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April 25, 2014 9:18 am

Give Ukraine a Chance

avatar by David Harris

Protests in Ukraine. Photo: Wiki Commons.

The Ukraine crisis continues. At this stage, no one can safely predict where the country will be a month from now, let alone a year down the road.

Nonetheless, a few things appear crystal-clear.

First, history will record this as a high-stakes, even defining, crisis. What happens in Ukraine matters — first and foremost, of course, to the Ukrainian people — but it doesn’t stop there. The reverberations can already be felt across the region and beyond.

No, 2014 is not 1938, and Russia today is not Germany then. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t echoes of the past in the present — Crimea as Sudetenland? Ukraine as Czechoslovakia? Other Russian-speaking areas, such as Transnistria, to follow, based on assertions they are being persecuted by “neo-Nazi” regimes wielding power in capitals from Kiev to Chisinau to who knows where, and whose residents allegedly clamor for salvation from Moscow?

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Second, this is a test of America’s global leadership. From what I learned on my visit to Kiev earlier this week, which overlapped with the arrival of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and a Congressional delegation, it is abundantly clear that Ukraine is looking to Washington for significant help.

This includes direct assistance to bolster the country’s perilous economic condition, reduce its vulnerability to Russian energy dependence, and strengthen its security capabilities.

And it means standing up unflinchingly to Russia, something that only the U.S. has the capacity to do.

Third, this is a critical test for the European Union.

The EU may not have America’s hard power, but it has no shortage of soft power that, in its political, economic, and moral weight, is not inconsequential.

Ukraine borders on four EU countries — Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania — which together effectively constitute the regional bloc’s eastern border. Moreover, the Maidan protests, lasting months and costing the lives of over 100 Ukrainians, were triggered by popular anger at the policy u-turn of President Yanukovych, who, at the last minute, spurned an historic deal with the EU that his own government had pursued, and turned instead to Moscow. Will the EU stand by those Ukrainians who aspire to a pro-European future for their nation?

The fourth key point has to do with Ukraine itself.

Here is the chance for the country to prove it can pull itself together, even in the midst of the crises in its southern and eastern districts, and create a “new” Ukraine — anchored in democratic values, tackling endemic corruption and the need for administrative reform, affording equal opportunity and protection to all its citizens within its multi-ethnic society, and winning the battle against the lingering demons of anti-Semitism and xenophobia.

To be sure, Ukraine has a painful history of anti-Semitism that dates back centuries.

But, and this is a big but, since the rebirth of Ukrainian independence in 1991, many have struggled to create a receptive new environment for the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian Jews — and there’s much to show for the effort up the present day.

Anti-Semitism hasn’t totally disappeared, especially among ultra-nationalist, far-right groups (and also, it must be said, among those outside the country who currently seek to destabilize it by cynically playing the anti-Semitism “card”).

At the same time, Jewish life in Ukraine has been revitalized, Jewish groups abound, relations with Israel are excellent, and, currently, a Deputy Prime Minister is Jewish, one of the 450 members of Parliament wears a kippah, and a few governors and mayors are also Jewish.

Many Jews outside Ukraine may find it difficult to acknowledge these changes. Their views of Ukraine are essentially frozen in time, based on their own, or their families’, tragic experiences. While entirely understandable, it would nonetheless be a mistake to fail to recognize the changes that have occurred, the opportunities that have been created, and the potential that exists for still more progress.

Indeed, there are certain similarities here to the positive evolution, or perhaps even revolution, in the relations of Jews with Germany, Poland, the Baltic states, and the Catholic Church.

A few in the Jewish world, including AJC, saw the opportunities early on and pursued them relentlessly; others opposed their every move; and still others were, shall we say, asleep at the wheel.

More broadly, there are those who argue that Ukraine isn’t worth a confrontation with Russia. It’s too risky. It’s the wrong time. It’s much ado about very little.

I beg to differ.

While no one should seek diplomatic confrontation for its own sake, and Russia remains an absolutely key country in many important respects, if we don’t stand up now we almost inevitably risk having to do so later — and at a still higher price. No, it’s never the right time, but such moments are rarely of our choosing. And no, it’s not about very little, but actually about quite a lot.

Like other countries, Ukraine and its people should have the right to choose their own destiny as a sovereign, democratic nation. Their borders should not be violated, their land annexed, and their government intimidated by a saber-rattling neighbor. That’s not the kind of 21st-century world we want to live in, and Moscow needs to understand that it will pay an escalating diplomatic, political, and economic cost if it insists on playing by its own rules.

We either make that point now, convincingly, or take our chances. Here’s hoping we make the right choice.

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