Barely ten days after President Viktor Yanukovych abruptly rejected the much-discussed association agreement with the European Union, plunging the Ukraine into political turmoil and violence, hopes emerged among his angry, determined opponents that help might be coming from the United States, a long-time supporter of Ukrainian membership in not only the EU, but NATO and other trans-Atlantic institutions.
Almost immediately, optimism was triggered by the visit of Assistant Secretary of State for European and Euroasian Affairs, Victoria Nuland. Strolling through Kyiv to the Maidan on December 10-11, she met with the opposition leaders, several thousand, cheering protesters, and with the president.
Then, five days later, Republican Senator John McCain, accompanied by Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, told a far larger, cheering crowd that “we are here to support your just cause” of democracy…and the destiny you seek (that) lies in Europe.”
Elaborating back in Washington January 15, in testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, praising the bi-partisanship displayed by the senators, and reflecting mild, guarded optimism, but providing no specifics on what the Obama administration might actually do, Ms Nuland declared: “the people of Ukraine saw America stand up with them a a critical moment, when they could have felt very alone.”
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She added that in her meeting with President Yanukovych she urged him to “engage” and consult immediately with the EU and the International Monetary Fund, and to organize a “free and fair” presidential election in 2015; though already rejected by opposition leaders urging an election this year. Similar, low-profiled urgings have been made by other senior Obama administration officials; President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address to the Congress January 28, while mentioning the Ukraine once, said only that its people have the democratic right to express themselves. Period.
Why has Washington appeared guarded and vague, at least in public, relying mainly on diplomatic wordage?
Specifically, why are high-level figures in the Obama administration and some congressional leaders hesitating on pursuing Senate proposals for action against the Kyiv government? These were approved conditionally two years ago, linked to their urging the unconditional release from prison of the outspoken former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko; while evoking suspension suspension of NATO cooperation agreements with the Ukraine; expanding visa refusals for its top government officials already begun, and their families, while considering other, tougher sanctions related to the nation's banking system and to wealthy oligarchs close to the president.
One of the influential, outspoken critics of the administration's hesitancy, Steven Pifer, former US ambassador to the Ukraine and currently a director at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, writing in its publication December 6, explained that the administration had placed its priority on backing the EU association agreement, as “the best path for Ukraine to draw closer to Europe and the trans-Atlantic community, conceding “Washington has nothing better to offer.” And that “given everything else in the foreign policy mix in Washington, Ukraine has not been able to command much attention.”
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A Washington insider, with wide diplomatic experience, notably in arms control, Mr. Pifer observed what he termed the capital's “Ukraine fatigue.” He attributed this to “disappointment over how, following the Orange Revolution, the new leadership in Kyiv failed to take advantage of its opportunities…Congress, a traditionally pro-Ukrainian institution that used to mandate huge sums of assistance funds for Ukraine, now show considerably less enthusiasm for the country.”
Another reason for the administration's caution, he wrote, “were the United States leading the Western charge, (against the present government) Moscow would regard it is a particularly geopolitical challenge,” which he warned might well complicate efforts to find a peaceful political solution to the crisis; as he and three other former ambassadors, in a joint letter published in the International New York Times January 29, observed that Ukraine is “on the verge of spinning out of control.”
Indeed, they urged, Washington and Brussels should deliver a coordinated message to Moscow, cautioning President Vladimir Putin about “taking steps that would intensify the crisis, a message that President Obama should send as well.” And, in a parallel move, make it clear to Mr. Yanukovych to refrain from the use of force.
Meantime, they also urged, the EU and the administration should push ahead jointly with plans for imposing “Western visa and financial sanctions,” noting that, for example, “the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov must understand that they have a personal stake in achieving a peaceful democratic settlement.”
Compared to the situation he described in early December, Mr. Pifer said in a telephone interview January 28, “a huge amount has changed,” referring to the resignations of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, his government, among other steps aimed at defusing the crisis, but also warned that that it may not be enough. Options beyond some sanctions, he said, are “pretty limited.” And, he stressed, reflecting another consensus view in Washington, “the crisis will have to be solved by Ukrainians.”
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Frequently overlooked by Americans, including the some one million of Ukrainian origin, representing the second-largest immigrant group after those Ukrainians in Canada, is that President Putin is steadfastly committed to forming what would amount to a competing bloc to the EU and the West – a customs union, which already includes Belarus, Armenia and several former Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union.
In some ways, resembling the former COMECON bloc of all Soviet republics and allied, so-called satellite states, and the opposite of former President Mikhail Gorbachev's “European House” plan for the region, Putin views the Ukraine, as Mr. Pifer notes, in “geopolitical” terms.
Indeed, amid a tense, conflictual, shortened EU-Russia summit in Brussels Tuesday, the Russian leader even took his Euroasian bloc concept a step further, suggesting the formation of a “harmonious economic community stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok,” which would somehow relate to the 28-nation EU and, of course, include the missing, key link for him – the Ukraine. His idea, for the moment, seems to be going nowhere.
Based on conversations with both US and European diplomats, academics and other observers, four other, variously-concrete scenarios are, however, being studied: 1. The status quo remains in place for a relatively short period of time. 2. A police crackdown erupts with governmental use of force, with Russian backing that has already begun, Parliamentarian Lesya Orobet told CNN International earlier this week. 3. Failing a settlement, the eruption of full-scale civil war. 4. Mediation, possibly under auspices of the UN, with support from neighboring, influential Poland, which might well examine a partition, creating two, independent states, resembling what occurred in the former Czechoslovakia.
Axel Krause is a Paris-based Correspondent of TransAtlantic Magazine (Washington, DC)