Greg Satell, Contributor
The world has become a turbulent place. Over 100,000 people have been killed in Syria. Iran inches toward a nuclear bomb and North Korea already has one. In Africa, atrocities in Mali seem almost inhuman.
There is no shortage of trouble in the world and it’s easy to feel helpless. In truth, there is very little we can do about most of it. Yet in Ukraine, the West can and should act. Doing so will put us on the right side of justice and of history.
For those who are unfamiliar with the recent events in Ukraine, they began in November, when President Victor Yanukovichbacked out of a trade deal with the EU. After years of intolerable corruption, this was the last straw, representing a final turn away from civilized society.
In the background lurks Putin’s Russia. Vladimir Putin is attempting to build his own trade union between post-Soviet states and Ukraine, as the most prominent of the ex-republics and the closest culturally to Russia, is essential for him to fulfill that goal. For the Russian people, Ukraine looms large as well. Many often point to the common ancestry dating back to the Kievan Rus.
Yet Ukraine is a sovereign nation, with its own language, heritage and aspirations. Its eastern region maintains close ties to Russia, while its western and southeastern regions share much history with Poland and Romania, respectively. The result is a highly cultivated people who are tremendously ambitious and very outward looking.
This is not the first time the Ukrainian people went to the streets in defense of their right to self-determination. In 2004, the falsified elections resulted in the Orange Revolution. I was there and was inspired by millions of people who showed that even at the height of contention there could be dignity instead of depravity and that hope could prevail over fear.
Yet 2014 is different than 2004. This time it’s turned violent. Ukraine’s Prime Minister Mykola Azarov has endorsed the use of force against the protesters. Uniformed Berkut—riot police—and roving bands of thugs called “titushki” terrorize the populace. Many of these, my friends in Kiev tell me, speak with Russian (i.e. not Ukrainian) accents.
Several protesters have been killed and others have been abducted and beaten. Some have been forced to strip in sub-zero temperatures, while they are struck and taunted by uniformed Berkut. Journalists have been specifically targeted. Automated text messages are sent to anyone near the protests notifying that they have been registered as offenders.
Order has been breaking down. A radical branch of protesters called Right Sector began throwing Molotov cocktails and attacking riot police with improvised maces. Many regional government offices have been seized by the opposition. Put simply it’s a mess. So much so that I hardly recognize the place that I called home for nearly a decade.
Yet the situation is not hopeless nor are western governments helpless. They can, as my friend and former colleague Vitaly Sych suggested, institute targeted sanctions. Ukraine is not Russia and Yanukovich is not Putin. He depends on a network of powerful oligarchs to maintain his hold on power.
This small group of elites has become extraordinarily rich through their government ties and have built up numerous financial assets in the West. Depriving them of their London townhouses, Swiss chalets and access to western financial institutions and business opportunities, would be an enormously effective way to alter their political calculus.
The White House made clear in a recent statement that it is considering sanctions, but mere threats are not enough. With Putin seemingly hell bent on affecting the outcome in Ukraine, the current situation is like, as Anne Applebaum put it, a hockey game with only one team on the ice.
So unlike many other trouble spots in faraway places, the growing violence in Ukraine is something that the US and the EU can do something about. With apologies to Winston Churchill, rarely before in the history of the world could so few, doing so little, achieve so much for so many.