Will the anaconda strike again?
Ukraine is now a pile of dry straw, waiting for Vladimir Putin to decide whether he will douse it with gasoline and set it alight, or leave it dry and trembling in the wind.
Putin has Crimea and no one will fight him for it. In his speech on Tuesday, when he announced his decision to draw Crimea into the bosom of Mother Russia, he casually told the West not to worry, there will be no more land grabs — “no one needs a divided Ukraine,” he said.
Now many are invoking the Sudetenland crisis of 1938 — where the then-British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain earned transient glory and eternal obloquy for agreeing with Adolf Hitler that the region, existing along the Czech side of the Czech-German border with a large majority of German inhabitants, should be ceded to a then-resurgent Germany. Chamberlain’s concession seemed to avoid a war. On the agreement, signed under duress by the Czech President Edward Benes, troops occupied the German areas, and later, the rest of Czech territory.
History repeats itself, say the doomsayers; the first time as tragedy, the second as… another tragedy. The Russian army, deployed along the Ukraine border last week, could cross it in a few hours. Europe would again be in flames.
Do not, however, think of the Ukrainians as a brave people united against the Russian menace. Many proved to be brave in forcing the resignation last month of the corrupt president Victor Yanukovich, but they are not united.
Like an anaconda, Putin can coil himself back into the Kremlin and digest the meal he has made of Crimea, his narrow eyes flicking over the stricken country to his west, waiting for splits, conflict and, perhaps, another cause for intervention.
One such cause may be more pleas from the Russians in East Ukraine for union with the motherland. A poll has shown, to the horror of the Ukrainian government, large majorities of up to 70 percent in areas such as Odessa in the south and Kharkov, Lugansk and others in the east who support following Crimea’s example and seceding.
The resentment that Russians and Russian-speakers have long felt about their estrangement from their country coupled with the rejoicing they saw on television as Crimea voted overwhelmingly for secession has been an intoxicating mixture. The majorities in the polls are evidence of its effect.
Many may believe the propaganda on Russian media that says the new government in Kiev is composed of fascists who hate Russians and will soon move against them. This is largely nonsense, but what small truth there is in it may grow.
The Nationalist far right, which hates Russia, will grow in esteem as the loss of Crimea sinks in and as refugees from Crimea put pressure on meager social provisions. The far right Svoboda (Freedom) party, once a tiny electoral force, has been given a clutch of ministerial and senior administrative posts — including Oleg Makhnitski as prosecutor general, a job with wide powers within the justice system.
One of the most important features of the new government in Kiev is the closeness of the main ministers to the oligarchs. “Never,” said an insider speaking on grounds of anonymity, “have the oligarchs been so politically powerful.”
Many of these oligarchs are close to Yulia Tymoshenko — Ukraine’s former prime minister who was jailed by Yanukovich. Tymoshenko has returned to Ukraine and is expected to run in the presidential election on May 15 with the advantage of having many members of her Fatherland Party in the cabinet, including the current Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk.
The appointment of two oligarchs to governorship posts in the east — Sergei Taruta in Donetsk and Ihor Kolomoysky in Dnipropetrovsk — both allies of Tymoshenko, adds to the sense that this is a government of the wealthy, by the wealthy, perhaps for the wealthy. For those who revolted against the rampant corruption of the Yanukovich presidency, such a government replacing his is hardly what they came to the streets for. Though Tymoshenko gained sympathy and admiration at home and abroad for her courage and defiance in jail, few forget that she, too, earned a reputation for corruption, less flagrant than that of Yanukovich, but steadily self-enriching nonetheless.
There is much for the anaconda to enjoy as he watches the country struggle for stability. The Yale historian Timothy Snyder noted at a seminar in London this week that there are many constituencies in Europe that oppose sanctions that endanger energy supplies or diminish financial flows to and from Russia. Russia “can take much more pain than Europe — because domestic politics don’t count,” he said.
Stefan Fule, the EU’s Commissioner for Enlargement, said earlier this week that the EU would be “obliged to accept” Ukraine in due course. This is a more explicit commitment than any yet made, but one that may be controversial among the more risk-averse of the EU’s 28 member states.
It was, of course, an offer from the EU to Ukraine to sign an association agreement (though far short of membership) that sparked the February revolution. The risk-averse would be quick to counsel caution about going even further with a Ukraine partnership and causing more trouble.
But trouble has arrived and the EU is deep in it. The democratic nations have a moral duty — to say nothing of a 2004 treaty signed by the UK and Russia — to guarantee the inviolability of Ukraine’s borders. Even if the anaconda was sincere in his offer to stop at Crimea, acquiescence to him would be a betrayal of the values that the EU proclaims.
War is still unthinkable, but now is the time to test how meaningful the soft power of sanctions, visa bans, asset freezes and isolation can be. What else is there?
PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in a news conference at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow March 4, 2014. REUTERS/Alexei Nikolskiy/RIA Novosti/Kremlin