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Ukraine: the Day After

How the United States can help.

Mar 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 25 • By JEFFREY GEDMIN
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For the longer term, it’s time for American businesses in Ukraine to wrap as many exchange programs and internships as possible into their “corporate social responsibility” strategies there. Universities, think tanks, and foundations need to step up in similar ways. It’s critical to invest in Ukraine’s human capital. It’s also high time to help Ukrainians lessen their country’s dependence on Russian natural gas. To that end, Chevron signed an agreement with the Ukrainian government last fall, committing $350 million to explore for shale gas.

Second, we need to grasp with realism the full extent of Russia’s connection and influence. Many Russians still believe that their country and Ukraine should belong to a single unitary state. Russian czars were buried in Kiev over the centuries. The 1654 Treaty of Pereyaslav, viewed by Ukrainians as the start of Russian domination, is seen by most Russians as the restoration of territories torn apart by the Mongol invasions of the 13th century. There are undeniably strong linguistic, cultural, and historical ties between the two countries.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin exploits this. Note Moscow’s promise of passports to Ukrainians in the east, causing concern among activists that the Kremlin may eventually use as a pretext for military intervention the excuse that it is acting to protect “its citizens.” Note the Kremlin’s formidable information and media campaign depicting Ukraine’s opposition as thugs, armed extremists, and neo-Nazis. Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev denounced Ukraine’s leader Viktor Yanukovych as a “doormat,” when Moscow’s erstwhile ally failed to crack down on protesters.

Putin’s fear of democratization in Ukraine is not entirely irrational. Opposition leader and former Russian prime minister Boris Nemtsov says the conditions that led to Yanukovych’s ouster in Ukraine are all present in Russia.

As a result, the Kremlin is likely to use all means necessary to keep turmoil at least on a low boil in Ukraine—while publicly calling for stability, unity, and restraint from all sides. Russia plays a strong hand. Business ties are deep. Russian intelligence is likely as active in Ukraine as it is anywhere outside the territory of the Russian Federation. And the country has in reserve its ultimate weapon of soft power. In addition to Kiev’s own dependence, Russia provides approximately a quarter of the natural gas used by EU countries, with roughly 80 percent of those exports traveling through pipelines across Ukraine.

All this means that our Ukraine policy is also Russia policy. U.S. assertiveness—robust democracy and civil society assistance—will have to be balanced with tactical restraint. It’s the wrong time to push NATO accession, which would only validate Russian propaganda about the alliance wanting “to annex” Ukraine. The Kremlin’s information campaign should be exposed for what it is—cunning, manipulative, deceitful propaganda. And we need to answer all this with what we do best, by providing accurate, reliable news and information through the programming of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America. The free flow of information and ideas is oxygen for civil society, and broadcasting is American soft power at its best. Still, we must realize that all of this is part of the long game. There will be no quarterly dividends or short-term return on investment.

“Russia isn’t going anywhere,” says Chris Walker, a senior executive at the National Endowment for Democracy. Which is why, Walker argues, we must also continue to play the long game in Russia, supporting democrats and civil society actors there as well. Indeed, a different kind of government in Moscow one day would mean a different relationship with Kiev.

Finally, we must recognize that this may be, finally, the hour of Europe. We’ve been seeing the hour of Poland, in any case. Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski has played a key leadership role, energetically supporting the pro-democracy movement, urging restraint from all sides, and insisting that the opposition remain in dialogue with Russia. This, while pro-Ukraine rallies have been held in a number of Polish cities, and wounded protesters from Kiev and elsewhere have been taken to Poland for medical treatment. “They are still taking people from Ukraine to Polish hospitals at no cost,” one activist tells me. There have been video appeals, decoration of Polish towns in yellow and blue Ukrainian flag colors, even acts of solidarity on the front line. Two Polish reporters, Tomasz Piechal and Pawel Pieniazek, were beaten by police at pro-democracy demonstrations in Kiev.

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