A friend in need is a friend indeed. Ukrainian democrats are facing this moment of truth as they meddle through the toughest political battle on Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti in over 22 years of independence. As they take stock of their confrontation with the government, they have a chance to count their true allies.
Some support came from completely unexpected sources, including well-known actor George Clooney. Old brethren in arms voiced their support, too. These include Georgia’s ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili; EMPs from the European People’s Party, including Poland’s ex-prime minister Jerzy Buzek, MP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, and Head of Foreign Affairs Committee Elmar Brok. EC President Jose Manuel Barroso spared no effort, either. His condemnation of Russia’s pressure on Ukraine was surprisingly stern.
European leaders have come to terms with the fact that they do not have effective leverage to influence eastern europe
Yet, the list of friendly national leaders looks pretty short. US Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland handed out buns and sandwiches on the Maidan. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle made a visible and important step when he came to the Maidan on December 4 together with Vitaliy Klitschko. Ukrainian protesters also have reliable partners in Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski. Both politicians stand behind the EU’s Eastern Partnership programme for six post-Soviet states.
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US Secretary of State John Kerry said that Ukrainians “ought to be able to decide who they want to affiliate with” and that the US was “disgusted” to find out about the violent crackdown on protesters. On December 9, Vice President Joe Biden called Yanukovych before publishing a press release in which he reiterated the United States’ “strong support … for Ukraine’s European aspirations”.
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On December 3rd and 4th, 28 foreign ministers of NATO member-states gathered in Brussels for the summit. In their final statement, they called on the government and opposition in Ukraine to engage in dialogue and refrain from provocations—a statement so diplomatically moderate that it is hard to imagine a weaker formulation.
Still, West Europeans and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov exchanged some heated remarks during the meeting. Official documents did not report on this, but according to a Western diplomat quoted by France Press, the argument was about “not irritating Russia too much at a time when we’re all cooperating well on the issues of nuclear security in Iran and chemical weapons in Syria.”
The Kremlin was not nearly as delicate. Since December 2, Vladimir Putin has been referring to the Ukrainian protests as pogroms, claiming that they were organized from abroad to destabilize the legitimate government. Western leaders swallowed this insolence. Nothing changed much by the time this article went to press. The sad conclusion is that the West does not see any effective mechanisms with which to influence the situation in Ukraine.
In 2004, European governments made much clearer statements. The Russian government, too, seemed to be more open to dialogue. But the war in Georgia followed in 2008; then Russia struggled for the right to build a nuclear power plant in Iran; then the world watched the Kremlin support a Syrian regime that bombarded its own cities and villages.
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Vladimir Putin is the longest-standing president among the G8 leaders. He has been in power for 14 years, and is notoriously uncompromising. With him, there is no room for discussion. Russia stands firm on the positions it has taken and will not step back one millimetre. It confirmed this in July by providing temporary asylum to American whistle-blower Edward Snowden. Today, Russia is reluctant to give the West any concessions.
European leaders have come to terms with the fact that they have no effective leverage to influence Eastern Europe. Some politicians are calling for personal sanctions to be imposed against some leaders of the Ukrainian regime, but a final decision has not been made. After all, it took 10 years of Alexander Lukashenko’s rule in Belarus for the EU to enact its first sanctions in 2004.
Today, European leaders see their task as waiting, gauging the opposition’s ability to make long-term efforts while stressing that the Association Agreement is still on the table. However, the deeper the crisis grows, the heavier their silence gets. It is time for Western leaders to clearly pronounce that a sovereign state much choose its own way. This fundamental truth should be expressed by presidents and prime ministers. That would help them shed their unfortunate image as Putin’s obedient underlings.