Ukraine is burning too fast for the West to wait. Photographer: Dmitry Serebryakov/AFP/Getty Images
Ukraine is burning too fast for the West to wait. Photographer: Dmitry Serebryakov/AFP/Getty Images

At the same moment last Friday when U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel set a late-May deadline to get serious about sanctioning Russia over Ukraine, a pitched battle was under way in Odessa that killed, at current count, at least 34 people. The two Western leaders couldn't have known about the deadly fire raging at the time. Yet the coincidence of timing demonstrates how far the U.S. and Europe have fallen behind events in Ukraine.

Financial War

The clash in Odessa matters not just as a human tragedy, but because most of the dead were pro-Russians. President Vladimir Putin no longer has to invent a justification to invade Ukraine, should he decide to. Russia is already weighing how to respond to "thousands" of calls for Russia's help, according to Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who also last week declared the Ukrainian military's continuing efforts to seize back rebel-held towns to be "criminal."

Putin acted in Crimea, of course, with no evidence of harm to Russian-speakers. But annexing the peninsula didn't involve openly invading a large territory that can be won and held only with significant bloodshed. Russians -- as delighted as they have been by Putin's retrieval of Crimea -- will need more persuading to support a war against fellow Slavs.

For their part, Russian speakers across the east of Ukraine see the dead as martyrs for the cause of independence, or annexation to Russia. Calls for revenge -- and "war" -- have spread far beyond the port city since Friday. Even if the pro-Russian protest movement was organized from Moscow, the violence it has set in motion is gaining a mythology and momentum all its own.

Triggering civil war may, of course, be just another move in Putin's game to destabilize Ukraine, so that presidential elections cannot effectively be held on May 25; a new pro-European Union government cannot consolidate power; and the International Monetary Fund can't succeed with an economic stabilization plan. Even if that is Putin's intention, however, he has unleashed forces in eastern Ukraine that he may not be able to control.

The events in Odessa also give the lie to Merkel's argument, in her joint news conference with Obama last week, that it's fine to wait to impose broader, so-called stage-three sanctions to see whether or not Ukraine stabilizes in time to hold elections. May 25, she said, was "not all that far away." In fact, it's hard to imagine a legitimate election being conducted in eastern Ukraine today, let alone after the turmoil is given three weeks to worsen, failing determined intervention from both Russia and the West to pull the two sides back.

Only Merkel can make Putin believe in the threat of comprehensive economic sanctions, and Germany's push since Friday for another round of talks in Geneva, after the abject failure of the last, makes sense only if that threat is imminent, detailed and on the table. This is the West's chosen tool for influencing Putin, and it must be used now if it is to be used at all.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View's editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.