Ukraine Expects U.S. Military Help If War With Russia Starts

Leaders in Kiev don’t want to call openly for military assistance from the United States and Europe, but they know they need it desperately.

Pool Photo by Andrii Skakodu

Former World-boxing-champion-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko, a leading contender to become Ukraine’s next president, is none too happy with the West’s response to Moscow’s seizure of Crimea, at least so far. But if Ukraine has to fight to stop more Russian land grabs, he told a press conference, he expects American backing.

Asked afterward what sort of United States support is needed, he tried not to get too specific. The matter of military aid, he told The Daily Beast, is “a very sensitive question.” But Klitschko said Ukraine will have no other choice but to defend itself “if Russia continues aggression” and at that point “support from all democratic forces, from all democratic countries” will be needed.

“I hope that we don’t go over the line where we use weapons,” said Klitschko. “The Russians have much more weapons, much more tanks, planes, but Ukrainians will be the home defenders.” (The Russians also have nuclear weapons, and one of their most prominent TV anchormen reminded his viewers on Sunday that theirs is still “the only country in the world capable of turning the U.S.A. into radioactive dust.”)

In the United States, Sen. John McCain, appearing on CNN, said Crimea’s break-up referendum vote with a supposed 97 percent majority was reminiscent of “the old Soviet days”, and he urged President Barack Obama to focus on provide enough military assistance to Ukrainians “at least so they can defend themselves.”

McCain said he was not calling for American boots on the ground, but short of that other kinds of military help are vital “because God knows what Vladimir Putin will do next.”

What the Ukrainians fear, of course, is that Putin will try to grab other parts of eastern Ukraine with large ethnic Russian populations. Over the weekend about 5,000 pro-Russian protesters roamed central Donetsk in eastern Ukraine smashing doors and windows and forcing entry to government buildings.

Ukraine’s new leaders claim Moscow has been infiltrating Russian provocateurs to foment much of the agitation. The Kremlin denies this but has warned that it is ready to send in regular military forces massed on the border to protect ethnic Russians—the initial reason given for seizing Crimea.

Western governments today started to make good on their promises to sanction Russia in the event the predominantly Russian-speaking Crimea broke away from Ukraine. European Union foreign ministers slapped travel bans and asset freezes on 21 people from Russia and Crimea linked to the push for secession by the strategic peninsula in the Black Sea.

Obama, meanwhile, signed an executive order imposing sanctions against seven Russian officials for their involvement with Crimea’s vote to join the Russian Federation and four Ukrainian officials, including deposed President Viktor Yanukovych. The Russians named include top Putin aides Vladislav Surkov and Sergey Glazyev. The White House order targets the officials’ assets and bars them from entering the United States.

“We have fashioned these sanctions to impose costs on named individuals who wield influence in the Russian government and those responsible for the deteriorating situation in Ukraine,” the White House said in a statement. “We stand ready to use these authorities in a direct and targeted fashion as events warrant.”

But the sanctions as announced don’t satisfy Klitschko or most other top Ukrainian leaders, who don’t think they will be enough to deter Putin from continuing with efforts to destabilize their country.

Klitschko told the crowded press conference he was “still waiting for adequate steps from the guarantors” of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum that was supposed to assure independence and territorial integrity in return for giving up nuclear weapons. It was signed eventually by all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council: the United States, Britain, France, China and, yes, Russia. But its now obvious the ironclad security guarantees they claimed to provide are perfectly hollow.

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The European and American sanctions came hours after Crimea’s parliament declared the region an independent state, following the overwhelming vote on Sunday. The snap referendum was held two weeks after Russian forces seized the peninsula and blockaded Ukrainian soldiers in their bases. Now Crimea’s parliament also has asked formally to be annexed by Russia.

Ukraine lawmaker Lesya Orobets, one of the leaders of the Maidan uprising that toppled Yanukovych last month, says she is frustrated with the West’s too-little and too-late responses throughout the crisis. “Is the world’s ‘support’ enough? “ she asks. ”We can only answer that question when Russia leaves our territory.” During the Maidan uprising in Kiev, even as protesters were being killed, the West was reluctant to move. “We still heard the response that ‘we don’t want to ruin the relationship with Yanukovych and you have to negotiate.’”

In a part of Europe where memories of World War II endure with ferocious intensity, she looks at the possibility of talks with Yanukovych or Putin as worse than a waste of time. “Do you have success negotiating with a killer?” she says. “Do you negotiate with Hitler?”

But if negotiations fail, the consequences of military confrontation are almost too horrible to contemplate.