Editorial: Riposte must hurt Russia, help Ukraine

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Economic sting plus aid West's best response.

President Vladimir Putin was alarmed and saw Russian dignity threatened by attempts to persuade Ukraine to sign up to the European Union. Photo / AP
President Vladimir Putin was alarmed and saw Russian dignity threatened by attempts to persuade Ukraine to sign up to the European Union. Photo / AP

All that can be done within reasonable bounds must be done to condemn Russia's seizure of the Crimean peninsula. The West should get behind John Kerry, the United States Secretary of State, who has talked of boycotting the June G8 summit in Sochi, visa bans, asset freezes and trade and investment penalties against Russia. The reality, however, is that very little can be done to stop Crimea falling under Moscow's rule. This state of affairs will almost certainly be confirmed in a referendum scheduled for March 30 when the people of Crimea will vote to effectively secede from Ukraine.

That outcome will reflect the fact that 60 per cent of the residents identify themselves as ethnic Russians. Crimea was a part of Russia until 1954 when it was presented as a gift to the Ukrainian people by the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev. That backfired when the Soviet system collapsed and Ukraine became independent. But the people of Crimea continued to look to Russia, while Moscow became more concerned about its important naval base at Sevastopol, the home of the Black Sea fleet, which it leased from Ukraine.

Their unease has heightened with events of the past few months. In the first instance, President Vladimir Putin was alarmed and saw Russian dignity threatened by attempts to persuade Ukraine to sign up to the European Union. This was viewed as Western intrusion into one of Russia's neighbours, similar to the suggestion of Nato expansion in Georgia, to which Moscow also responded strongly six years ago. Russian peacekeepers occupied and effectively annexed South Ossetia and Abkhazia without any meaningful response from the West. That surely encouraged Mr Putin to act in Crimea.

Secondly, the street protests in Kiev which led to the downfall of Ukraine's pro-Russian President, Viktor Yanukovych, contained a small but very visible ultra-nationalist element. Russian propaganda made great play of this, telling Crimea's ethnic Russians that the nationalists were intent on dispossessing or even killing them. The same unnerving message has reached ethnic Russians in other parts of eastern Ukraine, notably Donetsk. The danger now is that Russia feels emboldened to go beyond Crimea and take control of regions in the east and south where Russian speakers also comprise a majority. That would mean, unequivocally, an invasion, unlike the capture of Crimea, which involved mainly Russian troops stationed there.

To prevent any such escalation, there must be a strong reaction from the West. Russia's weak point is its faltering economy. Mr Kerry is right to suggest that with military intervention out of the question, the most effective response will come in that arena. But there should be a second strand to this. Ukraine is in serious trouble economically, with no investment and falling currency reserves. There is also a danger that Russia will ramp up the price of gas or cut off its supply. The Western response must, therefore, include a financial rescue package that will set the scene for an increasingly prosperous Ukraine.

Its eventual wellbeing would surely contrast markedly with that of Crimea, which will experience the full extent of Russia's economic woes over the next few years.

The Crimean people's situation could well come to echo that of the East Berliners who looked out from their dullness and drudgery to the bright lights of West Berlin. They may yet come to regret embracing Russia. And the people of Ukraine would at least gain long-term and rich compensation for the political and military impotence that is currently their lot.

- NZ Herald

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