No Pumpkin for Putin in Ukraine: Reluctant Marriage With Russians

Suzanne Fields
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Posted: Dec 20, 2013 12:01 AM
No Pumpkin for Putin in Ukraine: Reluctant Marriage With Russians

Where you're born on the calendar of history makes all the difference in the world. We watch the protests of the young and restless unfold in Kiev's Independence Square and our sympathy goes to them in their quest to be linked in partnership with the West. They want economic integration with the West, but they yearn to free their hearts, their creativity and their ambition, too. Some call it freedom for the soul.

These are men and women born in that part of Eastern Europe once labeled the "Bloodlands," where, between the years of Stalin and Hitler, more than 14 million men, women and children were murdered. The timing of the births of the protesting youth was fortunate. When the Berlin wall came down and the evil empire crumbled, they were suddenly free.

When Ukraine became independent, it was not the end of history, as some glibly suggested, but the beginning of a new historical measure. Young people in particular wanted to enjoy the free and easy life in the West. They knew that Ukraine, the largest of the 14 republics freed from the yoke of the Soviet Union, would not achieve true independence and movement toward the West easily. But they had their dreams.

Fifty Ukrainian women delivered a big pumpkin, tied with the blue ribbons of the European Union, to the Russian ambassador in Kiev -- a pointed invocation of the custom of a Ukrainian woman giving a pumpkin to a suitor when she declines his offer of marriage. But it was not to be. Pumpkin or not, Ukraine submitted to something of a shotgun wedding when Vladimir Putin offered Ukraine $20 billion in wedding presents -- loans and cheaper natural gas -- to reject the West. "Ukraine's trade with Russia makes it impossible for us to act in any other way," says Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych. "There is no alternative to this." Ukraine can expect a cold honeymoon.

The young Ukrainians with their dreams are afraid now that President Putin will pull them back even harder into the Soviet orbit, back into an empire that, if not quite evil, nevertheless imposes cruel limits on their lives and restrictions in their ability to speak and associate freely. Their fears are real. They've watched Russia narrow its sights since Mikhail Gorbachev proclaimed an inclusive approach toward former European rivals.

Vladimir Putin is no Mikhail Gorbachev. His pale, intense blue eyes suggest the cold conscience of a faithful agent of the old KGB. He has sent punk music protestors to prison, frightened non-governmental organizations and imposed speech limits on the Internet. The young Ukrainians have watched nearby Poland grow prosperous with freedom, and they want some of that.

When Ukrainian President Yanukovych, under severe pressure from Moscow, refused to sign a trade and economic "association" treaty with the European Union, he signaled the unhappy prospect of having to make the deal with Russia instead. When the streets sizzled with protest, President Yanukovych answered with bulldozers, batons and a water cannon spraying icy water on the crowds. For once, the United States stood with the good guys. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was dispatched to tell President Yanukovych that abuse of the protesters was "absolutely impermissible in a democratic society." Secretary of State Kerry was "disgusted" and Vice President Joe Biden threatened to withhold visas for Ukrainian leaders that would keep them from their western bank accounts. (The unkindest cut of all.)

John McCain, the old maverick, activated his attitude and put himself on the line with rhetorical punch. He addressed the protesters on their home ground, supporting their "just cause" and "sovereign right" to write the new history.

Vladimir Putin, ever the clever politician, countered with the offer that Ukraine dare not refuse. He insists the economic promises are "not tied to any conditions" to join the Russian-dominated Customs Union. But the Ukrainians understand the meaning of the unspoken "or else."

Americans cheer the Ukrainians with caution. Memories of Ukraine in the Hitler time are particularly painful for Jews. Many Ukrainians were willing accomplices in the massacre of Jews, strutting about in their Nazi uniforms, eager to escape a Soviet identity and the misery of famine that starved millions. The considerable number of members of a nationalist party called Svoboda are fond, even today, of making the stiff-armed Nazi salute under a black and red banner recalling the Ukrainian partisan army that allied with the Nazis. History dies slowly. But the dreams of the young, their expectations not yet shriveled by harsh experience, are not likely to die. The Russians are likely to find that this is not the end of history, but the beginning.