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
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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.