I think Yanukovich’s resignation (or early elections) – the #1 demand of the protesters – is precisely in our interest, even if one defines it in a less than expansive manner. Freedom for Ukraine is part of our global interest in promoting free and honest government, but I suspect Dr. Larison recognizes no such interest. More narrowly, defeating Yanukovich would be an embarrassment for Putin, which brings one to a key weakness of Larison’s analysis: the failure to come to terms with Putin’s fundamental hostility to the US. He writes that siding with the protesters, “would not only create another avoidable irritant in the relationship with Russia, but it would also add another U.S. commitment overseas.” Whether it is Putin’s behavior abroad or his domestic propaganda, it should be clear that he is no friend of the US and irritating him might well be a sign that we’re doing precisely the right thing.
If the U.S. has an interest in seeing Yanukovych removed from power, it must be a very minor one, but for the sake of argument let’s say that there is one. How important is this compared to the U.S. interest in a stable Ukraine? I would have to say that it is much less important. If the U.S. endorsed the protesters’ demands, if the opposition forced early elections, and if they then won, the new government would have to cope with the same economic problems and would require substantial aid from Western lenders. It would likely face an even worse economic situation if Russia used Ukraine’s economic dependence against it, and the new government would then need even more assistance or it would quickly face serious social and political unrest. I don’t think Western governments are ready to provide the amount of assistance that this would require. The precedent of forcing out a government through street demonstrations could easily be used against the next government, and instead of regular and orderly transfers of power Ukraine could suffer through a series of short-lived crisis governments that are then thrown out as soon as they do something that their opponents dislike. A politically unstable Ukraine is one that Moscow will find easier to manipulate, and one that will be in a much worse position to institute the reforms that many Ukrainians want. I don’t think the U.S. has major interests in Ukraine, but to the extent that it has any it shouldn’t want to contribute to making the country less politically stable, and that would be the effect of backing the protesters in Kiev.
It’s easy to say that irritating Putin “might well be a sign that we’re doing precisely the right thing,” but there is no consideration here of what the consequences of doing this might be. Poking Putin in the eye by supporting protesters in Kiev might be satisfying for some people in the West, but it is likely to spur Moscow to be more intransigent in its dealings with its neighbors, less cooperative with the U.S. on those issues where cooperation is genuinely valuable, and generally more antagonistic in its behavior. Russian antagonism can create significant problems for the U.S. on a number of issues, so there are good reasons to try to keep that antagonism at a minimum instead of looking for new ways to rile Moscow. If minimizing Russian antagonism is desirable, supporting protests in Kiev seems likely to be one of the most provocative, least constructive things that the U.S. could do at the moment.