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Is Ukraine On The Road To Czechoslovakia, 1968?

The West has woken up to the gravity of the situation. But what real options are on the table?

1968 Bratislava (top) vs. 2014 Kiev (bottom)
1968 Bratislava (top) vs. 2014 Kiev (bottom)
Sylvie Kauffmann

PARIS — The February revolution in Ukraine has stirred things up in Europe. “A tectonic shift,” the Polish intellectual Adam Michnik warned. He himself had contributed to stirring things up in 1989. Was the leader in the Kremlin going to accept these new changes? As incurably rational optimists, the West imagined it was in his interest.

But although we have rubbed shoulders with Vladimir Putin for the past 14 years, we still do not understand him. Taken by surprise by the reaction of the Ukrainian people to their president's rejection of the EU treaty in November, Europeans and Americans have, once again, been caught off-guard these last days — this time by the decision of the Russian president to intervene in Crimea, in violation of all standing international agreements.

This move is however not without precedent. The question is which prior moment of history will it resemble the most: the 1968 model, when Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia to put an end to the Prague Spring; or the 2008 scenario, when the same Vladimir Putin intervened in Georgia with the help of separatists from Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

Dismayed, opposition intellectuals in Moscow are leaning towards the 1968 model. For now, it looks like the crisis is more similar to the Georgian case. But Ukraine is not Georgia. The size of the country, its history, its geostrategic situation, the pro-European dimension of this revolution make it a much more serious crisis — for all the protagonists: Russia, Ukraine and the West.

For Russia. Why did Putin choose to use force? The Russian president has his own logic, which is not the same as the West’s. Firstly, Crimea is important to Russia, which has a naval base on the Black Sea. Its status was renegotiated by the deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.

Seeing that the revolution in Kiev was bringing a nationalist Ukrainian movement to power, he had reasons to be concerned about the future of this agreement. For that matter, three former Ukrainian presidents, Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko asked for its revocation on Sunday.

Though Putin is unlikely to shed a single tear for the overthrow of Yanukovych, whom he had abandoned, losing Ukraine itself is much harder for him to accept. Not only does it deal an almost fatal blow to his Eurasian Union project, but it brings the democratic virus to Russia’s doorstep.

Even though the prospect of an European Union membership for Ukraine is far away, it is nonetheless a defeat for the Russian leader. For the last three months, Europeans leaders have come and gone to Kiev like they were at home. By intervening in Crimea, Moscow is retaking the initiative.

Finally, even if the intervention of Russian troops stops here, it has created a hotbed for instability on Ukrainian soil, which diminishes the power of Kiev. It is the “controlled instability” strategy mentioned in a recent Le Monde article by Piotr Smolar.

As a result, the nationalist disposition of the Russians, who, for the past three months, have been served mass media propaganda on the “fascist conspiracy” of the anti-Russian Ukrainians manipulated by the West, may momentarily feel justified. But by taking back Crimea, Russia is inheriting a new problem, particularly with the 200,000 Tatars who have returned there.

As for the opposition, it fears a larger repression, which, in fact, has already started. Several heavy sentences were already given on Feb. 24 and one of the leaders, Alexei Navalny, was imprisoned for a week before being placed under house arrest, where he is forbidden to have access to the Internet. So much for soft power in Russia, if it ever existed in the first place. Sochi is definitely over.

For Ukraine. The new leaders in Kiev are completely unprepared to face this challenge set by Moscow. It is a provisional, non-elected government with a fragile legitimacy. Controlled by Yulia Tymoshenko’s allies, it is not a national unity government. It has made the mistake of removing Russian as a second official language, even though this alone hardly justifies such a reaction from Moscow. It has called upon the mobilization of the army, but the Ukrainian army, torn apart by successive regimes, “exists only on paper,” a political specialist close to the former leadership recently told Le Monde.

By declaring to U.S. President Obama — according to the version of their telephone conversation provided by the Kremlin — that he reserved “the right to protect the interests of Russian-speakers in Ukraine” (a potentially explosive statement, if taken literally) Putin is threatening to act far beyond Crimea, in the eastern regions of Ukraine, where the Russian minority is mostly located. These regions had remained calm during the uprising in Kiev. Moscow’s interventionist stance since Friday has produced immediate agitation, which is dangerous for Kiev.

But the revolution has also sparked a strong feeling of national identity for the Ukrainians: The Russian-speakers may not welcome Russian troops with open arms.

For Europe and the United States. The intense activity over the phone between the various Western leaders on Saturday reveals the seriousness of this crisis, following the initial surprise. It is a major challenge. The U.S., which had let the EU handle Ukraine on the front line for the past three months, has regained control: Washington took care of clarifying that the Obama-Putin telephone conversation lasted a full hour-and-a-half, providing a detailed report of it and publishing a photo.

For now, Obama is limiting himself to threatening Russia with “political and economic isolation.” The matter now goes beyond the EU. It is raising fundamental security in a country bordering Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania, all members of the EU and NATO.

If Russia is reserving the right to protect Russian-speaking people beyond its borders, this will worry lots of people — starting with Baltic republics that are members of the EU and NATO. The G8 could soon become the G7 again. If the United Nations Security Council is consulted, it will be interesting to see what China’s position is, after it very recently signed economic agreements with the former president Yanukovych: Will it conform with the West or stand together with Russia? Unfortunately, if there is one lesson to remember from the 1968 and 2008 crises, it is that the West’s options are very limited.

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