Over the past few months much of the discussion about the crisis in Ukraine has concerned the implications of Vladimir Putin’s desire to turn Russia into a great power capable of challenging the United States and its NATO allies.
To be sure, this is a vital issue and I have written about the need for the United States to develop a coherent response to Putin in conjunction with our partners in Europe.
But what is often overlooked in this discussion of global power politics and the course of world history is the wave of sectarian violence that Russia is sponsoring in Ukraine. Since January nearly 250 people have been killed in clashes across Ukraine. This shocking number is comparable to all but the darkest years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. And 2014 is only half over.
Until Putin set his sights on it, Ukraine never had to confront large-scale inter-communal violence. Russians and Ukrainians lived side-by-side across the countryside and in cities. Put simply, in just a few months the Kremlin and its agents in Ukraine have manufactured a sectarian conflict on the European continent where once there was none.
This sets a dangerous precedent and demonstrates just how far Putin is willing to go to achieve his dream of a resurgent Russia that dominates Eastern Europe.
On Wednesday, only four days before Ukraine is set to hold its first presidential elections since the ouster of Yanukovych, the UN’s Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights warned that clashes in eastern and southern Ukraine are only growing more violent, and more arms are flowing into this volatile region.
He also advised Kiev to expect a “wave of displaced persons” fleeing violence in the east. For the first time since the Yugoslav Wars, Europe is facing the prospect of a flood of refugees. Ukraine’s political crisis is set to spark an even greater humanitarian crisis.
It took decades to heal the wounds in Northern Ireland, a process which is still ongoing. The Balkans still bear the deep scars of ethnic cleansing and years of war.
Ukraine is far more populous than Northern Ireland or the former Yugoslavia, and Putin has the money, weapons, and propaganda machine to foment a conflict that could claim the lives of many more than the 250 who have already perished.
So far, Obama and Europe’s leaders have not been able to stop Putin from getting what he wants.
No one doubts that America and its NATO allies have the capability to guarantee Ukraine’s freedom from Russian interference; what has become plainly evident is that Obama and certain European countries lack the willpower to stand up to Putin’s bullying.
Perhaps Obama is unmoved by the threat to global peace and security that Putin’s Russia presents, just as he seems unmoved by the threat from Iran, Syria, or North Korea.
We can only hope that Obama changes his mind and chooses to defend the global values that the United States and its allies stand for. But if he does not, then he should consider that while America stands idly by, Putin is sponsoring sectarian violence that is claiming the lives of hundreds of Ukrainians and could easily claim the lives of hundreds more.
If Obama’s policy agenda doesn’t compel him to stand up to Putin in Ukraine, perhaps his conscience will.