KUHNER: Will Russia-Ukraine be Europe’s next war?

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COMMENTARY:

Europe faces the risk of another major war. In 1939, Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland triggered the Second World War. Today the possible trip wire is not Poland, but Ukraine. And the aggressor will not be Adolf Hitler, but Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Under his iron-fisted grip, Russia has been transformed into a gangster state. Democracy has been dismantled, corruption is rampant, journalists are murdered, dissidents are imprisoned and the media is controlled by the regime. Flush with petrodollars, Moscow is seeking to restore the Great Russian Empire. It poses a strategic threat to its neighbors and to the West.

Mr. Putin is a former KGB apparatchik, who has called the Soviet Union’s collapse the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” The comment reveals his bloodlust and moral depravity. Soviet communism was the greatest system of mass murder in history. It was responsible for the deaths of more than 60 million people. The Soviet Union’s disintegration in 1991 was not a catastrophe but the very opposite: a victory for democracy, national self-determination and civilization.

Out of the rubble emerged an independent Ukraine. “No other people suffered under Moscow’s rule as much as the Ukrainians,” says Gerry Kelebay, a professor at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and a leading Ukraine expert.

In 1932-1933, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin imposed a terror famine in Ukraine. More than 10 million Ukrainians were systematically starved to death. “If any country has earned the right to national statehood, it is Ukraine,” Mr. Kelebay said.

He is right: Kiev’s hard-won sovereignty and burgeoning democracy has come at tremendous cost. Unfortunately, Ukraine faces Russian aggression once again. Only this time, it comes not from Marxist-Leninists, but from messianic nationalists.

Moscow is on the march. After invading Georgia and establishing Russia’s dominance over the secessionist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Mr. Putin is now bent on dismembering Ukraine. The Russian strongman has made no secret of his contempt for Kiev’s independence. At a NATO summit in April, he told President Bush that Ukraine is “not even a real state,” and that much of its territory was “given away” by Russia. Mr. Putin warned that Ukraine would “cease to exist as a state” if it dared to join NATO.

Ukraine, like Georgia, is despised by the Kremlin’s xenophobic elite for one simple reason - it seeks to break away from Moscow’s authoritarian grip. In response, Russia is trying to destabilize Ukraine.

Moscow’s main aim is to wrest the Crimean Peninsula from Kiev’s control. A majority of the Crimea’s inhabitants are ethnic Russians. More importantly, the Russian Black Sea Fleet is based in Sevastopol. Under a 1997 agreement between the two countries, the Russian navy is scheduled to leave by 2017. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko refuses to extend the lease - rightly fearing Moscow plans to stay on indefinitely and eventually annex the entire Crimea. Russian officials have already said they will not abandon the base at Sevastopol and that Kiev’s maritime laws do not apply to them.

Moreover, Russia has been distributing thousands of Russian passports to supporters in the Crimea. The plan is to replicate what was done in South Ossetia and Abkhazia: Create a pretext to send in Russian “peacekeepers” to protect supposedly endangered Russian “citizens.”

But Ukraine is not Georgia; it is a large, militarily powerful country with long memories of Russian domination. Any attempt at partition by Moscow would be met by fierce resistance. It would spark a bloody Russo-Ukrainian war. This would inevitably drag in Poland and the Baltic States - all of which are members of NATO. Mr. Putin’s bellicose nationalism threatens to ignite a European conflagration.

The battle over Ukraine is more than a regional test of wills. It is a clash over the future of Europe - and of Russia’s role in it. Orthodox Slavophiles, such as Mr. Putin, dream of a “Slavic Union” composed of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. They favor a resurgent Russian imperialism, which seeks to dominate its neighbors, assert its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and the Balkans and undermine American power abroad. It explains Moscow’s support for rogue regimes like Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran.

However, a democratic, unified Ukraine stands in the way of Mr. Putin’s goal. Ukraine is the strategic bulwark against Russian expansionism - the eastern ramparts of Western civilization. Kiev is not some regional capital of a Greater Russia, but a fundamental part of the European mainland. This is why Ukraine seeks to embrace NATO and the European Union.

And it is also why Moscow desperately wants to derail Ukraine’s integration into the Euro-Atlantic alliance. A prosperous and pluralist Orthodox Slavic state on Russia’s borders would provide an attractive alternative to the Kremlin’s brutal dictatorship. A successful Ukraine would pave the way for liberal democracy to triumph in Russia. And Mr. Putin is willing to do anything to stop this from happening - including possibly plunging Europe into another disastrous bloodbath. We are all Ukrainians now.

Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a columnist at The Washington Times.

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