The stakes are changing rapidly in Ukraine. The people have spoken in Kiev. But now Russian President Vladimir Putin has spoken more loudly.
By Sunday, Kiev’s new interim leaders charged that Russians had invaded. Putin asserted that his forces were merely protecting Russian interests in Crimea. He appeared undeterred by his 90-minute talk with President Barack Obama on Saturday, leading experts to question if Ukraine’s regime could stave off a military conflict and possible partition.
These, of course, are the unintended consequences of Ukraine’s populist uprising. Its first “Orange Revolution” of a few years ago failed, and the current one, which resulted in the departure of President Viktor Yanukovych, is in crisis. Ukrainians only have to look to 2008, when Putin’s military rolled into Georgia, to imagine a worsening of the standoff.
Ukraine’s power shift began last fall when Putin pulled the rug out from under the country’s plan to ally itself with the European Union. Yanukovych took Putin’s promise of a substantial loan to turn toward the motherland, setting off the Kiev protests, which erupted in violence last month.
The Ukrainian people are now fiercely divided. Russian flags are flying all over the eastern portion of the country, in the autonomous region of Crimea and beyond. And Putin gladly is coming to the rescue of the Russian-speaking minority, whose sympathies appear to lie with him and not to the Ukrainian protesters of the west.
Obama has made forceful appeals to Putin, who seems not to care much what the U.S. and Europe will do. Sanctions are being discussed. NATO diplomats are mobilizing, and the United Nations is worried about Putin’s unlawful aggression.
“Everything is on the table,” said Secretary of State John Kerry, who plans a trip to Kiev today.
If Russia’s militarism has an upside, it might be that Obama and Congress could put aside some of their nagging differences and come together quickly to establish effective responses. Obama spoke Sunday to European leaders.
Ukraine’s new leaders need money, support and diplomatic pressure to solve the burgeoning crisis and forestall further tragedy.
It remains to be seen whether Putin will go all the way and engage Ukraine’s lesser military in battle. But the last few days in Ukraine have added to the disturbing image that whatever Putin wants, Putin gets.