One by one, in the years after the Berlin Wall fell, countries that once aligned with the Soviet Union and its premier military alliance, the Warsaw Pact, became members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Western military alliance that had “won” the Cold War without firing a shot.
First, in 1999, came Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. By 2004, a series of Central and Eastern European states – Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia – joined NATO. In 2009, Albania and Croatia followed.
“A good part of what we used to call Eastern Europe are now members of NATO and the European Union,” said Steven Pifer, a former ambassador to Ukraine, in an interview with Fox News. “They are now well out of Russia's sphere of influence. I think the question comes down to countries like Ukraine, Georgia, who would like to thicken their ties with the West.”
Whether Russian President Vladimir Putin will allow Ukraine to establish closer economic connections to Washington and the International Monetary Fund – and whether the Obama administration is fully engaged in those actions that could help weaken Russian influence over the region – are among the most important considerations presently shaping the future of Ukraine, a nation of 46 million people.
“We've been engaged, both on the ground, with calls to everyone from [ex-President Viktor] Yanukovych to opposition leaders,” said State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki. “Deputy Secretary [William J.] Burns is heading there tomorrow. We're working closely with the E.U. and we've been very engaged. But ultimately the future is up to the people in the country.”
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, speaking Monday with Ukrainian opposition leader Arseniy Ytsyenyuk, conveyed that the U.S. and its Western allies stand ready to aid the interim government if it can first complete a long-stalled restructuring agreement with the International Monetary fund. Opposition leaders in Ukraine have said the country faces a $35 billion shortfall over the next two years. As a share of total U.S. foreign aid, Eastern Europe has shrunk from 14 percent in 2002 to about 3 percent in 2012.
Many have cast the Ukrainian crisis, with its hints of superpower confrontation by proxy, as a return, of sorts, to the Cold War. “What happens in Kiev doesn't stay in Kiev,” said former Pentagon adviser Michael Rubin, now a scholar at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, on the February 20 episode of “Hannity.”
“We've got to show our allies in the Baltics -- Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia, Poland, even -- that we are willing to have their back. Otherwise, Putin is on a roll to reconstitute, basically, the former Soviet Union.”
According to this view of events, shared by many conservative analysts, the Obama administration, by virtue of the relatively limited actions it took during Yanukovych’s final days – imposing VISA bans on selected government officials, for example, none of whom were likely to visit Boston or Los Angeles – may have forfeited a rare opportunity to chip away at Russia’s lingering strong influence in the region.
“As we stand by, the Soviet Union, which we thought was dead, is being reconstituted in the form of the new Russian empire under Vladimir Putin,” said Fox News contributor Judith Miller on the same program. “And if we let him get away with that, he's going to think that he can do whatever he wants in the region.”
But one former ambassador to Ukraine cautioned – as does the Obama administration – against framing the current crisis in Cold War terms. “This is less about East-West influence and more about the Ukrainian people and their future,” said John Herbst, who represented the U.S. in Kiev from 2003 to 2006. “We might not always be able to provide substantial economic help or intervene militarily, but we should always be the well wishers of freedom.”
It is true that Putin, whose government sits atop the world’s largest natural gas reserves, is unlikely to allow allied countries to “defect” to the West absent any cost to them politically.
The Kremlin uses its near-monopoly on energy supply to Eastern Europe to keep such countries within Moscow’s post-Soviet sphere of influence. Case in point: Armenia, which, like the Yanukovych government in Ukraine, spurned a deal with the European union last year in favor of joining a Russian-led consortium.