Saving Ukraine from another Russian heist

Even as the EU and US weigh more sanctions against Moscow, they must unite behind a plan to lift Ukraine into a stable democracy with a West-oriented economy. That would be the best deterrent to further Russian designs.

Mission accomplished: President Vladimir Putin addresses a March 18 rally to support the annexation of Ukraine's Crimea to Russia.

Now that Russia has carved out a piece of Europe for itself, as it did this week with Ukraine’s Crimea, it has forced Europe to wonder if the rest of Ukraine is worth saving. Should Europe, along with the United States, pour in massive aid, military supplies, and observers to prevent a second Russian heist on its neighbor?

For now, Europe is more focused – and divided – on how much to punish Russia with sanctions. While sanctions would serve a moral purpose by imposing immediate retribution for the illegal land grab completed with Russian troops, they are not a long-term deterrent to any design by President Vladimir Putin to bite off the Russia-friendly portions of Ukraine. (In 2008, he described Ukraine as an “artificial country.”)

The best deterrent against Russia would be a Ukraine that is a stable democracy with an economy relatively free of corruption and that respects its Russian speakers. Ukraine was leaning toward a European-style system last year when it almost signed up to start the process of joining the European Union. But then it faltered under Moscow’s pressure and paid for it with a revolution that led to the loss of Crimea.

Now with Russia’s claws in Crimea, the time for fence-sitting is over. Even Europe’s longtime neutral countries, Finland and Sweden, are discussing the idea of closer ties with NATO after Moscow’s bearish move.

Bolstering Ukraine may not happen, however, if the EU instead cuts a deal with Mr. Putin to return it to Russia’s sphere of influence in return for not dividing it up anymore. Many in Europe, where the economy is barely growing, prefer this least-costly solution. In the US, too, the Senate cannot even decide whether to provide $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine.

Fixing Ukraine would indeed be a difficult project, nearly on the order of the postwar Marshall Plan or West Germany’s bill for reuniting with East Germany. The country owes about $30 billion over the next years and it’s highly dependent on Russian gas and markets.

The first order of business, however, is political. Ukraine plans elections in May, and its interim leaders say they want to distribute power to the regions. Most of all, any new government must not be beholden to oligarchs. Europe can support those goals with aid and advice.

Lessons have come hard for Ukraine. It became democratic in 1991 after the Soviet Union’s collapse, then needed a democratic revolution in 2004 and another one last year. It was once wealthier than Poland. Now a solidly democratic Poland is three times richer and a EU member.

When leaders of the EU and US meet next week, they must unite behind a plan to lift Ukraine for good. Not only will it save Ukraine from any further designs Putin may have for it, a democratic and prosperous Ukraine may eventually serve as a model for Russians to demand the same from Putin.

He may have won the battle for Crimea with hard power. But he could lose the war over Ukraine to soft power.

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