Will Putin Send in the Tanks?

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Bodies of anti-government protesters. Reuters/Stringer

"In the words of the popular proverb, Moscow was the heart of Russia; St Petersburg, its head. But Kiev, its mother…"

James H. Billington, The Icon and the Axe

Just hours after a truce had been established between protesters and the government, violence erupted again today in the central square of Kiev, Ukraine's capital city.

A trio of officials from the European Union—the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland—now head to Kiev to try to breach the fundamental divide roiling the country: a struggle between east and west, its outcome highly uncertain, the possibility of a civil war undeniably looming.

This divide has been at Ukraine's core for centuries. What's unfolding now is nothing less than the violent struggle for a nation's soul. To some current and former diplomats, what is surprising is not that Ukraine appears to be coming apart, but that it has taken this long into the post Soviet era for something like this to happen.

At its origins, more than ten centuries ago, what was known as "Kievan Russia" was, as James Billington wrote in his classic study of Russian culture, "closely linked with Western Europe—through trade and intermarriage with every important royal family of Western Christendom."

But , he continued, ``those promising early links with the West were, fatefully, never made secure."

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Anti-government protesters reel barbed wire around a barricade. Konstantin Chernichkin/Reuters

Focus on that one word. "Fatefully." "Increasingly," Billington writes, "inexerorably, Kievan Russia was drawn eastward into a debilitating struggle for control of the Eurasian steppe."

What we're witnessing now, make no mistake, is the latest chapter of that struggle. And it is one in which Moscow has an important, inherent and obvious advantage: Ukraine matters more to President Vladimir Putin, and Russia, than it does to Barack Obama, or German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union is the central, disastrous geopolitical fact of Putin's life (See Newsweek cover story February 13, Putin's Games). And among the new states that were created when the empire imploded, Ukraine was first among equals. It was, as Walter Russell Mead, professor and author at Bard College wrote recently, ``the largest and most important republic within the Soviet Union."

If Putin dreams of reassembling a reasonable facsimile of the Soviet empire—and he does—then, as Russell wrote, ``everything pales beside the battle for Ukraine."

When it appeared last fall that the government in Kiev was going to more closely align itself politically and economically with Europe than ever before, Putin moved forcefully to block it. Flush with oil and gas revenue—the beginning and the end of Russian economic strength--he offered Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych a $15 billion bribe to spurn the European Union.

Vitaly Klitschko
Ukrainian opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko speaks to interior ministry troops outside the parliament building in Kiev February 20, 2014. Andrii Skakodub/Pool/Reuters

He coupled that with threats of an economic blockade should Kiev align with Brussels. For a country dependent on Russian gas, those threats were taken seriously.

Yanukovych blinked. And that sent into the streets those who want nothing less than to see Kiev move firmly into the West's embrace. They have been there on and off ever since, and this week the crisis reached its most dangerous point, as riot police tried to regain control of the capital, and in the process thus far killing at least 35 people.

Ukraine is divided right down the middle. Its eastern half is heavily Russian, linguistically, culturally, and politically. In the western part of the country—where cities like Lviv (the Russians call it "Lvov") were once part of Poland—you're as apt to hear Ukrainian spoken as Russian (a fact that infuriates Russian-only speakers since the differences are such that Ukrainian is often incomprehensible.) Citizens there want nothing of the Russian embrace.

But the effective centuries-long Russian domination of Ukraine has been, as Billington wrote, a fact of life, and thus it s not surprising that the West's response to the unfolding crisis has been disorganized and ham-handed once Moscow made it clear how angry it was with Yanukovych's lurch West.

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Interior ministry soldiers sit behind buses parked outside the parliament building in Kiev February 20, 2014. Andrew Kravchenko/Pool/Reuters

That the West's diplomats could think –as they evidently did—that Kiev could side emphatically with Europe without strenuous pushback from Moscow is remarkable. At the end of the Cold War, as the Soviet Union was breaking apart, recall how deferential the United States was toward Moscow's attitudes when it came to Ukraine. In the summer of 1991, as Mikhail Gorbachev clung desperately to his job in Moscow, then President George H.W. Bush visited Kiev, and in a famous speech warned that, "Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism."

That language was meant to reassure Gorbachev and the then teetering Soviet Union, and send a warning to Ukraine's nationalists. It managed to infuriate many in Kiev--and in the US, where conservative critics immediately (and famously) dubbed it the "Chicken Kiev" speech.

Now, with Ukraine again on the brink, the contortions of Barack Obama's diplomacy with Moscow are front and center. The President famously sought a "reset" of relations with Moscow when he came to office. His first Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, even handed her counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, a plastic reset button at one of their meetings in 2009.

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Anti-government protesters run with a man who appears to have been shot in the leg. Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

Then , last year, he issued a "red line" warning to Syrian President Bashar al Assad not to use chemical weapons against his own people lest he invite air strikes. When Assad did so anyway, Obama at the last instant seized on Putin's offer to intervene and arrange for Russia's middle eastern ally to stand down his weapons under international supervision. (Obama was trying to salvage his own diplomatic effort to persuade Iran—Assad's principal patron—to give up its development of nuclear weapons. A strike at Syria would have rendered that effort moot.)

To date, however, only about 10 percent of Syria's chemical weapons have been removed, the civil war there rages on, and earlier this week, after peace talks broke off in acrimony, Secretary of State John Kerry publicly blasted Russia for "enabling" Al Assad to stay in power and wage war against the rebels seeking to oust him.

The American frustration is understandable. Putin, as Walter Russell Mead wrote, has run rings around Obama and the Europeans when it comes to Syria, and may now be doing so again in Ukraine. It's not at all clear that the threat of sanctions targeted against individuals in Kiev's government will change the playing field. The additional "tools" that a U.S. national security council spokesperson talked about being available will likely be necessary, sooner rather than later, given that Putin has telegraphed how important the country is to his vision of Russia's interests.

Stephen Sestanovich, former U.S. ambassador to the newly independent post-Soviet states, has said the U.S. and the E.U. were "overconfident" when it came to Ukraine, mistakenly assuming it would "just fall into our laps." Three months of demonstrations, political stalemate and now 35 dead in the streets have put an end to that "overconfidence."

Europe and the U.S. are now, quite obviously, playing catch up. Sestanovich told U.S. radio interviewer Hugh Hewitt Wednesday that the E.U. would be well advised to put its own sack of money on the table to convey seriousness, and counter Putin.

The grimmest scenario is that should the standoff and the violence escalate, Putin will send Russian troops to intervene, as he did in the Republic of Georgia in 2008. As important as Kiev is to Moscow, that may be a bridge too far. For Moscow, "It would be a bloody mess," Sestanovich says.

Not since 1991, and the Soviet break up, have Europe and the United States had the opportunity to move Ukraine closer to the West and its democratic institutions. That possibility still exists, as Sestanovich argued yesterday.

But no one who knows the first thing about Russian history-- or Vladimir Putin's ambitions--should be surprised that it s an ugly, intense struggle getting there.