Petro Poroshenko, the president-elect of Ukraine, placed the right emphasis in his victory speech in Kiev when he said, “We need to do all our best to bring in European values.” But he wisely also stressed the hope for good relations with Russia. Ukraine may be able to escape its history. It can’t avoid geography.
Mr. Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin both belong to the milieu of post-Soviet oligarchs – “Mr. Putin and I know each other quite well,” said Mr. Poroshenko. This would not normally be seen as a positive attribute. In this case, as Ukraine tries to move West without startling the Russian bear, it just might be.
Mr. Poroshenko has described Ukraine-Russia relations as the most difficult in 200 years. There’s the possibility of a truly independent Ukraine, but also the challenge of getting Russia to accept a new state of affairs.
The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, illustrated the difficulties by saying that, although Moscow “respects the expressed will of the Ukrainian people” and is “open to dialogue,” the new Ukrainian government should not continue military action against pro-Russian separatists in the southeast of the country. To do so, Mr. Lavrov said, would be “a colossal mistake.” Of course, for the Ukrainian government to tolerate an armed uprising would be to deprive itself of one of the essential elements of a sovereign state. Which explains why Kiev is using paratroops and airstrikes in an atempt to recover control of the airport in restive Donetsk.
Kiev is legally in the right, because Donetsk is most certainly part of Ukraine. But the new government needs to consider carefully whether force is, practically speaking, the best option in dealing with various pro-Moscow separatist movements. We would suggest that it is not. Moscow’s strongest card is force. It is Kiev’s weakest play.
Southeastern Ukraine is full of people with complex, overlapping Ukrainian and Russian identities. It is a situation that calls for federalism, not separation, and negotiation, not military escalation.