The lawful authorities in Ukraine must be both firm and flexible in the face of local putsch attempts. They’ve got to show restraint when dealing with pro-Russian militants who have taken over some government buildings in the southeast of the country. To meet force with too much force would be to play into Vladimir Putin’s hands. He is hoping for a heavy-handed response, which he can exploit as an excuse to send in Russian military units.
The hundred or more men who have taken over the government building in the eastern Donetsk province, proclaiming a sovereign state of “the People’s Republic of Donetsk,” are not a formidable force. The city council of Donetsk has already rejected their declaration. If the provincial legislature were to simply ignore them, and meet somewhere else for a few days, that’s not the end of the world.
In Kharkiv, another major Ukrainian city, another such group took over a government building overnight, but left after the police arrived – and after water and electricity were shut off.
Mr. Putin has said that Russia “reserves the right to protect the rights” of ethnic Russians.” ITAR-TASS, the news agency owned by the Russian government, has reported the building occupation in Donetsk as if it were a serious declaration of independence. Moscow is clearly angling to take advantage of the situation – and to create situations to take advantage of.
The Yanukovych government might not have been so abruptly overthrown if it had not shot at peaceful demonstrators in Kiev. Pro-Russian militants in the southeast, and their backers in Moscow, are trying to create a similar state of affairs, only this time to their benefit. Moscow is generating provocations and hoping to exploit them.
In February, in the heat of the moment, the Ukrainian parliament voted to end official bilingualism – Ukrainian and Russian – in the southeastern provinces. Fortunately, Oleksandr Turchynov, the acting president, vetoed the bill. The Kiev government should continue to show respect for the Russophones of Ukraine. Kiev is engaged in a complex game of chess with Moscow, and Russia has more pieces on the board. To win, the Ukrainian government must avoid falling into Moscow’s traps.