Earlier this week, the interim president of Ukraine, Oleksandr Turchynov announced that his government had begun a “full-scale anti-terrorist operation.” Let’s hope that “full-scale” is an imprecise description. The small number of pro-Russian occupants of a few government buildings in nearly a dozen towns and cities, most in the northern part of Donetsk province in eastern Ukraine, are not terrorists to be taken at all costs, dead or alive. In the long run, they pose a threat to the integrity of the Ukrainian state. But in the short run, the only danger comes from Russia – and the protesters and pro-Russian paramilitaries are to some degree provocations designed to trigger a Ukrainian overreaction, justifying intervention by Moscow.
In Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin made it clear that he is no longer willing to play according to the rules of international law. If Kiev acts hastily, it will be offering Mr. Putin an excuse to send in Russian forces, on the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians against what he calls a rogue Ukrainian government. There is little doubt that some Russian military personnel are already involved, though not in their regular uniforms. One such officer was recently recorded on video introducing himself to militants as a Russian lieutenant-colonel.
Ukraine’s best hope is to play a long, patient game. It may have no other choice. Yes, sovereign Ukrainian territory is at issue, and under international law Russia has no right to interfere or carve off pieces. Further Russian moves to undermine the Kiev government will lead to Western outrage, and stronger economic and political sanctions. But the West is not about to go to war with a nuclear-armed superpower over that superpower’s violent interference in its neighbour’s affairs – even if that superpower is entirely in the wrong.
Donetsk was the power base of the former president, Viktor Yanukovych, now in exile in Russia. But recent polls suggest that only one-fifth to one-third of people in Donetsk want to join Russia. The southeastern region of Ukraine is not in a state of civil war. Mr. Putin, however, badly wants such a civil war. That’s why the Ukrainian government and military should do everything in its power to not grant him that wish.