Ukraine is on fire. People are dying in the streets. Why? At the core, it’s a battle against Vladimir Putin.

Kiev is on fire as the battle between pro-Putin forces and anti-Putin rebels intensifies.

Kiev is on fire as the battle between pro-Putin forces and anti-Putin rebels intensifies.

Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych (left) and Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych (left) and Russian president Vladimir Putin.

>> Ukraine crisis: Police storm main Kiev ‘Maidan’ protest camp (latest coverage from BBC News)

(Washington, D.C.) — While Vladimir Putin stage-manages a dazzling Olympic extravaganza in Sochi, a deadly backlash against the Russian Czar has broken out in neighboring Ukraine.

Kiev is on fire. Dozens are dead. Hundreds are wounded. The country is on the verge of all-out civil war. And there appears to be no end in sight.

On one side is Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich and his pro-Putin government.

Last fall, Yanukovich abruptly rejected a trade agreement that would have strengthened ties between the former Soviet republic and the European Union. Instead, Yanukovich lurched in the other direction, choosing closer ties to the Kremlin, a decision sealed by a $15 billion package of loan guarantees and discounts on natural gas purchases that Putin offered to sweeten the deal and draw Yanukovich away from the West.

On the other side are Ukraine’s civilian protestors. 

They hate the memories of Soviet domination, fear the Kremlin, desperately want Ukraine to remain an independent nation, want closer ties to Europe and the U.S., and are determined to stop Putin and the Kremlin from seizing control of their destiny.

The showdown has been brewing for months, but it has now erupted into violent clashes in Kiev and other cities as Yanukovich’s forces are now attacking the protestors with live ammunition, water canons and the like. What’s more, the western region of Lviv has just declared autonomy, threatening to split the country in two, or potentially trigger a civil war.

The key to understanding what’s really happening is understanding who Putin is, what he wants, and why the Ukrainians fear him.

In 2005, the former KGB agent turned Czar-wannabe delivered a major address in which he said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” adding that “for the Russian people, it became a real drama. Tens of millions of our citizens and countrymen found themselves outside Russian territory. The epidemic of disintegration also spread to Russia itself.”

What Putin wants is to restore the glory of Mother Russia. If he could rebuild the Soviet Union, he would. Short of that, he wants to bring former Soviet satellite states like Ukraine back under Russian control. The people of Ukraine are fighting back, but the U.S. and E.U. are doing precious little to help them.

Worth noting is a recent analysis by John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations: “Putin might not actually be seeking to re-create the former Soviet Union’s boundaries but he is clearly bent on bringing the ‘near abroad’ back under Russian hegemony. Putin is playing old-fashioned power politics, declaring Moscow’s sphere  of influence, while the West has essentially stood idle. Ukraine is the biggest prize. Putin openly endorsed incumbent Viktor Yanukovych for president in the 2010 Ukraine presidential election. And one can only guess at how much of Moscow’s resources went into propaganda, voter suppression and bribery — or even darker arts.

“Given Ukraine’s size, strategic location  and potential for Westernization, there is no doubt America should  strongly and visibly oppose Putin’s policy,” Bolton notes. “Instead of developing a strategy, however, both the Obama administration and Congress are merely discussing potential sanctions against Kiev’s current government….What independent-minded Ukrainians really need is NATO membership — the sole realistic way to induce Moscow to scale back or cease its predatory conduct — and the only effective shield for countries unfortunate enough  to border Russia. In 2008, however, the alliance failed  dismally when timorous Western Europeans blocked the path to NATO  membership for both Ukraine and Georgia. Leaving space between NATO’s  eastern edge and Russia’s border all but invited Moscow to take  advantage of the vacuum we ourselves created. Indeed, shortly after his  inauguration, Yanukovych did Russia’s bidding by taking NATO membership  off the table. NATO’s 2008 mistake also convinced  Russia, a few months later, that it could safely invade Georgia,  dismember it and ultimately orchestrate a pro-Moscow government. By contrast, NATO’s admission of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all sharing borders with Russia, has brought them at least a measure of respite from aggressive cyber-warfare and other Moscow interference.”

