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A line in the snow

07 March 2014

"NO MORE victims on Ukrainian soil!" The Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill expressed his determination that, whatever the tensions between Ukraine and Russia, and within Orthodoxy, blood should not be shed. The sniper attacks on protesters in Independence Square on 20 February proved a turning point in the campaign against the pro-Russian President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, bringing widespread condemnation and speeding his departure from office. Since then, however, the actions of the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, have raised the temperature in the region, and put in doubt a bloodless resolution to the crisis in Ukraine. The problems have been well rehearsed: about one sixth of the Ukrainian population are Russian-speaking and Russian-leaning. But these are concentrated in the west and south of the country, in particular in Crimea, where they make up more than half the population. The flight of the former President to this region was the excuse Russia needed to offer military assistance, despite President Putin's assurance that this would be used only as a last resort.

The stand-off is of President Putin's making. Despite anti-Russian rhetoric, such as the removal last week of Russian as an official language by the new Ukrainian parliament, there has been no physical threat against ethnic Russians. By pouring troops into Crimea, the Russian President has made Ukraine far less stable. The blockaded barracks of the Ukrainian army are obvious flashpoints. The United States and the EU have responded with threats of sanctions; but, first, these have added credence to the Russian line that the revolution in Kiev was masterminded from the West; and, second, these threats may well prove hollow: it appears that such sanctions will hit the West at least as hard as they hit Russia.

When stand-offs such as these occur, the one who blinks first tends to be the one with least at stake. Undoubtedly, Crimea, and indeed, the whole of Ukraine, means more to President Putin than it does to the West. The public in Western Europe may be forgetful, but its politicians will recall the chaotic Yushchenko government after the 2004 Orange Revolution. The prize of extending the European Union further east is attractive; but the prospect of negotiating with what is likely to be a factional government containing far-right nationalists will cool Western ardour for democracy, as it has elsewhere. One lesson from Syria was that early, decisive support might have prevented the country's descent into murderous confusion. But Western governments balked at helping to topple a sitting government when no other national sovereignty was at stake - especially in the face of Russian support for Bashar al-Assad. In Ukraine, the old regime has already gone, making it simpler for the West to act in support of the new government. With no sign that President Putin will back off, however, Patriarch Kirill's promise may need to be called in.

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