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Apr

russia

FIRST Vladimir Putin mauled Georgia, but the world forgave him—because Russia was too important to be cut adrift. Then he gobbled up Crimea, but the world accepted it—because Crimea should have been Russian all along. Now he has infiltrated eastern Ukraine, but the world is hesitating—because infiltration is not quite invasion. But if the West does not face up to Mr Putin now, it may find him at its door.

The storming of police stations in eastern Ukraine over the weekend by pro-Russian protesters (see article) is a clever move, for it has put the interim government in Kiev in an impossible position. Mr Putin has warned that Ukraine is on the brink of civil war. If the country’s government fails to take control, it will open itself to charges that it cannot keep order within its own borders. But its soldiers are poorly trained, so in using force (operations were under way as The Economist went to press) it risks escalation and bloodshed. Either way, it loses.

The West has seen Russia brush off its threats and warnings. It looks feeble and divided. Yet, after the destabilisation of eastern Ukraine, even doves should grasp that the best chance of stability lies in standing up to Mr Putin, because firmness today is the way to avoid confrontation later.

Red lines and green men

Russia insists that it has played no part in the seizure of towns such as Sloviansk and Gorlivka. This is implausible. The attacks were co-ordinated, in strategically useful places that had seen few protests. Just as in Crimea six weeks ago, troops in unmarked uniforms and with Russian weapons carried out the initial assaults. Russian agents have turned up in custody and in reporters’ notebooks, organising the protests and, some say, paying for them. Russia has been meddling in eastern Ukraine for weeks, occasionally with results from the pages of Gogol. On April 6th “local people” stormed what they thought was the regional administrative headquarters in Kharkiv only to find that they had taken control of the opera house.

Russian diplomats counter that they cannot be behind what is going on, because instability in eastern Ukraine is not in Russia’s interests. True, normal countries benefit from peace and prosperity next door. However, mindful of its own claim to power and the outlook for Russia’s stagnant economy, the Kremlin has much to fear from the pro-European demonstrations that toppled Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych. It appears determined to see the new Ukraine fail.

– See more at: http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21600979-cost-stopping-russian-bear-now-highbut-it-will-only-get-higher-if-west-does#sthash.g32GXOKw.dpuf

Published in the print version of the Economist, April 19th, 2014

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