Now Is Not the Time to Force Ukraine into Russia’s Embrace

There has been talk in Washington of late of sanctions against Ukraine for the continuing tribulations of Yulia Tymoshenko. This would be a profound error, arising from a terrible misunderstanding of the country and its current geostrategic position, and yet another attempt to waste the opportunities Kyiv continues to offer the West.

Following another round of personal diplomacy from Tymoshenko’s highly telegenic and charismatic daughter Yevhenia, U.S. Senators have taken to old and new media to suggest that sanctions are forthcoming, almost entirely based on l’affaire Tymoshenko. A few have asserted that Tymoshenko’s trial (and appeals and presumably current appeal to the European Court of Human Rights) are somehow indicative of a backsliding on civil liberties in Ukraine, though the connection between the two is not clear, and that sanctions are therefore warranted.

This is one of those times that a competent State Department would be helpful.

Put aside for the moment the absurdity of leveling sanctions against a democratic nation of nearly 46 million over the trial of a woman who hijacked the country’s power structure to position herself for a Presidential run, and instead consider Ukraine as it exists now, not as the West would like to imagine it.

Ukraine is the energy transit route for natural gas into Europe, Russian attempts to bypass it notwithstanding. It is part of the breadbasket of Europe. It is an industrial powerhouse, with a well-educated populace and a leadership committed to European values and European stabilization.

It is a country in bad fiscal straits, weighed down by the global economic downturn and Tymoshenko’s disastrous gas deal, which costs Kyiv enormous sums to keep its populace from freezing to death. Regular gas bullying by Russia means that the country is in constant danger of freezing. It is a country being beggared by its repayments to the International Monetary Fund, even as the IMF has withheld and canceled the latest round of loans to the country … because Kyiv is spending enormous sums on gas subsidies to keep its populace from freezing to death.

Because, again, Yulia Tymoshenko broke the law to bind Ukraine to a ruinous gas deal with Gazprom, the Russian natural gas giant, to better her chances at the Presidency.

It is a country where the position of each President for the last decade has been that the country must have closer ties with the European Union. It is a country where President Viktor Yanukovych has promised that the country will and must be judged, and judge itself, by European standards, with reforms that cost him support in his power base in the last election and crippled his approval rating. It is a country where the last elections were held under a bipartisan, reformed election law for which the Opposition voted and then immediately decried as corrupt. It is a country where those same elections yielded results in line with pre-election Opposition polling, where the only substantive issue raised by international experts was Tymoshenko’s imprisonment.

It is a country where the population is weighted toward the East, where ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers predominate. It is a country where the party with its base of power in the East, the Party of Regions, holds the Government and works to strengthen ties with Europe and to resist Russian imperialism. It is a country Russian President Vladimir Putin has targeted for control through his Customs Union, hoping to use natural gas and economic might to force Kyiv to yield and rejoin the Russian sphere. It is a country still struggling from under the Soviet wreckage, with all of the population illnesses of the former Evil Empire. It is a country where the nominally pro-European West sent fascists to the country’s parliament.

Ukraine is balanced on the thin edge of a very unpleasant sword. Europe may yet sign the Association Agreement with Ukraine at or before the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius in November. The IMF may yet agree to provide the funds that Ukraine needs to make it through its current travails. The reforming and Europeanizing impulse might not merely survive, but grow stronger as Ukrainians find their aspirations and hopes matched and answered.

On the other side lies Putin. He is the alternative. If the West rejects Ukraine, Kyiv must provide for its citizenry. A waiting, smaller market lies to the East. The costs would be terrible, but in the absence of Europe, the alternative would be worse.

Congress cannot waste this opportunity to keep the most populous of the former Soviet Republics with the West. Sanctions will make the Tymoshenko clan and their dwindling supporters happy; their ability to shift parties and stances on everything from the free market to nationalization to closer ties with Moscow have made clear that power is their foremost goal.

But those sanctions would drive Ukraine closer to Moscow, and that would be a terrible loss for America, Europe, and the people of Ukraine.

If Secretary Kerry would be the statesman he has clearly long believed himself to be, now is the time for him to act, and convince his former colleagues that an opportunity discarded is an opportunity forever lost.