Will Ukraine Resist The Bully? The U.S. Should Step Up With Help

KIEV, Ukraine -- Vladimir Putin regularly buffs up his strongman image by stripping off his shirt for photographers while he hunts, casts for fish and rides horses.

Vladimir Putin

You have to wonder: Does he strip off his shirt each time he picks up the phone to bully the president of Ukraine?

Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, stunned European Union negotiators last month when he abruptly rejected a trade and integration deal with the EU just days before it was to be finalized.

Yanukovych did so a few weeks after he flew to a military base near Moscow for a secret meeting with Russian President Putin, who fiercely opposes Ukraine's tilt toward Europe.

The obvious implication: Putin put on the hard squeeze and Yanukovych wilted.

That has prompted angry protests from Ukrainian citizens and opposition leaders.

Yanukovych has answered with riot police, leading to violent clashes in the streets of Kiev, Ukraine's capital.

Demonstrators have been beaten.

Yanukovych has threatened to crack down even harder if pro-Europe protests continue.

Putin has leverage here.

Ukraine is heavily in debt to Moscow and depends on it for natural gas and trade.

When Putin banned imports of Ukrainian chocolate, candy and cake this summer on a flimsy pretext, those products piled up at the border.

Putin's priority is to force his neighbors, especially the large and populous Ukraine, into a proposed new customs union under Russia's control.

Yanukovych has much to gain in the short term from a deal with Putin, including cheaper gas, financial relief and lucrative business contracts for his cronies, who have benefited in the past from collaboration with Moscow.

A temporary boost for Ukraine's failing economy would help Yanukovych's 2015 re-election campaign.

Ukraine is in a fragile state: mired in debt, short of hard currency.

Putin could clobber it by imposing trade sanctions and crimping the gas supply.

The EU offers short-term pain and long-term gain.

The deal Ukraine almost signed would have brought fiscal discipline and political accountability — which Ukraine desperately needs — and the opportunity to integrate with the world's largest trading union.

Given its agricultural resources, Ukraine could be an economic star.

Arable land makes up more than half the country, which is traditionally known as the breadbasket of Europe.

Much like the American Midwest — and precious few other places in the world — the soil is rich, dark, deep and expansive.

Yet agricultural production is inefficient.

Until recently, foreign investment was practically prohibited.

Reform is badly needed if Ukraine is to obtain the investment capital to realize its potential.

Tilting toward the authoritarian Putin is no way to accomplish that goal.

There is a difficult history here.

As a part of the former Soviet Union, Ukraine suffered hardships.

Since the Soviet breakup two decades ago, Ukraine has struggled to embrace democratic institutions, establish the rule of law and find its economic footing.

The EU deal was viewed, especially in the western region of Ukraine, as an opportunity to remake a promising but backward land. 

Politics in Ukraine is rough-and-tumble.

Yanukovych's top rival, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, an architect of Kiev's pro-Democracy Orange Revolution in 2004, is jailed on charges that she abused her power.

Her allies, and many outside of Ukraine, believe the charges are politically motivated.

EU leaders, most significantly German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have pressed for her release.

Ukraine, by geography and economic sphere, is vulnerable to Putin's threats.

The EU path promises some difficulty, but ultimately a strong foundation for prosperity.

This is a critical decision.

The U.S. and its European allies should step up with more support for Ukraine.

If Yanukovych puts his people first, he'll tell Putin to take a hike — clothing optional.

Source: Chicago Tribune