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Last Chance For Europe In Ukraine

By on March 7, 2014

When Yugoslavia collapsed in 1991, the EU proclaimed that the “hour of Europe” had arrived. Unfortunately, the lofty proclamation was followed not by decisive action, but by policy paralysis and political bickering, with tragic human consequences.

Today, Ukraine offers the EU a rare second chance to redeem itself. The Ukrainian crisis is the greatest challenge to European security since the wars of the former Yugoslavia a generation ago. There is no time to lose: Once the Sochi Olympics end, Moscow will have no reason to restrain itself any further in applying overwhelming pressure to secure Kiev’s political alignment.

This pressure has already begun. Since last year, Russia has waged what amounts to quiet but effective trade wars against Ukraine, Moldova and Armenia to dissuade them from Western alliances. Russia’s moves indicate a contempt for the rules of the World Trade Organization, into which it was accepted only recently as a member.

Moscow has consistently rejected and challenged Ukrainian sovereignty. Back in 2008, Russian President Vladimir Putin told U.S. President George W. Bush that, from his standpoint, Ukraine and Russia are one people and that Ukraine is not a state. It also is an article of faith among Russian elites that a truly independent Ukraine never was and never will be.

Contempt for Ukraine’s sovereignty and integrity is part of a larger whole. Russia believes that none of the post-Soviet republics or Eastern European states are truly sovereign, nor that their territorial integrity is inviolate. Mr. Putin has even admitted publicly that Russia started planning its war with neighboring Georgia and training separatist militiamen as early as 2006, two years before the outbreak of hostilities.

Today, Moscow is poised to repeat this scenario if it deems necessary. Behind its coercive diplomacy in Ukraine is the threat of force, either incited by Russia or carried out by it. Recent reports of pro-government militant groups forming in eastern Ukraine, calls in the Crimean legislature for Russia to “rescue” them from Ukraine’s anti-government uprising, and repeated discussions in the Russian media about partitioning Ukraine, all point to a pattern of escalating pressure from Moscow—a pattern that paves the way for the use of force.

Russia has already granted thousands of passports to residents of Crimea and could, for instance, claim that it must “rescue” its people, as it did when it invaded Georgia in 2008. Indeed, Moscow has already rehearsed similar scenarios. In both 2009 and 2013, it conducted military exercises from the Arctic to the Black Sea, in which its forces practiced coming to the defense of Belarus, a Russian ally, in response to intervention from Eastern European states. Apart from the fact that these exercises were clearly rehearsals for a general European war, they also laid the intellectual foundation that Russia can and will defend Russian citizens abroad.

This could well happen in Ukraine. As part of its November 2013 agreement to bail out Ukraine’s government with cheap loans and gas, Moscow induced Kiev to agree to build a bridge over the disputed land around the Kerch Strait in the Sea of Azov—a bridge that could serve as an excellent highway for an invading army.

Once the Olympics end, Moscow will be free to indulge its imperial fantasies if the EU and Washington cannot act together in Ukraine. If Europe remains inactive, Russia may well feel safe to use force to secure Ukraine on its own—or to incite like-minded forces to do so on its behalf.

But if Europe acts decisively and quickly to sanction the current Ukrainian government and formulate an economic and political package to stabilize the country, it can yet help to blunt Russia’s expansionist impulses and secure Ukraine’s Westward trajectory.

By Stephen Blank
Wall Street Journal Europe

Mr. Blank is the senior fellow for Russia at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.

Editor’s Note: This article was written just before the Olympics ended. (February 14, 2014)