FOR NEARLY three weeks after announcing the annexation of Crimea, Vladimir Putin held off on further dismemberment of Ukraine. No doubt he was measuring the West’s reaction to the first forcible change of borders in Europe since 1945. Apparently, he wasn’t impressed — and given U.S. and European inertia, why would he have been?
The vague warnings from President Obama and the limited sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union in late March were followed by more than two weeks of inactivity — apart from U.S.-Russian discussions from which Ukrainians were excluded. So on Sunday, another Russian-backed operation that looked a lot like the beginning of the Crimea invasion got underway in three eastern Ukrainian cities.
In Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk, rent-a-mobs seized government buildings, declared independence or plans for referendums and appealed for Moscow’s protection. Ukrainian forces managed to clear the regional administration building in Kharkiv early Tuesday, but standoffs continued in the other two cities. At a congressional hearing, Secretary of State John F. Kerry accused Russia of an “illegal and illegitimate effort to destabilize a sovereign state and create a contrived crisis with paid operatives.”
Mr. Kerry threatened further sanctions, which administration officials said may be announced in the coming days. If so, they will be welcome but overdue. It’s worth asking whether Mr. Putin would have launched his latest provocation if the United States had continued to raise the pressure on the Russian economy in the weeks since the last measures were unveiled on March 20.
It’s not too late to prevent Russia from destroying Ukraine, but this time the West must act quickly. A presidential election scheduled for May 25 is vital to stabilizing the country, by creating a new government with a clear mandate. Predictably, Russia has been demanding that the election be called off. The provocations in eastern Ukraine, if they do not presage an invasion by the Russian troops still massed on the border, are likely the beginning of an effort to disrupt the vote and make the country ungovernable.
The United States and European Union can counter the Russian strategy in the short term by fully backing the Ukrainian government in taking the necessary measures to restore order. Only a few hundred militants are involved in the occupations, and they appear to have little or no public support. But some are heavily armed, and they hope to provoke bloodshed. Ukrainian authorities are responding with admirable restraint, but they cannot be expected to allow small groups of Moscow-sponsored provocateurs to hold local governments hostage.
The next step is to apply meaningful new sanctions, not just against individual Russians but also against sectors of the economy. Mr. Kerry noted Tuesday that Mr. Obama has already approved such actions, adding that “energy, banking, mining — they’re all on the table.” But Mr. Kerry also spoke optimistically about a “four-party” meeting Russia had agreed to attend next week with the United States, Ukraine and the European Union. There’s nothing wrong with more talks, if the Ukrainians are at the table. But the chances they will lead to a genuine de-escalation of the crisis will be greater if, in the meantime, Russia is subjected to significant economic punishment.