Ukraine, A Non-violent Resistance

April 21, 2014     
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Several days after returning from an international observer mission to Ukraine — sponsored by NDI (National Democratic Institute) — I latched onto to the flood tide of news and commentary coming from that besieged country. A revelation slowly began to take shape: Ukrainians were in their own, distinct way using the principle of non-violent resistance to contend with Putin’s muscle-flexing and efforts to manufacture a pretext for moving his tanks across the border.

The revelation was supported by the conversations I had with Ukrainians – the participants of the months long Maidan protests, who were continuing their efforts to forge a new, democratic system of government; the public servants in the interim government who were working to draft new legislation to replace the malfeasance of the Yanukovich administration; the representatives of the political parties who so far have held fast to the commitment of reform; or to the remarkable delicate balance of those police and army units who have not been bought out by the Russians or the Oligarchs in providing security in Eastern hot spots. One message came through clear- the Russians would not be allowed to prevail.

There wasn’t any misunderstanding of the threat posed by Russia, the strategy of Putin to upset the forthcoming presidential election, or the need to find a way to relate to an aggressive big power at the border. However, the enormity of standing up to the Russians was not a sufficient cause for defeatism. It was simply that Ukrainians believed they would prevail by the force of their will to persevere in reforming their own country. They were not going to let even the intrusions of Russian agitators, secret service moles, or thinly disguised provocateurs set them off course. Their response was not one of bellicosity, but of hard scrabble work to create the preconditions of a peaceful, inclusive election on May 25.

But to make it work, they will need support and resources in greater variety and depth from Western countries than has been forthcoming to date. We should not wait until election time to send election observers. Ukraine needs international, third party, international observers and election experts right now to help in building the election machinery.

Instead of scaling back of sanctions, turn the screws tighter. Russia is hurting economically; it needs more of a pinch. There is a long road between now and the May election, plenty of time for increased intrusion and disruption. The policy of containment that the Obama administration has finally recognized is the appropriate one (thanks to George F. Kennan during the Cold War), requires an unremitting pressure to be applied on an ongoing basis and it must be unified.

Forget the NATO shows of force, it is soft power that is needed by Ukraine. What is far more critical right now is effective economic aid, not the patently irresponsible efforts of the IMF to impose conditionality to its loans, which will require deep cuts to government programs just before an election is to be held. There is no quicker way to turn off an electorate. In a fragile political climate, negotiating aid should be done with understanding the context on the ground, not just in the offices of bankers.

When I was in Foreign Affairs I had a one on one discussion with Leonid Kuchma – former President of Ukraine — who asked me for advice on successfully living along a border with a powerful country. I replied with an old adage from my home province, “When making love with a porcupine, do it carefully.” The Ukrainians, at least most of them are getting that right. You can’t meet the force of the Russians, but you can mobilize the moral force of the people. And do it carefully.

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.

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