Likewise, George Weigel wrote in National Review Online that “it is self-evident that Ukraine’s future looms large in the strategic master plan of Russian president Vladimir Putin, which involves nothing less than the reconstitution of the USSR, de facto if not de jure, in a reassembly of the former ‘Soviet space’ as an exclusively Russian sphere of influence. In advancing that grand design, Putin has not been fastidious about either his modus operandi or his partners. Armenia was cajoled, then threatened, then bribed and bullied into backing off its plans to pursue integration into the European Union. Those tactics having worked with the small fry, Putin then turned the screws on the biggest prize, Ukraine, threatening to wreak economic havoc in that country if the government of President Viktor Yanukovych did not retreat from longstanding plans to sign an association agreement with the EU at a summit in Vilnius this past November. Yanukovych’s cave-in to that pressure launched the Maidan [protest] movement, with all that has followed.”

LATEST COVERAGE:

Here’s a useful analysis published by the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday — “Ukraine Gets Ugly”:

The protests in Ukraine took an ugly turn Tuesday as thousands of demonstrators rioted in Kiev, torching cars and buildings and hurling bricks and Molotov cocktails at police, who responded with rubber bullets and stun grenades. At least 18 people were confirmed dead as we went to press, and scores were injured in the latest clashes over the Yanukovych government’s Russian rapprochement.

The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement blaming the violence on “connivance on the part of those Western politicians and European structures” supposedly encouraging Ukraine’s more extreme protesters to “further escalation and provocations against the legitimate authority.” That echoes President Vladimir Putin’s familiar accusations of Western “meddling” in former Soviet satellites.

Hardly. The devolution of what started in November as a peaceful pro-European movement is a grim illustration of what can happen when the West fails to get involved.

The protests began three months ago after President Yanukovych scrapped an agreement for closer ties between Ukraine and the EU, opting instead for a $15 billion package of cheap loans and gas from Russia. As part of that package, Moscow announced Monday that it will buy $2 billion of Ukrainian eurobonds. Kiev has imposed intermittent crackdowns on the demonstrators and Mr. Yanukovych’s ruling party has pushed through laws restricting public gatherings.

Meanwhile, the pro-Europe forces have pleaded for Western support to little effect. Opposition leaders Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Vitali Klitschko met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday to ask for sanctions against Yanukovych officials with assets in the EU. Berlin declined, even as it gave rhetorical support to the protest movement, and it offered no information on any forthcoming aid from Germany or the EU to counter Moscow’s billions.

The EU’s eastern members have been urging a sweetened deal for Ukraine that would include money and a pathway to full EU membership, which was not contained in the original offer that Kiev rejected in November. EU and U.S. officials have refused and said Ukraine will only receive more Western ties and money once it earns them through economic and political reforms. For the Yanukovych government, the calculus is clear: The potential Russian retaliation for such reforms dwarfs the benefits of any Western rewards mooted so far.

Without more U.S. and EU help, Ukraine’s pro-Western democrats will never achieve their goals and could wind up dead. That brings us to Tuesday’s bomb-throwers. Even as Moscow was accusing the West of having instigated the riots, journalists and peaceful activists in Kiev were reporting that the provocateurs were working on behalf of the Yanukovych regime to justify another crackdown.

Late on Tuesday evening, government police forces and Yanukovych-hired thugs tried to force their way through the barricades around Independence Square. Once again, Mr. Putin’s man in Kiev has proved he is willing to turn to violence to save his skin. The U.S. and the EU have vaguely threatened sanctions against President Yanukovych, his inner circle and his supporters among the oligarchs. If not now, when? The longer the U.S. and the EU dither on the sidelines, the uglier Ukraine’s crisis will get.

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