UKRAINE HAS shaken off its corrupt president and the immediate prospect of domination by Russia — but at the risk of further conflict. The decision by Viktor Yanukovych to flee Kiev over the weekend triggered the disintegration of his administration and prompted parliament to replace him and schedule elections for May. The moves were democratic — members of Mr. Yanukovych’s party joined in the parliamentary votes — but they had the effect of nullifying an accord between the former government and opposition that had been brokered by the European Union and tacitly supported by Russia.
Kiev is now controlled by pro-Western parties that say they will implement the association agreement with the European Union that Mr. Yanukovych turned away from three months ago, triggering the political crisis. There remain two big threats to this positive outcome. One is that Ukraine’s finances will collapse in the absence of a bailout from Russia or the West. The other is that the country will split along geographic lines as Russian speakers in the east of the country, perhaps supported by Moscow, reject the new political order.
To avoid these disasters Ukraine’s new leaders will need to adopt conciliatory policies that reassure Russian-speaking Ukrainians that they will not face retaliation or discrimination and that democracy and the rule of law will prevail. Members of Mr. Yanukovych’s party ought to be included in the new cabinet and criminal investigations of the ousted regime limited.
To avoid default, Ukraine will have to seek financing from the International Monetary Fund; that will require tough austerity measures, such as cuts in energy subsidies. Since a deal may not be possible before a new government is elected, E.U. governments will need to provide bridge financing. Governments that previously hesitated to make a commitment to a country seen as an economic sinkhole must now bet that Ukraine can be turned away from the corrupt, crony capitalism that has dominated it for two decades.
Western leaders, including President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have been trying to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin not to obstruct Ukraine’s change. The country need not be the subject of a zero-sum contest between East and West; Ukraine could associate with the European Union, a step well short of membership, while maintaining close economic ties with Russia. Both Ukrainian and Western leaders appear prepared to leave the prospect of Ukrainian membership in NATO on the back burner where it was placed in 2008.
What’s not clear is whether Mr. Putin would accept a Ukraine that is not under the Kremlin’s thumb. The first indications are not good: Though Mr. Putin has been publicly silent about Ukraine since Friday, the rhetoric emanating from his government has been angry and belligerent. A foreign ministry statement Monday alleged that “a course has been set to use dictatorial and sometimes terrorist methods to suppress dissenters in various regions.”
Such claims could become an excuse for Russia to support separatists in the Crimea or other regions. Given Mr. Putin’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, even armed intervention cannot be ruled out. That’s why, in addition to seeking to reconcile Russia to a democratic and independent Ukraine, the West must make it clear that any such intervention will be a disaster not only for Ukraine but for Russia as well.