Ambassador Ashe on Current Events in Ukraine

Victor H. Ashe (Ambassador to Poland, 2004-2009)

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Having lived in Poland for five years from 2004 to 2009 as the US Ambassador to Poland, I had a front row seat observing the Orange Revolution in the adjacent nation to the east, Ukraine. In that case, a rigged election was thrown out, new elections were held, and a democratically elected President emerged.

He was Viktor Yushchenko whose face had been disfigured a few years earlier in an attack on him. Hopes for success for enjoying freedom and economic vitality with him were high. Celebrations were everywhere.

Then disappointment set in as he fell far short of moving Ukraine to economic stability. The rising economic tide such as it was lifted only some of the boats. During the current crisis, Yushchenko has been silent.

Ukraine is a nation of 47 million people, which is larger than Poland. It has been the nation between Russia and Poland. It suffered the Stalin sanctioned famine of the 1930s which resulted in millions of deaths by starvation. It was a major battleground in World War II. It has great potential which has not become a reality. Oligarchs play a huge role in the governmental structure.

The country itself is somewhat artificially created in certain areas. Crimea had been part of Russia until 1954 when it was transferred to Ukraine then one of the Soviet Republics. It made no difference then as all reported to the Kremlin. Lviv in the west was part of Poland prior to World War II before Stalin annexed it into Ukraine. It retains a strong post western view and Ukrainian, not Russian, is the major language there.

During my time there, I visited Lviv, Kiev, and Odessa on the Black Sea. In Lviv and Odessa, I spoke to young political leaders of several political parties on how to organize and what to do if elected to local offices. I was there under the auspices of the International Republican Institute, which is federally funded in large part, as is the National Democratic Institute (its Democratic counterpart).

Crimea which is currently occupied by Russian troops is also home to the Russian fleet in the Black Sea. It is overwhelmingly Russian in its population with Russian the dominant language. This crisis has played into President Putin’s hands as he has never fully accepted the independence of Ukraine from Russia. A divided or fragmented Ukraine which does not join the EU or NATO is what Putin wants. Whether this occupation will end with Russian withdrawal or a new quasi nation such as South Ossetia in Georgia appears to be moving towards Russian control. The minority Tatar population of Crimea will live in fear.

President Obama’s past actions have emboldened Putin to make the moves he has made, as missile defense was weakened in Eastern Europe from what Obama inherited from George W Bush, a reset policy with Russia which has failed to produce meaningful results, and an announcement recently to reduce the size of the US Army to pre-World War II levels. Refusal to provide guns to the Ukrainian army is noted in the Kremlin. There does not appear to be an appreciation in the White House that Putin interprets these actions as weakness.

It is obvious the US is not going to engage in military action nor does any serious US Leader suggest such. However, there must be consequences to what Putin is doing. Simply announcing there will be consequences and leaving the Russian guessing what they may be is useless.

When Putin invaded Georgia in 2008 there were no meaningful consequences to the creation of two new “nations” which the United Nations does not recognize. Putin may assume the same will happen here. After all, 6 years later he hosted the winter Olympics in Sochi, which is literally next door to the nation he invaded. No one seemed to recognize the incredible irony of this except Putin, a former KGB agent who is still one at heart.

The current non-elected government of Ukraine is powerless to act and the new government represents several warring factions within Ukrainian society. But it is all Ukraine has at present. Elections are planned for May. But will circumstances allow that to happen? Western powers will have to undertake meaningful sanctions which may have to last for some time to have an impact.

The US can, under current federal law, deny visas and entry to the US for Russian leaders and citizens. The G8 meeting in Sochi can be canceled. Bank accounts of Russian oligarchs in the US can be frozen. Something should happen that has a real impact. Perhaps this will occur after the so-called referendum occurs in Ukraine on March 16 and Russia announces its response to that referendum. All fully expect an overwhelmingly Yes vote to become part of Russia.

If Putin gets away with the seizure of Crimea, then eastern Ukraine, which is also closely tied to Russia, will be next. Ukraine will become a substantially reduced nation in size and influence. Poles will be even more worried as to Russian intentions, and with good reason.

Poland has much at stake here and remembers the change in missile defense in September, 2009 which was poorly introduced to the Polish government. In fact, it was done on September 17, 2009 which marked the 70th anniversary of Stalin’s invasion of Poland as Hitler’s ally at that time which became a negative public relations issue in Poland.

Ukrainians who have looked with envy at Poland for its free democratic system and successful economy will feel they have been abandoned. President Obama’s legacy in world affairs will suffer but so will freedom everywhere

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