Compromise of sorts in Ukraine

April 24, 2014

The agreement over Ukraine reached April 17 in Geneva will likely only offer each side some breathing room until the next threatening act by Russia on its western neighbor. Moscow was a signatory to the “agreement,” along with the United States, the European Union and Ukraine, which calls for all parties — including the pro-Russian separatist groups who have commandeered government buildings in eastern Ukraine — to stop the violence and disarm. All good, as far as these “accords” go.

But with 40,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s eastern and southern borders, and the Ukrainian territory of Crimea already annexed by the Putin government, no one really thinks that Russia is relaxing the threat of attack. It also remains to be seen whether Russia will urge its supporters in Ukraine to disarm and return occupied buildings to the Ukrainian government. Were Russia to do so, that would be an encouraging gesture.

In commenting on the agreement, which Secretary of State John Kerry called “a compromise of sorts,” President Obama ruled out American use of force should Russia attack Ukraine again. Instead, he spoke about further economic measures against President Vladimir Putin and his circle of friends, advisers and associates. Like most foreign policy matters — including the all-but-ended Middle East peace talks — the president has so far failed to flex any real muscle or to use his bully pulpit to rally public opinion around the administration’s goals in the region. While we admire Obama for his refusal to engage in macho posturing, we have yet to see that his cool, cerebral style has had much impact on a bully such as Putin. We suspect that Obama will need to use more than just words to convince Moscow of his resolve.

One strange incident just before the Geneva talks opened raised the question of how Jews are being used in this conflict. In the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, three masked men stood in front of a local synagogue and handed out leaflets, supposedly with the imprimatur of the regional administration, calling on Jews to register and pay a tax to pro-Russian separatists.

The news of this activity was first reported in the Israeli media. With its sensationalistic echoes of the region’s tragic Nazi and Soviet pasts, the story spread around the world. Kerry condemned it. It remains unclear who was behind the leaflets and, thus, the actual size of the threat. But Jews, it seems, are very much on the minds of Ukrainians and Russians, who routinely accuse each other of anti-Semitism in their war of words.

While we would like for Ukrainians to have a say over who governs their country, Russia may ultimately do whatever it determines it can get away with. Whatever the outcome, it is vital that the region’s growing Jewish communities not become pawns in the ethnic-national conflict now unfolding.

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