02/19/2014 08:46 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Ukraine: Doing Nothing is The Worst of All Options


In the movie, Welcome to Sarajevo, the cynical American journalist Floyd (played by Woodie Harrelson) becomes visibly incredulous when, told by a visiting British diplomat, that Sarajevo is the "13th most dangerous" place in the world, and, thus, cannot be helped for a while. Floyd asks if the city is currently sliding up or down on that scale.

It's the very same question that many Ukrainians are asking themselves as they awake to a smoldering Kyiv -- the historic capital sandwiched between Europe and the Russian Federation, that has become the scene of bloodshed after a full day of clashes Tuesday involving riot police, pro-democracy protesters and paid thugs and provocateurs. As the smoke clears this Wednesday morning some 20 people are reported dead and scores injured, many seriously.

Of course ranking such needless carnage is absurd. But one cannot blame the Ukrainians, who have braved the cold and official harassment since last November, for asking themselves today where they rank compared to the ongoing emergencies in Thailand, Syria, the Central African Republic and elsewhere. Even more so after US Vice President Joe Biden and Washington's allies were unable to muster language that did not go beyond 'gravely concerned' in response to yesterday's attacks on pro-democracy protesters.

What is clear is that there is troubling disarray, a sort of diplomatic paralysis, among western governments' policies towards the corrupt regime of President Viktor Yanukovych -- the thug from eastern Ukraine who appears ready to stop at nothing to retain power. While some western governments such as the US and Canada have imposed sanctions that pretty much are equivalent of a slap on the wrist, they've not yet unleashed the heavy artillery at their disposal that really hits where it hurts - freezing the overseas bank accounts of those responsible for the carnage and the abhorrent, full-on assault on democratic values.

I recall, sitting in the television studios of TVi on election night of the 2012 Parliamentary elections. The former Minister of Foreign Affairs, the professional diplomat Volodymyr Ohryzko (who was succeeded by one of the current opposition leaders Arseniy Yatsenyk), confided in me that the only punishment Yanukovych, his immediate circle and the oligarchs fear are targeted, financial sanctions. He is right and, so far, there's been little apparent movement in this direction.

Late Tuesday there was an stunning display of the protest camp's utter disgust at the lack of western action when, after a day of statements from western capitals expressing "grave concern," a digital poster was broadcast via social media saying:

"Dear European Union and United States of America: We no longer need your moral support. Act or fuck off. With EuroLove, From EuroUkraine."

The note was signed with a drop of blood.

So what happens now -- after weeks of deadlock, with pro-democracy protesters staring down the government and rot police for weeks on end?

One troubling question that remains is, if Yanukovych does cede power and calls early elections (highly unlikely), who will run as the unified opposition member? In a leaked telephone conversation earlier this month between senior US diplomat Victoria Nuland and the US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, it was made clear that Washington favors the more cerebral and urbane Yatsenyuk over the professional boxer-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko and professional politician Oleh Tyahnybok. Little comfort given Washington's checkered history with picking the winning side in conflict regions around the world.

Observers too are raising flags over the intentions of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Having successfully wooed Yanukovych from the embrace of the European Union -- a courtship that originally sparked the ongoing crisis -- with promises of billions of dollars of loans, debt forgiveness and gas discounts -- there are fears that, once the Sochi Olympics are over, the Russians may send battalions of troops across Ukraine's eastern borders to help Kyiv quell the unrest. Putin has acted with impunity on several occasions and there's little doubt he will resist now. It is worth recalling that on the first day of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Russia initiated a war with neighboring Georgia.

So what is the West to do at this point? It is well known what Yanukovych and his ilk, bad boys raised in the eastern industrialized region of Ukraine close to the Russian border, have tough exteriors with little regard for western public opinion. Reprimanding them where it hurts translates into targeted sanctions that include: a freeze on ill-gotten assets, visa restrictions, and meaningful threats of ICC prosecutions of those suspected of crimes against humanity. Sanctions could be widened to include oligarchs associated with the regime, a move which would surely raise the ire and, in turn, place extraordinary pressure on the bad boy from Donetsk. A unified, determined call for early elections, restoration of media freedoms and full investigations into abducted protest leaders must also be part of the response. (The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has already called for an investigation into claims of torture and kidnappings in Ukraine).

Nothing less would be tantamount to doing nothing -- the worst of all options.