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Murphy should have stayed off Ukraine stage

By Paul Choiniere

Publication: The Day

Published June 22. 2014 4:00AM

Did you know that while you were hunting for those last couple of holiday gifts back in December, Sen. Chris Murphy was telling a massive crowd in Kiev, Ukraine - many of them intent on the overthrow of the elected president, Viktor Yanukovych - that you were squarely behind them?

"You are making history," the freshman senator from Connecticut told the adoring crowd Dec. 14. "If you are successful, the United States will stand with you every step of the way."

The fact is, very few of Murphy's constituents knew what the issues were in the Ukraine, never mind being prepared to back the protesters "every step of the way" in their high stakes and complex showdown with the government and neighboring Russia, with which its history is closely intertwined.

On June 13 Murphy, appearing at Connecticut College, spoke about his Ukraine experience during a presentation to the Southeastern Connecticut World Affairs Council. I asked him whether it was appropriate for U.S. senators - joining him in Ukraine was Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. - to help stir up the masses in another country. After all, I noted, how would the United States view things if elected leaders from another country egged on protestors massed in Washington, intent on overthrowing the government?

"Senator McCain and I chose our words very carefully on that stage. We did nothing close to calling for the overthrow of Yanukovych's government," he responded.

I suspect the nuance was lost on most of the protestors, who chanted "thank you" to the senators' comments.

"To all Ukrainians, America stands with you," McCain roared.

Well, sort of. When, after Yanukovych was later driven from office and Russian President Vladimir Putin appealed to the support of Russian nationalists and grabbed Crimea, the Obama administration did work up some sanctions with the European Union. But the EU had no stomach to get real tough over this.

While events elsewhere have taken over the headlines, the problems in Ukraine continue. There is a newly elected president, Petro Poroshenko, but Ukraine remains very much a divided country. Emboldened by the defection of Crimea and stirred by Russian meddling, independence movements continue in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions along Ukraine's eastern border with Russia. At least 360 people have died in the unrest, including 49 when a Ukrainian transport plane was shot down last week by separatists.

Meanwhile, Ukrainians in Kiev and western regions want to gravitate toward Europe. This east-west division helped spur the Kiev protests to begin with. Yanukovych refused a partnership agreement with the European Union last November, angering many in and around the capital. Instead, he struck an economic and fiscal relief deal with Russia.

Certainly, there was plenty to dislike about Yanukovych and his government. It was corrupt and acted violently toward protestors. But diplomacy should be left to the diplomats, particularly in such a volatile situation that could entangle our country. When Murphy took that stage, the crowd considered his to be the voice of the United States. It's not.

Murphy is a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and chair of the Subcommittee on European Affairs. During his talk at Connecticut College, he admitted it is a lofty spot for a freshman senator and has required a crash course on foreign affairs. Murphy attributed his ability to land such an appointment to a "growing wave of isolationism" that has left many lawmakers uninterested in a foreign relations assignment.

Murphy said he and McCain spent much of their brief time in Ukraine trying to convince Yanukovych and his ministers "to work with U.S. and EU. To seek a deal with the International Monetary Fund and rescue its economy without a turn to Russia."

Unfortunately, Yanukovych chose a different path, Murphy said.

Murphy has returned to the Ukraine twice more, most recently for Poroshenko's inauguration. The Connecticut senator predicted that ultimately Ukraine will align economically and strategically with Europe and that the damage caused to Russia's economy by its belligerence will eventually force it to moderate its policies.

Time will tell whether that is a sound evaluation or just some pleasant dreaming.

Paul Choiniere is editorial page editor.

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