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Opinion Op-Ed

The next, key step on Ukraine

Vladimir Putin knows that this crisis is about the whole of Ukraine. Ukrainians know it too. And the West must not forget it.

There is nothing to be done to restore Ukrainian control over Crimea. The crucial struggle now is for eastern Ukraine. If what remains of the nation participates in a peaceful, free and fair presidential election on May 25, it can survive as one independent country (minus Crimea). It also will be back on an unambiguously democratic, constitutional path. In everything the European Union and the West do over the next two months, that should be the first priority.

Only the criminally naive or the hardened fellow traveler could maintain that the pro-Russia groups now producing chaos and violence in cities such as Donetsk and Kharkiv are not actively supported by Moscow. Whatever Putin decides to do next, the narrative has been prepared: escalating intervention or, as he would undoubtedly prefer, blackmailing the whole country back into the Russian sphere of influence.

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It would be equally naive, however, to pretend that there are not real fears among many in eastern Ukraine. Start by abandoning the labels "ethnic Ukrainians" and "ethnic Russians." They mean almost nothing. What you have instead is a fluid, complex mix of national, linguistic, civic and political identities. There are people who think of themselves as Russians. There are those who live their lives mainly in Russian but also identify as Ukrainians. There are families of mixed origins. Most of them would rather not have to choose sides. In an early February poll, only 15% of those asked in the Kharkiv region, and 33% around Donetsk, wanted Ukraine to unite with Russia.

In the same poll, the figure for Crimea was 41%. But then add a month of radicalizing politics and Russian takeover, with Ukrainian-language media yanked off TV. Throw in relentless reporting in Russian-language media of a "fascist coup" in Kiev, exacerbated by foolish words and gestures from victorious revolutionaries there. Subtract Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians living in Crimea, who largely boycotted the referendum. Season with electoral fraud. Presto: 41% becomes a 97% vote for secession.

In traumatic times, identities switch and crystallize like an unstable chemical compound when you add a drop of catalyst. Everything done in and for Ukraine now must be calculated to keep that identity-compound from changing state.

Shortly before Putin's amazing imperial rant in the Kremlin on Tuesday, another speech was broadcast on a Ukrainian TV channel. Speaking in Russian, interim Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk said that "for the sake of preserving Ukraine's unity and sovereignty," the Kiev government was prepared to grant "the broadest range of powers" to the mainly Russian-speaking regions in the east. This would include giving cities the right to run their own police forces and make decisions about education and culture. That was exactly the right thing to do.

Now Yatsenyuk and his colleagues should go to these places and say it again and again — in Russian. They should support Russian as an official second language. They should not dismiss talk of federalization simply because Moscow also favors it. They should actively seek a pro-Russia candidate in the presidential election. And they should do everything possible to ensure the election is free and fair, including allowing diversified media coverage in Russian and Ukrainian — unlike the vote in Crimea.

The West, and Europe in particular, can support this in numerous ways. International election monitors should flood Ukraine. Western governments must not only make sure Ukraine has the money to pay bills right now, they should make the medium-to-long-term economic offer of relations with the EU more attractive. Moscow should be threatened with sanctions far worse than those currently imposed, and not just if Putin inserts his marked or unmarked forces in eastern Ukraine, but if he keeps on trying to destabilize it by proxy.

The time has also come to talk turkey with Ukrainian oligarchs such as Rinat Akhmetov., who is as powerful as any state institution in eastern Ukraine. Oligarchs must be shown carrot and stick: a rosy future for your businesses in the world economy if you help Ukraine survive as an independent, self-governing state; financial strangulation and endless court proceedings if you don't. (One of them, Dmytro Firtash, has already been arrested in Austria on an FBI extradition request. All about an investment project back in 2006, they say; nothing to do with current politics, you understand.) If Putin's Olympic sport is hard-core wrestling, we cannot confine ourselves to badminton.

None of this is to suggest that what happened in Crimea does not matter. In his Kremlin speech, Putin scored a few hits on American unilateralism and Western double standards, but what he has done threatens the foundations of international order. He thanked China for its support, but does Beijing want the Tibetans to secede following a referendum? He recalled Soviet acceptance of German unification and appealed to Germans to back the unification of "the Russian world." With rhetoric more reminiscent of 1914 than 2014, Putin's Russia is now a revanchist power in plain view.

Without the consent of all parts of the existing state, without due constitutional process and without a free and fair vote, the territorial integrity of Ukraine, guaranteed 20 years ago by Russia, the United States and Britain, has been destroyed. In practical terms, that cannot be undone. What can still be rescued, however, is the political integrity of the rest of Ukraine.

Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European studies at Oxford University, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and a contributing writer to Opinion.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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