Arriving on Air Force One in Kiev, 70-year-old Vice President Joe Biden carried very little in his pockets, after 39-ytear-old interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told NBC’s David Gregory April 20 on “Meet the Press” he wanted the U.S. to rebuild the Ukrainian army. Biden’s trip does little to defuse tensions in Eastern Ukraine where three Russian-speaking separatists were killed yesterday in a drive-by-shooting. Yatsenyuk’s public plea to have the U.S. rebuild the Ukrainian military doesn’t sit well with the Kremlin, already suspicious of the Feb. 22 revolution that toppled 64-year-old Russian-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich. Suspicions in the Kremlin, led by 61-year-old Russian President Vladimir Putin, blame the U.S. for sponsoring Feb 22 coup.. Biden’s trip to Kiev was supposed to support Kiev’s new leaders, despite falling short of Yatsenyuk’s demands.
Biden announced only technical assistance to Ukraine’s struggling government to boost energy production. Offering “unconventional” technical assistance for boosting natural gas production, Biden fell fall short of hopes that Uncle Sam would bailout Ukraine’s economic woes. Recent discussions with the European Union and International Monetary Fund raised the specter of implementing austerity programs to repay the billions in loans expected to salvage the Ukrainian economy. Pie-in-sky promises about a Western bailout raise unanswered questions about who orchestrated the Feb. 22 revolt that toppled Yanukovich. Rebel leader 42-year-old former heavyweight champion boxer Vitale Klitschko is nowhere to be seen. Now that the country’s in chaos, its 49-year-old interim President Oleksandr Turchinov and Yatsenyuk hope the U.S. will pay Ukraine’s bills.
When Yanukovich chose Nov. 30, 2013 to opt for a $16 billion Russian deal on energy and Ukranian debt restructuring, the so-called protest movement got out of hand, leading the Feb. 22 coup. While hosting the Sochi Winter Olympics the Western-backed coup made no sense to Putin, knowing the struggling cash-strapped Ukrainian economy. When Putin reacted one week after the Sochi Olympics seizing Crime March 1, Western officials overreacted to what was purely Russian efforts to protect its national security interests in Ukraine. With an anti-Russia, pro-Western government in place, Putin countered the coup seizing Crimea. Ukraine faces a far greater economic crisis than existed before Yanukovich. Without paying its energy bills, Ukraine’s faces the very real prospects of a Russian gas cutoff. Biden’s trip hopes to offer Ukraine some options to buying Russian natural gas.
Biden walks a tightrope promising Kiev’s new government anything that would antagonize poor relations with Moscow. Putin has been surprised by U.S. willingness to toss Russia under the bus to promote Ukraine’s pro-Western, anti-Kremlin government. “[Biden] wanted to come to Kiev to send a very clear message of the United States’ support for Ukraine’s democracy, unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” said an unnamed U.S. official traveling with the VP. Putin can’t fathom U.S. backing from an insurgent group that toppled Yanukovich’s duly elected government. Whether or not the U.S. backed Ukraine’s “democracy,” it’s difficult to back Urkaine’s leaders with little support from the military. Refusing to fight in Eastern Ukraine, the military showed that they don’t back Kiev’s new government. Backing Ukraine’s unpopular post-revolutionary government makes no sense.
Instead of antagonizing Putin, the White House should find common ground with Moscow on new representative leaders. While Ukraine should eventually hold new elections, for the time being they should select leaders acceptable to Kiev and Eastern Ukraine. With Turchinov and Yatsenyuk unable to command the military, they should step down, either replaced by a U.N. caretaker government or find consensus candidates picked by a delegation from Kiev and Eastern Ukraine. While Biden wants the April 16 Geneva Accord implemented to prevent Russia from taking more territory, the real issue should be what’s good for Ukraine. If Moscow steps in temporarily to prevent more violence, the West shouldn’t buy Yatsenyuk’s unfounded warnings of a Kremiln takeover. If there’s a need to peacekeepers now, it’s because Kiev can’t provide adequate security around the country.
Offering support to the new Ukrainian government at the expense of U.S.-Russian relations is counterproductive. With the U.S. counting on Moscow to back its plans in Syria, Iran and the pullout in Afghanistan, the White House needs cooperation from Moscow more than it needs to back Ukraine’s failed leadership. Turchinov and Yatsenyuk do not enjoy popular support across Ukraine, prompting early resignations to find leaders with more common ground. If the White House wants to avoid civil war, Biden should tell Turchinov and Yatsenyuk that they must relinquish power for the good of Ukraine. Backing Ukraine’s post-revolutionary leaders that command neither military control nor consensus in Eastern Ukraine is the shortest distance to civil war. Insisting on the new government’s resignation would set the right tone and open up a new dialogue with Moscow.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.