It seems to be a tragic but hard lesson of history that Jews are often forced to play the role of canary in the mineshaft. Today, we are witnessing that phenomenon in Ukraine.
As the situation in Ukraine, where nationalists last week deposed pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, is worsening, Jews are receiving blows from both sides. They are distrusted by the Ukrainian nationalists as well as the pro-Russian separatists.
With Ukraine descending into civil war, people on both sides are blaming "Jewish conspiracies" and attacking Jewish targets. The Jews, however, are not to blame for the crisis in Ukraine. The European Union is to a large extent to blame. Ukraine is an ethnically mixed country, with a large Russian minority. Preserving the balance succeeded relatively well until the EU began to foment trouble.
The turmoil in Ukraine began last November after President Yanukovych refused to sign an EU association treaty, preferring instead closer economic ties with neighboring Russia. Opposition parties staged demonstrations in Kiev, which were attended by EU VIPs, such as the German and Dutch Foreign Ministers, who last December mingled with demonstrators, giving the impression that the Europeans would come to Ukraine's aid if it should provoke a conflict with Russia. Meanwhile, Baroness Catherine Ashton, the face of EU diplomacy, rather than calming Ukrainian nerves, was devoting her attention to criticizing Israel and helping Iran to broker a nuclear deal with the West.
Ukraine's Russian ethnic minority is a majority in the country's eastern provinces and on the Crimean Peninsula. Crimea is a majority ethnic Russian region, which became part of Ukraine in 1954, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who was partly of Ukrainian descent, transferred it from Russia to Ukraine, where it enjoys the status of an autonomous region. Last week, when Crimea's local parliament reacted to the ousting of Yanukovych, its leader, the pro-Russian politician Sergiy Aksyonov, announced a referendum on Crimean independence to be held 30 March.
There is little doubt that the Crimean separatists will win this referendum. Russia, which has its fleet's largest naval base in Sevastopol on the Crimea, seems to be pushing for an "Abkhazia scenario." Abkhazia is an autonomous region of Georgia, which declared independence in 2008 after Russian troops invaded the region. Apart from Russia and Venezuela, however, hardly any country recognizes its independence. Nevertheless, Georgia is no longer in control of it, and the situation on the ground is that it is ruled by its ethnic Russian leaders, while the rest of the world does not seem to care.
Despite the rattling of sabers by Ukraine's interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov, who declared that "Ukraine's military will fulfill its duties," and U.S. President Barack Obama's expression of "concern" over the deployment of Russian troops in the Crimea and the violation of Ukrainian territorial integrity, there is little doubt that the West will ultimately acquiesce to a situation in which the Crimea comes under de facto Russian control, just as it acquiesced to the Russian control of Abkhazia.
The situation might have been different if in April 2008 the West had extended NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia. Russia would never have dared to deploy troops on NATO territory. However, though America was willing to consider NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, the Europeans – Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel in particular – opposed it.
In March 2008, Merkel declared that "countries entangled in regional conflicts can not become NATO members," and then specifically referred to Georgia and Ukraine. Later that year, in August, Russian troops invaded Abkhazia. Similarly, the ultimate fate of the Crimea and Ukraine was settled in March 2008. The current warnings of Merkel and other European leaders to Russian President Vladimir Putin that "the world is watching" and "the territorial integrity of Ukraine must be preserved," are totally hypocritical. Putin knows that the Europeans signed Ukraine away six years ago. If Obama were to contemplate interfering militarily in the Crimea, the Europeans would be the first to advise against it. In the 1930s, the Europeans were not willing to "die for Danzig." Today, they are not willing to die for Kiev, let alone the Crimea. In fact, the West may consider itself lucky if Putin settles only for the Crimea, instead of pressing for the de facto secession of the entire eastern half of Ukraine.
Given that Europe opposed the admission of Ukraine to NATO, it should not then have tempted the Ukrainians with EU membership, exacerbating the divisions between the Ukrainians and their ethnic Russian minority. As a result of this reckless policy, Ukraine is about to lose territorial control over the Crimea and everyone will be worse off.
Fortunately for Ukraine's estimated 350,000 Jews, the third largest Jewish community in Europe, there is Israel. Last week, Russian-born Knesset Member Rina Frenkel, who lived in Kiev before moving permanently to Israel in 1990, sent a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu, asking him to initiate an immediate rescue effort for Ukrainian Jews, to provide a framework to help Jews emigrate to Israel, and referring to Ukrainian history, which is replete with anti-Semitic murders and pogroms.
She also could also have referred to Europe's history of turning a blind eye to Jewish suffering – one of the reasons why the existence of Israel as a safe haven for Jews is, unfortunately, still so significant.