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How To Read Ukraine
It's Not Just About The Protests

Yesterday’s NYT has a piece analyzing the shifting momentum in Ukraine. Like much reporting over the past few weeks, it ultimately tries to bring everything back to the street protests, as if people power will definitively swing this one way or another:

Two large, swirling crowds faced off in Kiev on Saturday in public squares less than a quarter of a mile apart. One was the huge, antigovernment, pro-Europe demonstration that has electrified this capital since late last month. The other was composed of tens of thousands who poured into central Kiev for a counter rally in support of the embattled president, Viktor F. Yanukovich.

By evening, the pro-government crowd had disappeared for the night, leaving the police guarding a virtually empty plaza. The antigovernment protesters in Independence Square, by comparison, were revving up, waiting with excitement for a performance by one of Ukraine’s most popular rock bands ahead of another night out in the cold. […]

Mr. Karatnycky, of the Atlantic Council, said that street protesters seemed to be gaining the advantage and may have rescued Europe from a foreign policy failure.

“Europe and U.S. policy was on the verge of a colossal geopolitical mistake,” he said. “The policy was only vindicated by the people of Ukraine. They bought into the shining City on a Hill even if their leaders didn’t.”

Maybe, but there is lots of evidence that the real power in Ukraine rests with the zillionaires and billionaires who emerged from the twilight of Communism, getting their mitts on everything that wasn’t nailed down in the country. While Putin tamed his oligarchs and is the master, more-or-less, of Russia, no Ukrainian president has been able to match this feat. Ukraine has a weak government and a strong group of private interests who have a lot of political power. There are signs that the debate among the oligarchs is tilting toward the EU affiliation—and to be fair, the NYT article does note this in passing—but the hidden debate among the oligarchs will likely be more decisive than the size of the dueling crowds on the street.

In any case, focusing on the street politics of Kiev is the wrong way to understand what is happening in Ukraine. Kiev is part of western Ukraine where anti-Russian (and therefore pro-western) sentiment is naturally strong. Trying to predict the future of Ukraine by counting crowd numbers in Kiev is like trying to predict the winner of a football game by listening to the volume of cheers from the crowd. The home team has more fans in the stadium, and while that may be of assistance, it likely won’t decide the game.

Meanwhile, the NYT piece isn’t analyzing one more important factor: what will Putin do? The EU is incomparably more powerful than Russia on the level of economic success and political appeal; many more people would, if they could, migrate from Ukraine and Russia to Germany and France than would make the trip the other way round. But Ukraine matters much more to Russia than it does to the EU as a whole, and history is full of cases in which weaker powers triumph over stronger adversaries because at the end of the day they care much, much more about the issues at stake.

Putin does not and never will have a lot of power on the streets of Kiev. Too many people in western Ukraine remember Soviet rule and KGB terror with loathing and fear. But Putin, despite the sharp limits on his resources overall compared with those of the EU and the US, knows his Ukrainian oligarchs better than his opponents, and can be both more focused and less scrupulous in the incentives he offers them.

But he also has a vulnerability. The oligarchs in Ukraine might welcome the lack of legal transparency and the controls over popular opinion that would follow from a Moscow alliance. But they also know that Putin is a man of the state, and that his long term ambition is not only to bring Ukraine into the embrace of Mother Russia, but to subject its oligarchs to the power of the Kremlin. He wants to master them as he has mastered their peers in Russia.

What we must hope is that Western diplomats and politicians in Ukraine are doing something more substantive than accepting the flowers and the cheers of the throngs in the street and posing for pictures. We must hope that they are focusing on the arguments and agreements that could persuade the key power brokers to take their country West even if some of the deals to be made fall short of the standards that, ultimately, Ukraine will have to accept if it is serious about closer relations with the EU.

The West can win in Ukraine—if it brings enough baguettes and figures out who to give them to.

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  • Andrew Allison

    Right. What it should be about is why the EU is so anxious to add a corrupt, bankrupt, failed state to the its union.

    • free_agent

      Or, let us ask, is the EU willing to pay enough to incorporate Ukraine? As I read somewhere, the poorer parts of any modern “empire” are retained by the richer parts subsidizing them. The richer parts often rate the increased size/power/prestige of the empire to be worth the costs.

      • Andrew Allison

        Surely you are not suggesting that the Brussels octopus is more interested in expanding it’s scope that the interests of its members?

    • TommyTwo

      “We’ll make it up in volume!”

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