Time for US to defuse Ukraine crisis

Updated: 2014-05-14 10:23

By Edward Lozansky and Martin Sieff(chinadaily.com.cn)

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The second wave of US sanctions against Russian officials and the heated rhetorical exchange between the leaders of both countries, with each side blaming the other, show that Washington-Moscow relations have bottomed out. Ukraine has moved closer to civil war after Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in the eastern part of the country voted for independence in a referendum on Monday.

So, it is time to abandon political posturing and introduce some rationality into the discussions on Ukraine. The stakes are too high to allow the confrontation between Washington and Moscow to continue, not least because the consequences are unpredictable.

The violence and chaos spreading across Ukraine have the potential to spark a much wider conflict in Europe on a scale not seen since 1945. The expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's military hardware and personnel along Russia's borders and the threats of further devastating Western sanctions intended to cripple the Russian economy are pushing people toward a nightmarish situation that neither the United States nor its European allies are prepared to face.

A certain modicum of cynicism and hypocrisy is perhaps unavoidable in foreign policies, but choosing to overlook any of the interim Kiev government's wrongdoings, and blaming every instance of violence on Russian agent provocateurs exceeds these limits — or, to borrow from US President Barack Obama's parlance, crosses every red line.

The recent Geneva agreement on the Ukraine crisis was a step in the right direction. But it has not changed the untenable situation on the ground. For example, Kiev has not followed through on its promise to disarm illegally armed militant groups — such as the nationalist Right Sector paramilitary group — which is one of the vital points of the Geneva agreement. Nor does it show any inclination of doing so any time soon.

The greatest danger here is that Ukraine is edging closer to a full-scale civil war by the day. But there is an even greater danger of the conflict escalating into a direct military confrontation between the US-led NATO forces and Russia, a scenario with the most horrific consequences for both sides.

A NATO intervention in Ukraine, followed by a reciprocal move by Russia, is not a desirable outcome. Therefore, as tensions rise and the situation in Ukraine continues to deteriorate, policymakers in Washington and Moscow need to recognize the extremely urgent need to find a way of extricating themselves from this crisis. This should be done before the situation in Ukraine transforms from a regional crisis to a full-blown international conflagration.

During a recent interview, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered Washington an opportunity to break this futile cycle of mutual accusation and ineffectual posturing. He said: “I think there is nothing that would hinder normalization and normal cooperation with the West. This does not depend on us, or rather not only on us. This depends on our partners.” In the same interview, he welcomed the appointment of former Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg as the next NATO secretary-general.

Regardless of the West’s opinion of Putin, he has been demonstrating, ever since he first took office 15 years ago, his willingness and ability to constructively cooperate with the US on major issues. Even today, crucial US air supplies to the NATO-backed security forces in Afghanistan are made easier by Russia, which provides secure access through its Northern Air Corridor. Besides, the US and Russia both share the same security concerns with regard to the spread of nuclear weapons and terror threats from radical Islamists.

To be sure, it is Washington that holds practically all the keys to a peaceful resolution of the Ukraine crisis. Not only has Washington helped install the present government but also, judging from the incessant visits of senior US officials to Kiev, it has been calling the shots.

Edward Lozansky is president of the American University in Moscow, and Martin Sieff is a senior fellow at the American University in Moscow.