world, do to support the Ukrainian people in their hour of need? Absolutely nothing. Secretary of State Kerry even skipped a planned visit to Kiev in early December. Kerry's action was viewed as a snub by the Ukraine (Wall Street Journal, Dec. 3, p. A10).
The administration was afraid of provoking Russia while it was trying to do business with Putin in other areas, including Syria and Iran. Rather than supporting the demonstrators, Kerry merely said, "Violence has no place in a modern European state" (Washington Post, Dec. 4, 2013, p. A9). Not much help there. For the Ukrainian people, the indifference of the United States has been a bitter pill to swallow.
The situation is reminiscent of the Hungarian crisis in the fall of 1956. In October in Budapest, as in Kiev, there were peaceful protests and demonstrations against the harshness and severity of the Russian-controlled government. The Hungarian people wanted to turn toward the West, but their government, like the Ukraine, at Moscow's urging, turned loose the police to forcibly end the demonstrations.
By the beginning of November, it was clear that Moscow would do whatever it took to make certain that Hungary remained within their sphere. When the Hungarian police couldn't achieve that result, Russian tanks and troops were sent to do the job.
The Hungarian freedom fighters' only hope was help and support from Washington. Like the Ukrainians, they expected that help. However, President Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles had no intention of confronting Russia. Ironically, at that time they were trying to ingratiate the U.S. with Russia in the hope that Moscow would help in connection with another Middle East crisis: the Suez war. We let the Russians squelch the flame of freedom in Hungary, ensuring that Moscow would continue to dominate the Hungarian people for decades.
What is particularly disheartening is that the United States' silence in response to the Ukrainian protests will achieve absolutely nothing with Putin. I studied the Russian leader extensively in making him a role model for the Russian president in my recent novel, The Russian Endgame. Putin's record establishes beyond question that this former KGB official is a man who respects strength and scoffs at weakness. He doesn't bargain or compromise. He is a bully who demands the whole loaf and is generally clever enough to get it.
Syria is a case in point. The U.S. objective has been to remove Assad from power, or at least to persuade him to stop killing his people and relieve the hardships being suffered by millions of Syrians. Months of dealing with Putin about Syria have gotten us no closer to that objective.
The United States should be the moral standard for the world. The people in the Ukraine are looking to Washington for leadership to relieve their plight. It's time that the administration stood up to Putin on their behalf.
Our failure to intervene will not mean that the problem fizzles out and drops out of the news. Quite the opposite. Growing more desperate because they are alone, and at the same time growing bolder in their opposition to Moscow's puppet Yanukovich, the demonstrators are likely to ratchet up their protests. The anger of the people is growing more volatile (New York Times, Dec. 8, 2013, p. 10). This means that increased violence is a virtual certainty. And what if the Ukrainian police, like those in Hungary in 1956, cannot control the protestors? Putin may send in Russian troops and tanks claiming that he was asked to do so by the Ukrainian government.
If that occurs, the administration in Washington will be on even more of a hot seat. Would our leaders still stand by passively and let the carnage and killing of civilians occur as Eisenhower and Dulles did in Hungary?