Battle for Ukraine Springtime in Kiev, or Just Another Winter Storm?
With a revolution on, the chances that events in
Ukraine could provoke a dangerous confrontation between Russia and the
West may be increasing.
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.
if anything the chances that events in Ukraine could provoke a
dangerous confrontation between Russia and the West may be increasing.
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.
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.
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 dominates the politics and
culture of half the country.
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 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.
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.
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 Vand 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
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.
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 factopartition
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.
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.
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
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 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?
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
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.
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.