For the third time in a generation, there is revolution in Ukraine. For the second time in a decade, Viktor Yanukovych has been overthrown in Kiev. It is impossible not to rejoice that the goons and thugs who sought to tie Ukraine to Putin’s imperial project by massacring their fellow citizens in the streets of Kiev were defeated. But it is much too soon to conclude that the next Ukrainian government, whatever it may be, will be any more successful than its predecessors.
Worse, if anything the chances that events in Ukraine could provoke a dangerous confrontation between Russia and the West may be increasing.
None of the core facts in Ukraine changed last night. Ukraine is a divided country with a weak state and ineffective institutions. The oligarchs who clawed their way to the top when communism collapsed still hold their ill-gotten gains, still manage their business affairs in the Wild East ways of the post-Soviet days, still dominate politics and economic development and have yet to be brought under any kind of effective legal control. Ukraine’s abject energy dependence on Russia creates a sea of political and economic problems which no Ukrainian government since independence has been able to manage. The political leadership of virtually every major party or movement in Ukrainian life is sketchy at best; many are corrupt tools of business interests, some are inexperienced hotheads with ties to dubious forms of ultra-nationalist ideology. The country is still close to insolvent, with no way to pay large debts coming due. Russia, a predatory neighbor with dreams of subverting Ukraine’s independence, still enjoys the support, purchased or sincere, of a significant network inside Ukraine’s establishment. The EU remains divided over the prospect of Ukrainian membership; the EU also faces tight fiscal constraints as it struggles in the toils of its ongoing euro catastrophe.
These problems have led to the failure of every Ukrainian government since independence; unless something changes they will likely also doom whatever government emerges from the current turmoil as well.
The problem for the outsiders interested in Ukraine’s fate is a simple one, and it is shared by both Russia and the West. There are lots of intelligent, hard working people in Ukraine, but the country’s deep divisions and weak institutions make it impossible for any government to carry out the kinds of policy changes that could attach the country firmly either to Brussels or Moscow. The ‘westerners’ in Ukrainian politics cannot comply with EU demands to cleanse the state and political institutions from the shady influence of corrupt oligarchs; the ‘easterners’ cannot suppress or control the violent revulsion against the Kremlin and its methods that dominate the politics and culture of half the country.
To restate this dilemma in somewhat different terms, Ukrainian society is unable to produce a strong and united government that could limit the influence of foreign interests and lobbies so that the Ukrainian state and people would follow a consistent course toward either Moscow or Brussels, much less find some kind of effective pathway in between. Meanwhile, given the inability of internal forces to set a firm course, Russia lacks the resources and the West lacks the will to attach Ukraine firmly and irrevocably to either camp. Thus we see what we see: a succession of failed governments as the country flounders and slithers in the mist.
There are three possible futures for Ukraine. In the short term some kind of continuation of the status quo of indecision and drift seems the most likely alternative, but such a volatile and unsatisfactory status quo is unlikely to endure into the indefinite future. When and if the status quo finally ends, Ukraine can go one of two ways. One is partition: the east and the west go their separate ways, as the eastern portion returns to the Kremlin’s embrace, and the west prepares for the EU. The alternative is that either Moscow or the West succeeds in drawing the whole country to its side.
Moscow cannot do the job without forcibly suppressing the western half of Ukraine. Such a war would be the most dangerous crisis in Europe since 1945 and one wonders whether the Putin government could survive a catastrophically expensive war and the ensuing isolation. Unless the intervention was lightening fast and the opposition was quickly suppressed, the cost of the war and the cost of pacifying and developing Ukraine in the aftermath would almost certainly wreck the Russian economy.
On the other hand, Putin would have grave difficulties surviving the loss of all Ukraine. The example of a popular revolution against a Moscow-leaning government is horrifying and destabilizing enough. Hatches are being battened down from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok as the FSB (ex-KGB) does its best to prevent any kind of contagion. The consequence of a united Ukraine joining the West would be infinitely worse. Putin’s dream of a Eurasian Union would suffer an irrevocable and decisive defeat. The loss of Crimea would infuriate Russian nationalists beyond endurance, and Putin would look helpless and weak in a political culture that worships only strength and success.
A rationalist would suggest to the Kremlin that partition was its best hope. Solzhenitsyn once gloomily speculated that the Ukrainians on the west bank of the Dnieper were lost to the Russian motherland as a result of Soviet history; the Kremlin might well think about trying to move quickly towards a de facto partition with the dividing line as close to that river as possible in the north, and stretching across it to Moldova in the south. It would be surprising if the Kremlin has not entertained the possibility of partition as a second-best outcome and wouldn’t switch quickly to promoting it if all hope of absorbing the whole country is lost.
There are reports this morning that Yanukovych (who must now fear criminal prosecution if his opponents consolidate their authority across the whole country) is calling for the formation of militias in the east. He appears to be ‘forting up’ in Kharkov, Ukraine’s second city and the metropolis of the eastern part of the country. If the Kremlin backs this play, it is a sign that Russia is, among other things, preparing the ground for partition if nothing better can be gained.
One should remember that Putin, conscious of being the weaker party in his high stakes geopolitical game with the West, likes to move swiftly and present his adversaries with facts on the ground. This worked brilliantly for him in Georgia and again in Syria where the exploitation of Western indecision and muddled thinking allowed a weak Russia to score significant gains. Putin at this point does not seem to have much respect for his counterparts in either Washington or Brussels. He believes he is up against dithering wimps who profess high ideals but are deeply risk averse. He may calculate that moving quickly to solidify the power of a pro-Russian government in the eastern rump of Ukraine is his best move — and indeed, this may well have been part of his end game calculation well before the current crisis began. Russian thinking and policymaking is heavily focused on Ukraine; it stretches credulity to suppose that Russian planners have not thought long and hard about their alternatives in what, for them, is the most vital arena in world politics today.
Try a thought experiment. Suppose Yanukovych in Kharkov declares that his reported resignation was either a fake or signed under duress and non-binding. Suppose then that Russia recognizes him as the legal president of Ukraine and he asks for Russia’s help in restoring order. Suppose Russia then responds to this request by facilitating the consolidation of pro-Yanukovych authority in much of Ukraine while a new government in Kiev, recognized by the US and the EU, organizes the west.
The West now has some decisions to make, and the EU and the United States will have to make them together. The biggest one, that could be upon us much sooner than we think, is whether the West wants to keep Ukraine united. What would be the consequences if Russia and its Ukrainian friends move toward de facto and perhaps ultimately de jure partition? If partition is the answer, is the West prepared to let Russia unilaterally set the boundary? Will the West accept a de facto arrangement on the ground or will it insist or try to insist on referenda and fair elections? If partition is unacceptable, how exactly does the West propose to prevent or reverse it? What if the situation on the ground turns ugly, with fighting between militias, some backed by Russia?
If on the other hand, we are committed to preserving the integrity of the Ukrainian state, how much money and political energy are we prepared to invest in that effort? Is the US willing to back the EU in a serious effort to bring a united Ukraine under the Western tent? Is the EU with all its other worries and commitments ready to undertake a mission of this scope?
In any case, what is happening in Ukraine touches the vital interests of many members of the NATO alliance. What Washington does in the next few days could have serious consequences for the future viability of the world’s oldest and most successful alliance system.
Events are moving quickly in Ukraine, and in revolutionary situations like this, it can be very difficult to predict how the process will unfold. But Ukraine matters much more in Moscow than it does in either Brussels or Washington (though not in Warsaw, Bucharest and Vilnius); President Putin seems to believe that his geopolitical position requires him to take risks and move fast.
We live in interesting times.