Ukraine crisis tests the West

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Thanks to determined diplomacy by Germany and France, Russia agreed Wednesday to a new cease-fire in Ukraine, to begin Sunday. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel was anything but triumphant, calling the deal a mere "glimmer of hope" for peace.

Merkel has good reasons for curbing her enthusiasm. The previous cease-fire agreement reached last September didn't hold for long. And Russian strongman Vladimir Putin still holds the high cards in any peace negotiation with Ukraine and the West.

Under the new truce, both pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces are to pull back heavy weapons from the front. But the deal still leaves separatists in control of a big chunk of territory in eastern Ukraine. If the cease-fire is violated and fighting resumes, Ukraine will again find itself in an unequal fight with rebels amply supplied with Russian weapons and, Kiev says, regular Russian troops.

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The deepening crisis in Ukraine poses a crucial test to the once formidable political community known as the "West." Thus far, Europe and the United States have failed to muster a resolute response to Putin's latest bid to dismember and dominate a neighboring country.

Ukraine is not a NATO member, and no sane observer is calling for direct Western military intervention. But Ukraine is a beleaguered democracy, albeit an imperfect one, and the vast majority of Ukrainians evince no interest in surrendering sovereignty to Moscow.

The transatlantic allies have rebuffed Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's plea for weapons to defend against Russian incursions. However, there's rising sentiment in the United States, including among prominent Democrats, for America reprising its "arsenal of democracy" role in Ukraine. After all, Washington undertook to guarantee Ukraine's independence in the 1994 agreement in which Kiev agreed to give up nuclear weapons inherited from the Soviet Union.

This prospect, however, seems to have rattled our European partners even more than the separatist advances in Ukraine. Merkel is adamantly opposed to arming Ukraine, saying there's no military solution and that the crisis must be settled diplomatically.

But the real choice isn't between force and diplomacy. It's between a weak diplomacy of moral outrage and limited economic sanctions — which has left little impression on the hardheaded Putin — and a strong diplomacy that raises the costs of Russia's neo-imperialism.

For his part, President Obama seems suspended in his customary ambivalence about military force. He hasn't ruled out sending weapons to Ukraine, but isn't ready to rule it in, either. After meeting with Merkel on Monday, he offered assurances that the United States and Europe would not allow Putin to divide them. But that may offer scant comfort to Ukrainians if it means that Washington will be constrained from offering effective help by Europe's fear of antagonizing Putin.

The latest cease-fire nothwithtanding, we seem to be drifting toward another triumph of the "Putin Doctrine," which posits that Moscow has a right to intervene in nearby states to "protect" ethnic Russians from discrimination and violence. Since such threats exist mainly in the febrile imagination of Moscow propagandists, it's clear that Putin's real aim is to reestablish Russian control over countries in what it regards as its historical sphere of influence.

To a truly appalling extent, Putin's self-serving claims are echoed by legions of apologists in the West. This includes U.S. "realists" whose sympathies oddly incline toward the aggressor rather than his victims.

Thus, the reliably meretricious John Mearsheimer argues that Russia "is seeking to defend a vital strategic interest" in Ukraine. By which he apparently means that Russia won't feel safe as long as it borders an independent and democratic Ukraine that seeks closer ties with Europe. According to this logic — the high geopolitics of the seminar-room — Ukrainians' right of self-determination must be sacrificed on the altar of Russian paranoia.

Mearsheimer likewise echoes Putin in blaming the West for instigating the crisis, by having expanded the European Union and NATO eastwards after the Cold War ended. Nevermind that the newly liberated peoples of the Soviet bloc voted for economic integration into Europe, as well as a NATO insurance policy against just the kind of recrudescent Russian expansionism we're witnessing today. The spread of market democracy doesn't threaten Russia's security — though it does invite invidious comparisons with Russia's corrupt, oligarch-ridden economy. And while NATO has more members today, in military terms it's a smaller, weaker version of the purely defensive alliance that never fired a shot in anger at the Soviet Union.

Let's hope President Obama will disregard the defeatist counsels of academic theorists and take a firm stand against Russia's bullying attempts to make vassals of its neighbors. This doesn't just mean evening the military odds between Russia and Kiev. Washington needs to work with our European allies to forge a long-term strategy for bolstering Ukraine and discouraging further Russian expansionism.

To withstand Russian meddling over the long term, Kiev needs debt relief; Western economic investment and trade; new sources of energy; and help in combatting endemic corruption and strengthening its nascent democratic institutions, from parties to an impartial judicial system.

Backing self-determination and democracy in Ukraine is the strategic and principled course for the United States. That's true even if Putin succeeds in carving out a "Novorossiya" in Ukraine to join the other Russian enclaves of Transnistria in Moldova and Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. Giving Ukraine a fighting chance to resist Putin's extortionate demands (e.g., for "autonomy" for separatist-held parts of Ukraine) will reassure Estonia and Latvia, which also have large populations of ethnic Russians.

The people of Ukraine are not alone in wondering whether Europe and America still have the will to defend and extend the liberal ideas that have brought peace and prosperity to much of the world. By rejecting Russia's claims that its supposed security needs trump its neighbors' rights, the West can start putting those doubts to rest.

Marshall is the president of the Progressive Policy Institute.

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