The seismic shift in Ukraine was achieved by its people, not outside forces, and not its politicians. There was no conspiracy, no mob violence let alone “pogroms”, and no march of eastern Ukraine against the west and center of the country in defense of Yanukovych. Of course there were fears and divisions, and the future is uncertain, but the central, momentous fact was this: the refusal of the Ukrainians to accept that their rulers have the right to compel them to obedience, and the lesson that, on the contrary, Ukraine’s rulers must govern in the interests of the people, as their servants not their masters.
It will be some considerable time before the implications of this decisive change sink in. The notion that the war Yanukovych waged on his own people was the product of a geopolitical struggle between Russia and the West, with Ukraine as the victim, had, and probably still has, deep roots. It fitted a major plank of those arguing in the United States for a strategic reset in relations between Washington and Moscow. This is an argument that took—sometimes explicitly—the Russian claim to a particular national interest in Ukraine as having a higher value than the hopes and wishes of the people of Ukraine themselves. It fitted with those in EU countries who continued to believe that disputing Russian ambitions to restore its hegemony in the former Soviet space, and Ukraine above all, would scupper the superior objective of gradually persuading the Kremlin that Russia’s true interests lay in realizing shared European destiny and values. The strongly articulated Russian assertions that Ukraine was the object of Western subversion, a geopolitical prize to be seized by fair means or foul at the expense of a disinterested Russia and at the risk of chaos in Europe, played into a Cold War set of attitudes.
It was telling that, while there was anger within the European Union at the way that Russian pressure and inducements achieved Yanukovych’s volte-face on the Association Agreement this past November, the general assumption was that Ukraine’s European option had been shut down. That assumption failed to account for two factors within Ukraine itself: first, that Ukrainians themselves understood that Yanukovych’s November choice implied that he was moving towards the Russian model of centralized authoritarian governance and accepting the dominance of Moscow; and second, Yanukovych’s brutal incompetence in an increasingly desperate attempt to shore up his rule. From the time snipers began picking off victims on the Maidan it was obvious that this was not so much about Ukraine’s relationship with the EU as its future chances of becoming Poland rather than Belarus.
Neither the United States nor the European Union was driving events in Ukraine. The Americans were ahead of the Europeans in working for sanctions. One can sympathize with the all too human outburst of Assistant Secretary Nuland about what she saw as EU inaction. But Washington did not give much of a lead either. It took time for the West as a whole to comprehend the direction and gravity of what was happening in Ukraine, and to realize that Russia, too, was being carried forward by events. None of that altered, however, the fact that those forces in Ukraine, West, Central or East, that wished to avoid an eventual Yanukovych dictatorship saw a viable relationship with the European Union as a necessary guarantee of their future, and a closer relationship with Russia as a threat to it. There were hesitations, divisions, and reservations within the European Union, as one would expect of a group of 28 countries facing a possible common commitment to a Ukraine with an uncertain future. The last minute deal negotiated with Yanukovych by the Polish, German, and French Foreign Ministers was an admirable product of diplomatic reasoning, and one that played its part in Yanukovych’s surrender to the inevitable. But that deal was already overtaken by events when it was signed, and Yanukovych knew it as he prepared to flee Kiev.
But if the West fumbled the pass, the Kremlin was the victim of its own illusions. The Moscow establishment consistently misread Ukrainian reality, just as it did in 2004. Misled by understandable if patronizing assumptions as to the power of cultural and historical associations between the Russian and Ukrainian peoples, and the economic benefits as Moscow saw them of closer integration between the two countries, the Russian authorities put their faith in compulsion as the means to force through a permanent alliance and lasting friendship between Russia and Ukraine (with Belarus and Kazakhstan as partners in it). The further and highly questionable assumption that Ukraine’s future would be decided either by the West or by Russia fed into the deep-seated belief that it was in Russia’s “national interest” to ensure that Moscow won, a belief encouraged by the fear that a different system of governance in Ukraine, and a closer adherence by that country to wider European norms, would threaten Russia’s present ruling paradigm.
Putin and his Russia now face an agonizing choice. It would be easier to retreat further into aggrieved isolation and to blame the West for Moscow’s troubles than to acknowledge to themselves, however tacitly, that strategic as well as tactical mistakes should be addressed, and their consequences corrected. It would be wrong for the rest of us either to despair of the possibility of reflection, even though such a rethink would have to cover a far wider field than the issue of why Moscow failed to impose its will on Kiev, or to expect that it will soon take place. “The weak get beaten” is a fundamental article of Putin’s faith. He and his close associates may find it impossible to see the destruction now of the hopes they thought were assured four months ago in any other way. There is on the other hand at present no clear way ahead of them of reviving the possibility of Ukraine returning to the ex-Soviet fold. Russia’s best bet is to swallow as much pride as it can, and to wait upon events. Ukraine may want more independence from Russia than Moscow might wish, but both countries still need each other.
The West, the European Union not least, will also need to absorb the lessons of the past several months. No one, I take it, supposes that Ukraine will soon turn into a settled country with a defined future. That would be optimistic even if there were no outside forces and internal factions to cloud the possibility. It will still be the duty of the European Union, the United States, and even Russia, if it can bring itself to do so constructively, to support Ukraine in its recovery from the violence and misrule that it has endured. The West has been brought by events to recognize that duty. The outside world ought to be encouraged by the way that Ukraine has begun to recover from its trauma. The outside world should, lastly, fully accept that Ukraine has earned the right to defend and determine its own future. It is a state, not a piece of meat for jackals to dispute.