Katrina vanden Heuvel
The violence in eastern Ukraine has now claimed more innocent victims, with 298 dead in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Children, scientists headed to an AIDS conference, families on vacation - their deaths add to the hundreds of civilian casualties and tens of thousands of refugees victimised by the spreading conflict, which the Kiev government is now escalating.
The shooting of a civilian airliner is clearly a tragic mistake that no one wants to own, but that comes all too often in war zones. Currently, the Dutch government -193 of its citizens perished in the crash - said it “would hold off assigning blame as it pursues its top priorities of recovering the victims’ bodies and conducting an independent investigation of the crash site in eastern Ukraine.”
However, in the United States, the tragedy has triggered a ferocious chorus of media and political condemnation of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Putin is called the “puppet master” or worse, with commentators asserting that he can end the war at will. The separatist militias in the east are scorned as Moscow’s pawns. The Kiev government’s bombing of its own cities and people is treated as a necessary response to Russian provocation.
All this ignores the context of this crisis and worse seems designed to fan the flames of the conflict. Already the United States has imposed new sanctions on Russia and is pushing its reluctant European allies to join. The Russians have responded with sanctions of their own. The Ukrainian government’s attacks in the eastern regions continue, with US aid and involvement certain to increase.
But rather than a trigger for new violence, surely the deaths of the innocents ought to be the occasion for a cease-fire and a renewal of talks. The core elements of any settlement would include:
1. An end to the violence. The German, French and Russian governments all urged Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko to extend a cease-fire in June. His government terminated the cease-fire and chose instead to resume military assaults on separatist forces. Surely, in the wake of this tragedy, all should push urgently for a cease-fire, not merely to recover the victims, but to open the way for broader discussions and bring an end to the Kiev government’s attacks on cities that have created a humanitarian crisis.
2. Ukraine must remain an independent and unified country. It is dramatically and historically divided by language, culture and political orientation. The western provinces are largely Catholic, speak Ukrainian and look to Europe and the United States. The eastern provinces are largely Russian-speaking, Russian Orthodox in religion and look to Russia.
Any attempt by either wing of this country to impose its will is destabilizing. The effort last November by the West to expand its economic and military sphere of influence to include Ukraine, forcing the Ukrainian government to choose between Europe and Moscow, triggered the current crisis. The question now is how to move to a peaceful settlement that keeps Ukraine intact and independent. That surely requires the United States, its European allies and the Russians to join in talks with the Ukrainian government and representatives of the eastern region to create a federated or decentralized union that provides guarantees on religion, language and culture. Both Russia and the United States will have to twist the arms of their allies to make this happen.
3. Ukraine can prosper only as a bridge between Russia and the West, not as an outpost of either side. This formulation by Henry Kissinger is clearly right. The West simply will not go to war with Russia to defend Ukraine, so it should not be part of the NATO alliance. The West will not provide Ukraine with tens of billions of dollars in subsidies, as Russia has, so it will not fare well without good relations with the Russians. Indeed, if Ukraine has any chance of recovery, economic relations and assistance from both the West and Russia will be necessary.
In short, the best model for Ukraine is something like modern Finland - fiercely independent, but carefully attuned to the sensitivities of its large neighbour.
It is time to lower voices and halt the bellicose posturing. The hawkish clamour for more escalation, for sending arms, putting Nato on alert or dispatching troops to neighbouring countries is as wrong-headed as calls for making or escalating war in Syria, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. The rising nationalist fervour being stoked by Russia’s leaders can only impede a sensible settlement. The Kiev government’s “anti-terrorist” campaign against its own citizens, virtually unreported in the US media, can only deepen the humanitarian catastrophe in southeastern Ukraine. Too many have already died. It is time for a cease-fire, for negotiations to find a sensible settlement, and for reasoned voices to take the place of escalating violence.–Washington Post