The venal president of Ukraine is on the run and the bloodshed has stopped, but it is far too early to celebrate or to claim that the West has “won” or that Russia has “lost.” One incontrovertible lesson from the events in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, is that the deeply divided country will have to contend with dangerous problems that could reverberate beyond its borders.
The success of the protesters in Independence Square in driving out President Viktor Yanukovych and his supporters has also fired nationalist passions that can still erupt into further deadly violence. Parliament is feverishly passing laws, but it is not clear who is in charge. Ukraine is broke, and a vindictive Russia could easily make things more miserable by closing the border or raising gas prices.
This is not the time for saber-rattling. The right move for the United States and the European Union is to make clear to the Ukrainians — in the Russian-oriented east and the fiercely anti-Russian west — that substantial financial assistance is forthcoming if they form a credible government of national unity and agree to a package of reforms. Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief, is already in Kiev, and the acting Ukrainian president, Oleksandr Turchynov, has called on Parliament to form a government this week. President Obama, the International Monetary Fund and the European Union can follow up at this critical juncture with a firm pledge of aid.
And the Western powers will need to make efforts to include Russia in the transition, both to prevent the Kremlin from undermining any rescue plan and to reassure Russian-speaking Ukrainians that the West is not promoting a government dominated by nationalists. This is not “appeasement.” There is ample evidence that Ukrainians of all religious and linguistic backgrounds yearn to draw closer to the West, and the challenge for the United States and Europe is to make sure that political reform is not unraveled by civil strife or a vindictive Kremlin.
This is a decisive moment for President Vladimir Putin of Russia. He, like many of his countrymen, cannot fully accept that Ukraine is a separate nation, and no doubt Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev was speaking for the Kremlin when he questioned the legitimacy of a government installed by what he called “armed mutiny.”
Mr. Putin has also made a habit, perhaps acquired in the K.G.B., of spotting Western conspiracies behind all challenges to his will. But after gambling on Mr. Yanukovych, Mr. Putin must understand that Russia cannot prevent the next Ukrainian leader from signing an association agreement with the European Union, and that actively working to break up Ukraine would risk civil war.
That is what Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany apparently sought to impress on Mr. Putin when she talked with him on Sunday, and her spokesman said Mr. Putin agreed that Ukraine’s “territorial integrity” must be safeguarded. That was also the message from President Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, when she said on Sunday, “It is not in the interests of Ukraine or of Russia, or of Europe, or the United States to see the country split.” In fact, that would be a catastrophic shift; the region needs a united and stable Ukraine.
Unlike the Eastern European countries that have been incorporated into the European Union and NATO, Ukraine shares much of its history, and industry, with Russia, and has been part of a fierce tug-of-war since it broke from the Soviet Union 22 years ago. But, as the three-month siege of Independence Square made clear, Ukrainians believe their future is with the values and practices of the West. The key is to persuade all Ukrainians and Russia that this is not a either-or, that a democratic Ukraine with ties to Europe can also maintain the culture, language and history it shares with Russia.