Who Lost Ukraine?

By Elizabeth Pond

For centuries, Russians have thought of Ukrainians as their little East Slav brothers. Most Russians still seem to think so. The Ukrainians, however, gave notice last week that they have now grown into adulthood and see themselves as autonomous Europeans. Their assertion of this new identity has shocked Russians in general and President Vladimir Putin in particular. 

When future Russians ask, "Who lost Ukraine?," the answer will be clear: President Vladimir Putin, through overreach. He will be blamed for pushing the Ukrainians out of the centuries-old perceived common destiny of the East Slavs—initially, by his heavy-handed attempt to coerce them into joining a Russian-led union of former Soviet states. Now Moscow's pressure on Ukraine has escalated to Russian military exercises on Ukraine's borders, sheltering the ousted former Ukrainian president and Putin ally Viktor Yanukovych, and welcoming  progressively secessionist actions in Ukrainian Crimea by commandos whom the new Ukrainian government identifies as “armed military groups operating under the Russian flag.” A Russian frigate is also blocking entrance to the harbor of the base for the Black Sea Fleet that Russia leases from Ukraine.

Two decades ago, when the Cold War ended, post-Communist Soviet-style politicians in Moscow already regarded the West Slav Poles' defection to the European Union as betrayal. But the Poles had a European identity going back to the days of Napoleon. This softened the blow to Russian pride. By contrast, the East Slav Ukrainians never had a strong European identity, and Russians have traditionally viewed them as inseparable "little brothers," with a millennium of shared cultural and political heritage ever since the days of Kievan Rus. 

The Ukrainians' new-found embrace of a European rather than an East Slav identity is therefore far more painful for Putin than the Poles' European choice was.

The Russian president has always seen the collapse of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century." Proof that Putin sees the present Russian loss of Ukraine as an even greater  catastrophe was graphically provided this past week by the smooth commando-style takeover of two Crimean airports and the Crimean legislature building by well-armed troops in unmarked camouflage uniforms.

Until three-month-long street protests in Kiev finally toppled the corrupt pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych last week, Ukraine—geographically the largest land in Europe—was supposed to become the crown jewel in Putin's construction of a Soviet-lite "Eurasian Union." Yet now, Ukraine is throwing its lot in with the European Union instead. The irony is that Putin himself, by his strong-arm tactics, ignited this month's historic defection of Ukrainians from their Russian big brothers.

In the old Soviet era of Putin's nostalgia, the exercise of hard power was much simpler. Moscow could easily deploy its tanks to suppress workers' street protests in East Berlin in 1953, the Hungarian revolt in 1956, the Prague Spring in 1968, and, by proxy, Poland's Solidarity trade union in 1981.

Even after the Cold War ended in 1989, tanks could still accomplish the task if the renegade to be punished was small, like post-Soviet Georgia in 2008, when Russian troops occupied two Georgian provinces that instantly declared their independence from Tblisi. In the case of a huge state like Ukraine, however, the hard power Putin first deployed was economic, not military. Russia's monopoly Gazprom exporter cut off crucial gas supplies to Ukraine twice in cold winters, and Moscow's sanitary inspectors pointedly banned chocolate and other imports into Russia when a Ukrainian oligarch who sided with the pro-democracy demonstrators in Kiev's Independence Square. Such measures were augmented by a $15 billion sweetener for Viktor Yanukovych that was offered at one point to lure the Ukrainian president back from flirtation with the EU.

It was Yanukovych's last-minute pullback in November from signing an association pact with the EU that once again propelled hundreds of thousands of pro-European protesters to Kiev's Independence Square “agora,” as Yale University’s Timothy Snyder calls it. Over three months in below-freezing weather, they held a vigil that spread to a wide swath of Ukraine's provinces in spontaneous occupation of local government buildings.

The demonstrators' pro-European demands quickly expanded to include rule-of-law reform and an end to the indignities of rotten governance by extravagantly corrupt politicians. When Yanukovych authorized his security forces last week to kill some 80 mostly-unarmed demonstrators on the square and to carry out an "anti-terrorist" crackdown the following day, something snapped. In horror, the EU—which had not previously given the Ukrainian issue high priority—dispatched the Polish, German, and French foreign ministers to Kiev to broker a truce between Yanukovych and his street critics.

It was an inspired choice. In the past quarter century, millions of Ukrainians have worked in or visited Poland and seen the meteoric rise in its standard of living and the basic civility of its democracy. They have moved on from the traditional enmity that still brought Polish and Ukrainian militias to fight each other as late as World War II. They contrast what they see in Poland and in Russia and draw their own conclusions about which lifestyle they want to emulate. Poland is an explicit model for them.

The truce mediated by the three European foreign ministers left Yanukovych formally in office. But within days his party factions, his oligarch funders, and the army saw the writing on the wall and deserted the president. The previously rubber-stamp parliament reinstated the less autocratic 2004 constitution, fired its own speaker and then Yanukovych himself, and this week named a new national unity government to rescue the land from bankruptcy. Yanukovych fled Kiev, to resurface in Russia a few miles from the Ukrainian border today, claiming to be the continuing legitimate president and calling the new Ukrainian government "pro fascist."

Now the gloves are off. Putin is threatening his "younger brother" Ukrainians with an invasion that could trigger a repeat of the terrible civil war between Red Russians, White Russians, and Ukrainians that engulfed Ukraine a century ago.

It could have been different. The pro-European and democratic contagion that has already spread from Poland into Ukraine in the past two decades could have seeped eventually from Ukraine to transform Russia too.

In that case the question for future Russians might have been an altogether different one: " Who saved Russia?"



Elizabeth Pond, a Berlin-based author and journalist, has covered Ukraine off and on over thirty years for several newspapers and magazines.

[Photos courtesy of Sasha Maksymenko]

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