March 4, 2014 10:28AM

Finding a Way Back From the Brink in Ukraine

Ukrainians won an important political battle by ousting the corrupt Viktor Yanukovich as president. But replacing Yanukovich with another dubious politico will change little.

Washington also triumphed. Without doing much — no troops, no money, few words — Americans watched protestors frustrate Russia’s Vladimir Putin. 

But now Russia is attempting to win as well, intervening in Crimea. Moscow has created a tinderbox ready to burst into flames. The only certainty is that the U.S. should avoid being drawn into a war with Russia. 

In 2010 Yanukovich triumphed in a poll considered to be fair if not entirely clean. His corrupt proclivities surprised no one. However, while tarred as pro‐​Russian, in accepting Putin’s largesse last November Yanukovich actually refused to sign the Moscow‐​led Customs Union.

Still, protestors filled Maidan Square in Kiev over Yanukovich’s rejection of a trade agreement with the European Union. As I point out in my latest Forbes column: “The issue, in contrast to Kiev’s later brutal treatment of protestors, had nothing to do with democracy, human rights, or even sovereignty.” As such, it was not America’s business, but up to the Ukrainian people.

And Ukraine is divided. Broadly speaking, the nation’s west is nationalist and leans European while the east is Russo‐​friendly. 

Demonstrations quickly turned into a de facto putsch or street revolution. Yanukovich’s ouster was a gain for Ukraine, but similar street violence could be deployed against better elected leaders in the future.

Moreover, many of those who look east and voted for Yanukovich feel cheated. There was no fascist coup, but the government they helped elect was violently overthrown. Some of them, especially in Crimea, prefer to shift their allegiance to Russia.

Kiev should engage disenfranchised Yanukovich backers. Kiev also should reassure Moscow that Ukraine will not join any anti‐​Russian bloc, including NATO. But if Crimeans, in particular, want to return to Russia, they should be able to do so. 

There is no important let alone vital security issue at stake for the U.S. in the specific choices Ukrainians make. The violent protests against the Yanukovich government demonstrate that Moscow has no hope of dominating the country. Kiev will be independent and almost certainly will look west economically. 

Russia could still play the new Great Game. Unfortunately, rather than play Vladimir Putin upended the board by taking effective control of the Crimea. 

Yet Putin tossed aside his trump card, a planned referendum by Crimea’s residents. A majority secession vote would have allowed him to claim the moral high ground. However, an election conducted under foreign occupation lacks credibility.

As it stands Russia has committed acts of aggression and war. 

Even in the worst case the U.S. has no cause for military intervention. Who controls the Crimea ain’t worth a possible nuclear confrontation.

Putin is a nasty guy, but Great Power wannabe Russia is no ideologically‐​driven superpower Soviet Union. Moscow perceives its vital interests as securing regional security, not winning global domination. Yet bringing Ukraine into NATO would have created a formal legal commitment to start World War III.

The allies should develop an out for Russia. For instance, Moscow withdraws its forces while Kiev schedules independence referendums in Russian‐​leaning areas. 

If Putin refuses to draw back, Washington and Brussels have little choice but to retaliate. The allies could impose a range of sanctions, though most steps, other than excluding Russian banks from international finance, wouldn’t have much impact. 

Tougher would be banning investment and trade, though the Europeans are unlikely to stop purchasing natural gas from Moscow. The other problem is the tougher the response the more likely Russia would harm American interests elsewhere, including in Afghanistan, Iran, and Korea. 

The Ukrainian people deserve a better future. But that is not within Washington’s power to bestow. Today the U.S. should concentrate on pulling Russia back from the brink in Ukraine. 

A new cold war is in no one’s interest. A hot war would be a global catastrophe.