Ukraine's uncharted waters [Editorial]

The swiftly unfolding of events in Ukraine over the weekend saw chanting crowds depose the country's president, political prisoners freed from jail, the emergence of an interim government led by opposition figures and warrants for the arrest of former security officials who ordered police to fire on demonstrators in Kiev. The rapid developments apparently caught both U.S. and European Union officials by surprise, coming as they did only hours after those powers had signed a deal with Russia for a more gradual transition. Now they must both work with Russia to keep the conflict that has riven the former Soviet republic from spiraling out of control.

Russia and the West have sharply diverging, and in some cases conflicting, aims in Ukraine. Russia wants the country to remain a buffer state on its western flank with Europe and an economic vasal of Moscow, which three months ago pledged some $15 billion in economic aid to keep it in its sphere of interest. European leaders see Ukraine as a potentially important future trading partner and bulwark of Western democratic values in Eastern Europe, a goal the U.S. shares. But there are substantial barriers to either side's ability to realize its vision.

It's in neither side's interests for the country to break apart or lapse into a failed state. Yet that is a real possibility given that events in Ukraine are being driven by forces that neither ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who reportedly has gone into hiding, nor leaders of the opposition can fully control. The economy is in shambles, banks are in crisis, and the government has run out of money to pay pensions and workers salaries, let alone the country's massive foreign debt. The power vacuum has left armed militia groups, ultranationalists and moderate opposition parties all vying for influence as police and security forces abandon their posts and the rule of law is in jeopardy.

In some ways the situation in Ukraine is even more perilous than the aftermath of Egypt's ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak. When that long-time autocrat was finally forced to step down by a similar months-long popular uprising, the Egyptian army was at least able to maintain order across the country and stave off a descent into chaos. By contrast, there's no institution in Ukraine that can carry out a similar mission, which has raised fears in the West that Russian President Vladimir Putin may feel emboldened to send military units into Ukraine to forcibly reunite it (or parts of it) with Russia and re-install Mr. Yanukovych as president.

For the moment, Mr. Putin seems to be biding his time before making a move, perhaps realizing that a Russian military intervention in Ukraine would drastically increase tensions with the West and could also distract Moscow from equally important strategic interests elsewhere, such as in Syria or Iran. The Russian leader clearly was piqued by the setback to his plan for reconstituting the old Soviet Union by thwarting Ukrainians' desire for closer ties with the West. And it must have been doubly galling that their refusal to cooperate came just in time to cast a pall over Russian accomplishments at the Sochi Olympic games.

But Mr. Putin is also a realist and unlikely to rush into a foreign military intervention without a clear understanding of the political stakes or the chances for success, as the old Soviet Union did in Afghanistan. At the same time, the U.S. and the E.U. have been wise not to gloat over the frustration of Russia's designs on Ukraine, which could compel Mr. Putin to do something drastic to save face. Ukraine is in uncharted waters now, and both Russia and the West need to recognize that their influence over what happens there next may be limited.

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