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An activist covers a protester who was killed in clashes with police in Kiev’s Independence Square on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. (Efrem Lukatsky/Associated Press)
An activist covers a protester who was killed in clashes with police in Kiev’s Independence Square on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. (Efrem Lukatsky/Associated Press)

Christopher Westdal

We can’t look at Ukraine as part of an East vs. West struggle Add to ...

A month ago, I prayed Ukraine’s peace would hold. It has not.

I prayed Ukraine’s neighbours would help. They have not. Instead, they’ve kept up a tug-of-war, despite the fraying rope, as though this were winner-take-all, a game Ukraine could survive intact. The rope is breaking now.

I prayed as well that Ukrainians would themselves, together, find their own way to decency, peace and progress. It looks like Ukrainians will indeed see this revolt through themselves. Despite all the meddling, with pots calling kettles black, no foreign power is planning to intervene with force, neither Russia, despite western Ukrainian fears, nor Germany (or NATO or the “West”), despite their hopes. Whether Ukrainians are together when this is over, though, is not at all so sure.

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Within a bitterly divided state, push has come to shove. Though President Viktor Yanukovych blinked yesterday, announcing a truce, insurrection has spread – to Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Ternopil, Uhzgorod – and if protesters persist, authorities may well revert to their “anti-terrorist operation” to “restore order by all means envisaged by law.” To ensure military loyalty, apparently, essential in any crack-down, the President has replaced the head of the army. It always matters who has the guns.

Until he blinked Wednesday night, threats of sanctions and U.S. President Barack Obama’s warnings of “consequences if force is used” left the Ukrainian President unfazed, as did the warnings of Rinat Akhmetov, a powerful erstwhile ally, that “no circumstances justify the use of force against peaceful citizens.” The authorities appeared past the point of no return.

Equally determined, the protestors would “not take one step back.” They have occupied government property in many centres and are prepared to fight to hold it. In western Ukraine at least, cracking down would be bloody business, as bad as it’s been in Kiev. As well, success would no doubt be short-lived. Armed resistance would persist – as it has before there against “foreign” rule.

Ukrainians’ deep aversion to violence may yet prevail, but the stage has been set for civil war. It may in fact have just begun. Far more than by speeches abroad or by possible sanctions, Ukrainians’ immediate future will be determined by them alone.

It may be too late to avoid war by and between Ukrainians, but foreigners might still act to cut it short and to reduce the grievous harm it threatens to inflict on Ukraine, on the region, on Euro-Russian relations and on Eurasian security.

However heartfelt our sentiments, there is little that Canada can do. We do not have a deciding voice. We have promised above our weight for years now, but can’t punch there. We do not have significant economic clout, so our sanctions are largely symbolic. Openly partisan, we are not candidates for roles of intermediation, if and when there are any to be played. We are out-ranked in Kiev by many other countries with closer, harder security and economic interests engaged.

The U.S. and the EU count in Kiev, but the key foreign players are Germany and Russia. It is good news that Chancellor Angela Merkel is in touch with Vladimir Putin and that German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who recognizes Russia has a role to play, is so actively engaged.

We should encourage them to lift their game, to recognize their shared interest in a successful Ukraine, healthy cartilage between them in the skeleton of Eurasian security, and to work together to give Ukraine better options than those now on offer. Meantime, for Ukraine, until civil peace and a measure of national unity have been restored, the right choice between east and west is probably neither.

Christopher Westdal was Canada’s ambassador to Ukraine from 1996 to 1998 and ambassador to Russia from 2003 to 2006.

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