The Only Reason the U.S. Cares About Violence in Ukraine

Vladimir Putin.

Berkut riot police hang a Ukrainian flag from a street light on Independence Square on February 19, 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine.
National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
Feb. 19, 2014, 10:11 a.m.

The deadly protests that have broken out in the streets of Kiev are no longer just a Ukrain­i­an is­sue. They might soon be an Amer­ic­an one, too.

As is the case in sev­er­al con­flicts across the world, Ukraine is just the next proxy battle between the United States and Rus­sia.

To un­der­stand the role the U.S. plays here, it’s first im­port­ant to un­der­stand both sides of the on­go­ing con­flict. For the last three months, pro­test­ers have de­fi­antly stood against a Ukrain­i­an gov­ern­ment that re­fuses to strengthen ties with the European Uni­on. Mean­while, op­pos­i­tion lead­ers have cap­it­al­ized on a grow­ing pro-West sen­ti­ment in the west­ern part of Ukraine that has para­lyzed the coun­try and brought a vi­ol­ent show­down that has gained the at­ten­tion of the world.

Ukrain­i­an Pres­id­ent Vikt­or Ya­nukovych rep­res­ents the mostly Rus­si­an-speak­ing east­ern and south­ern parts of the coun­try, and has been cozy with the Krem­lin on many eco­nom­ic and en­ergy is­sues. Protests began in Novem­ber after Ya­nukovych backed away from a trade deal with the European Uni­on. In­stead, the coun­try got a $15 bil­lion bail­out from Rus­sia. Ukraine, a former So­viet re­pub­lic, his­tor­ic­ally has been pro-Krem­lin.

Now, protests de­mand­ing a new elec­tion seem to be es­cal­at­ing to­ward a civil war that threatens to break the coun­try in two. On Tues­day, clashes between ri­ot po­lice and demon­strat­ors left 25 people dead and hun­dreds more in­jured.

As parts of the cap­it­al city of Kiev re­main in flames as the res­ult of Mo­lotov cock­tails, Deputy Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Ad­viser Ben Rhodes told re­port­ers Wed­nes­day that the U.S. is co­ordin­at­ing with the E.U. on a path for­ward.

“We have made it clear we would con­sider tak­ing ac­tion against in­di­vidu­als who are re­spons­ible for acts of vi­ol­ence with­in Ukraine,” Rhodes said. “We have a tool kit for do­ing that that in­cludes sanc­tions.”

Sanc­tions likely in­volve freez­ing the as­sets of Ukrain­i­an lead­ers, while also re­strict­ing travel. Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden is also work­ing the phones. On Tues­day, he called Ya­nukovych to ex­press “grave con­cern” over the crisis and con­demned the vi­ol­ence, one of sev­er­al calls Biden has made re­cently. On Wed­nes­day, Pres­id­ent Obama, speak­ing in Mex­ico to re­port­ers, said, “The United States con­demns in the strongest terms the vi­ol­ence that’s tak­ing place.”

But sanc­tions are not a done deal just yet. While sanc­tions are on the table, the threat might be dropped if the Ukrain­i­an gov­ern­ment backs down — re­leases pris­on­ers, pulls back from protest en­camp­ments, and opens a dia­logue with op­pos­i­tion lead­ers. So far, the of­fi­cial re­ac­tion from the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion comes off as one con­cerned with the demo­crat­ic pro­cess and the hu­man­it­ari­an vi­ol­a­tions. But there’s a deep­er mo­tiv­a­tion afoot.

Leave it to hawk­ish Re­pub­lic­ans in the Sen­ate not to mince words about the situ­ation. A turnover of power in the coun­try — or at the very least the weak­en­ing of Ukrain­i­an lead­er­ship — would deal a ma­jor blow to Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin, some Re­pub­lic­ans say.

Sen. John Mc­Cain, in an in­ter­view with CNN on Tues­day, didn’t skirt the is­sue. “Watch out for Vladi­mir Putin be­cause he will try to make mis­chief be­cause he be­lieves that Ukraine is part of Rus­sia,” the Ari­zona Re­pub­lic­an said.

Sen. Marco Ru­bio in a state­ment went down the same path, say­ing in part, “Ukraine’s fu­ture lies in Europe, not Vladi­mir Putin’s Rus­sia.”

