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Exclusive to the Trib: American policy is pushing Ukraine into Vladimir Putin's sphere

| Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

The increasing political conflict between pro-Russian and pro-Western elements in Ukraine finally is awakening the Obama administration's top levels. Until last weekend, when Secretary of State John Kerry met in Munich with Ukrainian opposition leaders, the White House seemed unable even to mention Ukraine, let alone develop a coherent strategy to block Russia's transparent effort to bring the country back under its hegemony. Whether America and the West are waking up too late now is the central question.

Vladimir Putin has repeatedly made clear that he misses many Communist-era hallmarks. Domestically, he thrives on centralizing authority in his own hands, systematically restoring both the Kremlin's political and economic power. Putin might not still be a Communist in Marxist theory terms but he is a Soviet-era leader, intolerant of political opposition and sustained dissent and determined to keep the economy in hands loyal to the Russian state.

He harks back, if not to Communist imperialism, then to czarist imperialism and historic Russian fears of enemies surrounding it on the Eurasian landmass. Putin is determined to push Moscow's authority outward, to the boundaries of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, if not beyond. He said in a major 2005 speech that the USSR's 1991 breakup at the end of the Cold War was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” Putin also complained that “tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.”

Once successfully past the all-too-brief democratic experiment of the chaotic 1990s, Moscow has moved assertively to do precisely what Putin's remarks imply: In the now-independent countries formerly composing the Soviet Union (which many Russians wistfully call the “near abroad”), the Kremlin has acted overtly and covertly to extend its influence. Putin might not actually be seeking to re-create the former Soviet Union's boundaries but he is clearly bent on bringing the “near abroad” back under Russian hegemony. Putin is playing old-fashioned power politics, declaring Moscow's sphere of influence, while the West has essentially stood idle.

Ukraine is the biggest prize. Putin openly endorsed incumbent Viktor Yanukovych for president in the 2010 Ukraine presidential election. And one can only guess at how much of Moscow's resources went into propaganda, voter suppression and bribery — or even darker arts.

Given Ukraine's size, strategic location and potential for Westernization, there is no doubt America should strongly and visibly oppose Putin's policy. Instead of developing a strategy, however, both the Obama administration and Congress are merely discussing potential sanctions against Kiev's current government. Thus, in a battle over whether Ukraine turns east or west, our political leaders are considering reducing economic contacts, thus ineluctably forcing the country into closer relations with Russia. You can't write fiction that bizarre.

Of course, it is hardly inspiring to assert that Ukraine's salvation lies in the European Union, which former Warsaw Pact members fear is just a different kind of trap. What independent-minded Ukrainians really need is NATO membership — the sole realistic way to induce Moscow to scale back or cease its predatory conduct — and the only effective shield for countries unfortunate enough to border Russia.

In 2008, however, the alliance failed dismally when timorous Western Europeans blocked the path to NATO membership for both Ukraine and Georgia. Leaving space between NATO's eastern edge and Russia's border all but invited Moscow to take advantage of the vacuum we ourselves created. Indeed, shortly after his inauguration, Yanukovych did Russia's bidding by taking NATO membership off the table.

NATO's 2008 mistake also convinced Russia, a few months later, that it could safely invade Georgia, dismember it and ultimately orchestrate a pro-Moscow government. By contrast, NATO's admission of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all sharing borders with Russia, has brought them at least a measure of respite from aggressive cyber-warfare and other Moscow interference.

Thus, expanding NATO brought greater security, while restricting it brought greater Russian success through belligerence, political subversion and implicit threats of force in much of the near abroad.

Ukraine's citizens realize what is at stake here far more than do State Department functionaries or an oblivious President Obama. This is not merely a battle over democracy or human rights as we use those terms today but a potential war for independence. America used to understand what that meant.

Instead of more feckless rhetoric, the United States and whatever European allies it can rouse from somnambulance must tell Moscow unambiguously to step back from its ongoing subversion of Ukrainian political institutions.

If there are to be economic sanctions, they should be directed against Moscow for interfering with neighbors trying to break free of its stultifying, authoritarian grip. Washington could augment sanctions by resuming construction of national missile-defense capabilities, including basing missiles and radars in any NATO member or applicant willing to host them. That would be a real re-set button for Moscow.

John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His exclusive column to the Trib appears the second Sunday of every month.

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