A New Post-Soviet Playbook

Why the West Should Tread Carefully in Ukraine

U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Russia's President Vladimir Putin at a G-20 summit in Mexico in 2012. (Courtesy Reuters)

Events are moving rapidly in Ukraine; a political and economic crisis has escalated into a military confrontation. The mass uprising in Kiev that toppled Viktor Yanukovych’s corrupt and incompetent regime did so without a clear framework for restoring democratic rule and maintaining a stable and responsible foreign policy toward Russia. After Yanukovych fled Kiev, Ukraine's parliament quickly decided to abolish a law that had established a legal status for Russian and other minority languages (although the move was later reversed). Russia responded to Yanukovych’s overthrow, which it viewed as an illegitimate coup, and the parliament’s moves, which it saw as an assault on the rights of ethnic Russians, with a military occupation of Crimea, home to its Black Sea fleet and a substantial population of Russian speakers. The United States and other Western powers countered with threats of sanctions and other reprisals against Russia. Hyperbolic claims on both sides -- in the West about a return to the Cold War, in Russia about a fascist seizure of power in Kiev -- have since fed the crisis.

In considering this chain of events, it is hard not to recall the devastating series of miscalculations that led 100 years ago to World War I. The situation in Ukraine is similarly fraught with the possibility of dangerous miscalculations on all sides stemming from heated sentiments and braggadocio. 

All four parties to the crisis -- Russia, Ukraine, the United States, and the European Union -- must now recognize the dangerous repercussions of further escalation. Russia has taken actions in Crimea that are illegal under international law. But that is no excuse for bombastic and self-defeating responses from the West that could turn a dangerous situation into a disaster. This is a crisis that can still be resolved sensibly and peacefully. It could even end with a gain for all parties. But that would require not only a restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity but also a recognition of the legitimacy of Russia’s interests and concerns. 

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