The Rus­si­ans are also fully aware that what hap­pens in Ukraine af­fects their stand­ing in the re­gion too. Putin has been on the phone with Ya­nukovych in the last few days. Rus­si­an For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Lav­rov also blatantly blamed the West for the vi­ol­ence. “I can­not leave without men­tion­ing the re­spons­ib­il­ity that lies with the West en­cour­aging the op­pos­i­tion to act out­side of the law,” he said Wed­nes­day.

Obama and mem­bers of his ad­min­is­tra­tion won’t men­tion Rus­sia and Putin in the same breath as the Ukrain­i­an con­flict. But it’s clear that Mo­scow is one of the biggest reas­ons why it’s a pri­or­ity for the U.S.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4743) }}

What We're Following See More »
When It Comes to Mining Asteroids, Technology Is Only the First Problem
16 hours ago

Foreign Policy takes a look at the future of mining the estimated "100,000 near-Earth objects—including asteroids and comets—in the neighborhood of our planet. Some of these NEOs, as they’re called, are small. Others are substantial and potentially packed full of water and various important minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, and iron. One day, advocates believe, those objects will be tapped by variations on the equipment used in the coal mines of Kentucky or in the diamond mines of Africa. And for immense gain: According to industry experts, the contents of a single asteroid could be worth trillions of dollars." But the technology to get us there is only the first step. Experts say "a multinational body might emerge" to manage rights to NEOs, as well as a body of law, including an international court.

Obama Reflects on His Economic Record
17 hours ago

Not to be outdone by Jeffrey Goldberg's recent piece in The Atlantic about President Obama's foreign policy, the New York Times Magazine checks in with a longread on the president's economic legacy. In it, Obama is cognizant that the economic reality--73 straight months of growth--isn't matched by public perceptions. Some of that, he says, is due to a constant drumbeat from the right that "that denies any progress." But he also accepts some blame himself. “I mean, the truth of the matter is that if we had been able to more effectively communicate all the steps we had taken to the swing voter,” he said, “then we might have maintained a majority in the House or the Senate.”

Reagan Families, Allies Lash Out at Will Ferrell
18 hours ago

Ronald Reagan's children and political allies took to the media and Twitter this week to chide funnyman Will Ferrell for his plans to play a dementia-addled Reagan in his second term in a new comedy entitled Reagan. In an open letter, Reagan's daughter Patti Davis tells Ferrell, who's also a producer on the movie, “Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have—I didn’t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you’re a decent human being, you wouldn’t either.” Michael Reagan, the president's son, tweeted, "What an Outrag....Alzheimers is not joke...It kills..You should be ashamed all of you." And former Rep. Joe Walsh called it an example of "Hollywood taking a shot at conservatives again."

Clinton No Longer Running Primary Ads
20 hours ago

In a sign that she’s ready to put a longer-than-ex­pec­ted primary battle be­hind her, former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton (D) is no longer go­ing on the air in up­com­ing primary states. “Team Clin­ton hasn’t spent a single cent in … Cali­for­nia, In­di­ana, Ken­tucky, Ore­gon and West Vir­gin­ia, while” Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) “cam­paign has spent a little more than $1 mil­lion in those same states.” Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sanders’ "lone back­er in the Sen­ate, said the can­did­ate should end his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign if he’s los­ing to Hil­lary Clin­ton after the primary sea­son con­cludes in June, break­ing sharply with the can­did­ate who is vow­ing to take his in­sur­gent bid to the party con­ven­tion in Phil­adelphia.”

Movie Based on ‘Clinton Cash’ to Debut at Cannes
22 hours ago

The team behind the bestselling "Clinton Cash"—author Peter Schweizer and Breitbart's Stephen Bannon—is turning the book into a movie that will have its U.S. premiere just before the Democratic National Convention this summer. The film will get its global debut "next month in Cannes, France, during the Cannes Film Festival. (The movie is not a part of the festival, but will be shown at a screening arranged for distributors)." Bloomberg has a trailer up, pointing out that it's "less Ken Burns than Jerry Bruckheimer, featuring blood-drenched money, radical madrassas, and ominous footage of the Clintons."