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Cross-posted from Consortium News
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko -- by thumbing his nose at the leaders of Russia, Germany and France as they repeatedly appealed to him to renew the fragile ceasefire in eastern Ukraine -- has left himself and his U.S. patrons isolated, though that's not the version of the story that you'll read in the mainstream U.S. press.
But the reality is that an unusual flurry of high-level conference calls last weekend from key European capitals failed to dissuade Poroshenko from launching major attacks on opposition forces in eastern Ukraine. Washington was alone in voicing support for Poroshenko's decision, with a State Department spokeswoman saying "he has a right to defend his country."
This marginalization of the U.S. is a consequence of a well-founded suspicion that Poroshenko's fateful decision to "attack" came with Washington's encouragement. The continued provocative behavior of Secretary Kerry, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland and other U.S. hardliners comes despite the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin still holds the high cards in this regional standoff.
Putin has at his disposal a range of alternatives short of sending in tanks to protect the ethnic Russians of eastern Ukraine, many of whom had voted for President Viktor Yanukovych who was ousted in February by violent protests. The uprising was led by western Ukrainians demanding closer ties to Europe but was turned into a "regime change" on Feb. 22 through a putsch spearheaded by neo-Nazi militias contemptuous of the ethnic Russians living in the east and south.
Yanukovych's ouster was strongly encouraged by Nuland, who handpicked Arseniy Yatsenyuk to be the leader of the interim government, while at least four ministries were awarded to the neo-Nazis, including the office of national security, in recognition of their key role in the final attacks that forced Yanukovych and his officials to flee for their lives.
Though hailed as "legitimate" by the U.S. State Department, the coup regime was rejected by many ethnic Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine. In Crimea, the population voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and rejoin Russia, a development that U.S. officials and the dutiful mainstream media characterized as a Russian "invasion."
Similarly, in the east, in the so-called Donbass region, ethnic Russians rose up and asserted their independence from the Kiev regime, which then deemed them "terrorists" and launched an "anti-terrorist" campaign that incorporated some of the neo-Nazi militias as National Guard units deployed as shock troops to crush the uprising. Several bloody massacres of ethnic Russians followed in Odessa and other cities.
In May, the election of Poroshenko -- in balloting mostly conducted in western and central Ukraine -- held out some hope for a negotiated settlement with guarantees to respect the ethnic Russian population and greater autonomy granted to the eastern regions. However, Poroshenko had trouble getting control of his hardliners and he refused to negotiate directly with the rebels, leading to the failure of a shaky ceasefire.
A Fateful Decision
While the focus over recent days has been on Poroshenko's decision to end the ceasefire and go on the offensive, Putin has continued to rely on diplomacy as his primary tool, especially with European officials fearful of the economic consequences of a full-scale confrontation between Russia and the West. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has made considerable headway in getting at least Berlin and Paris to join Moscow in trying to restrain Washington in its apparent eagerness to stoke the fires in Ukraine.
Speaking on Russian TV on Saturday, Lavrov said, "Peace within the warring country [Ukraine] would be more likely if negotiations were left to Russia and Europe," adding, "Our American colleagues ... according to a lot of evidence, still favor pushing the Ukrainian leadership towards the path of confrontation."
That evidence is increasingly evident to Europeans. What is new is their apparent willingness to slip softly out of their accustomed lockstep subservience to the U.S. in such matters.
Washington is losing support elsewhere in Europe as well. Last Thursday, Kerry declared it "critical for Russia to show in the next hours, literally, that it is moving to help disarm the separatists," and on Friday the European Union leaders set a Monday deadline for Russia to take a series of steps to avoid further sanctions.
Alas, Monday showed the Europeans putting off any action for at least another week. This delay has driven the editors of the neocon flagship Washington Post to distraction; in Wednesday's edition they pouted that such lack of resolve amounts to "craven surrender" to "Russian aggression."
Putin, meanwhile, is maintaining a determined coolness in his public remarks. In a major speech on Tuesday, he noted, in a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone:
"Unfortunately, President Poroshenko has resolved to resume military action, and we failed -- when I say 'we,' I mean my colleagues in Europe and myself -- we failed to convince him that the road to a secure, stable, and inviolable peace cannot lie through war. " Mr. Poroshenko had not been directly linked to the orders to begin military action, and only now did he take full responsibility, and not only military, but political as well, which is much more important.
"We also failed to agree to make public a statement approved by the foreign ministers of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine on the need to maintain peace and search for mutually acceptable solutions."