KIEV ― The quiet period between the declaration of war in September 1939 and the Nazi blitz on Belgium and France in May 1940 is often called “The Phony War.” Since Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, and began massing troops and armored columns on our eastern border, we in Ukraine have been living through a “phony peace.”
There is nothing phony, however, about the efforts we Ukrainians are now making to defend our country and our democracy. Our young men and women are volunteering for military service like never before. Our government has negotiated a standby loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund that will give us some of the tools that we need to get our financial and economic house in order. That agreement will also impose real economic pain, but Ukrainians are willing to pay the price in order to preserve our independence.
After a time of neglect, a time when we ― like the rest of Europe ― believed that the continent’s borders would never again be changed by force, we are also increasing our defense spending, despite our economy’s precarious state. There will be no more surrendering of sovereign Ukrainian territory. Not an inch.
Most important, despite the Russian army massed against us, we are embarking on an election campaign. Next month, Ukraine’s citizens will freely choose a new president ― the best rebuke possible to Russian propaganda about our supposed failure to uphold democracy.
And yet, as Ukrainians work to rebuild our country after Viktor Yanukovych’s predatory rule, we are facing a new threat, in the form of a “peace offensive” ― that old staple of Soviet diplomacy designed to undermine Western resolve. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent phone call to US President Barack Obama to seek renewed diplomatic talks, followed by a Russian white paper on how to resolve a crisis of the Kremlin’s making, is in fact offensive to peace.
Putin’s gambit is akin to the infamous Yalta Conference in 1945, where Joseph Stalin made Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt complicit in a division of Europe that enslaved half of the continent for almost a half-century. Today, Putin is seeking to make the West complicit in the dismemberment of Ukraine by negotiating a Kremlin-designed federal constitution that would create a dozen Crimeas ― bite-size chunks that Russia could devour more easily later.
Of course, federalism sounds like a good thing. Devolving political power closer to where people actually live is always appealing, and usually effective. But the wellbeing of Ukrainian democracy is not what Putin has in mind; for him, a federal system is a means for the Kremlin to make political mischief and ultimately incorporate Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions into the Russian Federation. To paraphrase Clausewitz, federalism for Putin is annexation by other means.
One has only to look at the Russian proposal’s fine print: Ukraine’s new federal units would have a powerful say over “Ukraine’s foreign-policy direction.” That provision would enable Putin to try to coerce and manipulate Russian-speaking regions into vetoing the country’s European future.
Ukraine’s constitutional structure is for Ukraine’s citizens alone to decide. Russia can have no say in it ― and nor should other countries, however helpful they wish to be. Ukraine is not Bosnia, where the constitution emerged out of peace talks that ended years of bloody warfare following the breakup of Yugoslavia. Nor is it Kosovo, which became independent at the same time that its governmental structures were being forged. Ukraine is a fully sovereign state, recognized as such by the world, including Russia.
To buy into Putin’s sham federalism is to accept the lies that the Kremlin has been spewing about Ukraine’s current interim government and the brave men and women who ousted Yanukovych. Putin’s factotums claim that Ukraine’s Russian speakers are under threat, but they cannot point to a single example of persecution that might bear this out. No Russian-speaking refugees from eastern Ukraine or Crimea have fled into Russia, and no Russian-speaker has sought political asylum anywhere else outside the country.
The reason is simple: there is no oppression of Russian speakers in Ukraine, and there never has been. Ukraine’s government under Yanukovych was incompetent, corrupt, and mendacious. But it was an equal-opportunity oppressor.
If there is no oppression of Russian speakers in Ukraine, there is no reason to change the country’s political structure. So should Ukraine really be forced to create a new constitutional order based on the Big Lie? What we need is a competent, efficient, and corruption-free government. And with Europe’s help and technical assistance, we will establish one.
The desire of diplomats to find a peaceful solution to Ukraine’s crisis is understandable. But the terms that Russia is demanding, if accepted by the West, would fatally undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty; worse, accepting Russia’s terms would ratify the idea that powerful countries may bully less powerful neighbors into doing their bidding, to the point of surrendering their independence.
Ukraine will stand up to the bully ― on our own, if necessary. We refuse to play the part of hapless victim in future history textbooks.
By Yuliya Tymoshenko
Yuliya Tymoshenko, twice prime minister of Ukraine and a former political prisoner, is a candidate for president in the May election. ― Ed.