Skip to main content

Remember, remember: This is about the whole of Ukraine, not just Crimea. Russian President Vladimir Putin knows that. Ukrainians know that. And we must not forget it. There is nothing the West or Kiev can do to restore Ukrainian control over Crimea. The crucial struggle is now for eastern Ukraine.

If the whole of Ukraine, including the east, participates in peaceful, free and fair presidential elections on May 25, it can survive as an independent country (minus Crimea). It will also be back on an unambiguously democratic, constitutional path. In everything the European Union and the West does over the next two months, that should be our first priority.

Only the criminally naive or the hardened fellow traveller could maintain that the pro-Russian groups now working to produce chaos in cities such as Donetsk and Kharkiv are not actively supported by Moscow. In Tuesday's New York Times, there was a fine account of one such stage-managed demo in Kharkiv. At the base of a giant Lenin statue, a huge banner read, "Our homeland: USSR!" As the reporters pointed out, this was all made for Russian television. Whatever Mr. Putin finally decides to do, the media narrative will be prepared.

It would be equally naive, however, to pretend that there are not real fears among many in eastern Ukraine. The labels "ethnic Ukrainians" and "ethnic Russians" mean almost nothing. What you have here 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 innumerable families of mixed origins, with parents and grandparents who moved around the former Soviet Union. Most of them would rather not have to choose. In a poll conducted in the first half of February, just 15 per cent of those asked in the Kharkiv region and 33 per cent around Donetsk wanted Ukraine to unite with Russia.

In the same poll, the figure for Crimea was 41 per cent. But then take a month of radicalizing politics and Russian takeover, with Ukrainian-language channels yanked off television. Add relentless reporting on the Russian-language media of a "fascist coup" in Kiev, exacerbated by some foolish words and gestures from victorious revolutionaries in Kiev. Subtract Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians living in Crimea, who largely boycotted the referendum. Season with a large pinch of electoral fraud. Presto, 41 per cent becomes 97 per cent.

It is not just Russian "political technology" that changes numbers and loyalties. What happens in such traumatic moments is that identities switch and crystallize quite suddenly, like an unstable chemical compound to which you add one drop of catalyst. Yesterday, you were a Yugoslav; today, a furious Serb or Croat.

So everything done in and for Ukraine in the coming weeks and months must be calculated to keep that identity compound from changing state. Shortly before Mr. 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 Arseniy Yatseniuk said that "for the sake of preserving Ukraine's unity and sovereignty," the Kiev government is 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 he and his colleagues should go there 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 favours it. They should actively want to see a pro-Russian candidate in the presidential election. And they should do everything they can to ensure the vote is free and fair, including diversified media coverage in both Russian and Ukrainian – unlike the vote in Crimea.

Europe and the West can support this in numerous ways. International organizations should flood the place with election monitors. Western governments must make sure Ukraine's authorities have the money to pay the bills. Political parties and NGOs can send advisers. The West can also up the ante. It can make the medium- to long-term economic offer of relations with the EU more attractive. It can threaten Moscow with far worse sanctions – not just if Mr. Putin takes his marked or unmarked forces anywhere else 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. Quietly but firmly they must be shown carrot and stick: a rosy future 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. If Mr. Putin's Olympic sport is hard-core wrestling, we cannot confine ourselves to badminton.

None of this is to suggest that what has happened in Crimea does not matter in itself. In his Kremlin speech, Mr. Putin scored a few telling hits on U.S. 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," which apparently includes all Russian speakers. With rhetoric more reminiscent of 1914 than 2014, his country is now a revanchist power in plain view.

Without the consent of all parts of the existing state, without due constitutional process and a free, fair vote, Ukraine's territorial integrity, 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 what remains.

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