Ukraine, Putin, and the West

Putin walks into a bar . . .

In November of last year, a spirited protest took place in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv after the country’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, declined at the last minute to sign an association agreement with the European Union. The agreement would have been a very small first step toward a still hazy, far-off EU membership, but it had major cultural and symbolic significance, and its sudden rejection, under clear pressure from Russia, brought people to the streets.

The initial protest, on central Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square, has since been estimated at around a thousand people—hardly impressive, especially in a country where since independence the citizenry has been willing to take to the streets. The difference this time was the surprising ham-handedness of the authorities, who first ignored the protest, then tried violently to disperse it. This, to many people who’d been growing weary of a corrupt and incompetent regime that had imprisoned political opponents and enriched itself and its friends while the country’s economy stagnated, was too much, and they too came out into the streets.

The massive, sustained, courageous protests that followed were anomalous for the post-Soviet space in that they did not revolve around rigged elections, as did the successful 2003 and 2004 protests in Georgia and Ukraine (the Rose and Orange “Revolutions,” respectively), as well as the large, ultimately unsuccessful protests in Moldova in 2009 and Moscow in December 2011. They were also anomalous in that Yanukovych, bad as he was, was a typical post-Soviet leader: a man who’d used his ties to the old nomenklatura and the rising criminal-capitalist class to consolidate power, often through the use of violence. Yanukovych would have been very much at home as a regional governor in Russian Krasnoyarsk or Irkutsk. And yet here were people, formerly docile and frightened and cowed, out in the streets against him.

In the American press, the protests were initially greeted as “pro-Western”—as were the earlier Georgian and Ukrainian protests, and protests in Lebanon, Iran, and Egypt. The protesters, the story went, were people who wished to pull Ukraine into a 21st-century European future, rather than back toward a 20th-century Soviet past. We’re not saying we saw it personally, but if no one wrote an exuberant article about the use of social media on Maidan, we will eat our laptop.

Eventually the picture became more complicated: Svoboda, a small but rising nationalist political party (10 percent of the vote in the 2012 parliamentary elections) and the Right Sector, a gang of right-wing street fighters, were taking the lead in some of the violent confrontations with police, and so it was reported that the protest did include some “extremist right-wing groups,” though just as often it was reported that there were “extremists from both the right and the left.” There were leftist activists on Maidan, but when, early on, they tried to set up an organized presence, they were attacked with knives by the right-wing groups. After that they kept their presence low-key.

As the protests stretched on, despite the freezing cold, some supporters began to worry that talk of right-wing groups was giving Maidan a bad name. A group of Ukrainian, Russian, and Western scholars circulated a strange petition urging Western media outlets to stop talking about the right-wing groups. In the US, this campaign was taken up by the Yale historian Timothy Snyder. In a series of articles and posts in the New York Review of Books, Snyder insisted, misleadingly, that the right-wing groups had a marginal presence at the protests, and that to say otherwise was to toe the party line being issued from the Kremlin, which was, it’s true, filling the national airwaves with talk of Ukrainian fascists. Snyder was answered by Stephen Cohen of the Nation, who argued that the American media was simply taking its usual anti-Russia line, regardless of the content of the protests. As usual, Cohen went too far, suggesting that rather than criticize Vladimir Putin, the US should be grateful to him for all he’s done. Snyder answered that Cohen, a noted historian of the anti-Stalin opposition, was giving aid and comfort to the enemy. And on it went.

There’s a reason Ukraine is at the heart of the most significant geopolitical crisis yet to appear in the post-Soviet space. There is no post-Soviet state like it. Unlike the Baltic states, it does not have a recent (interwar) memory of statehood. Nor, unlike every other post-Soviet state aside from Belarus, does the majority population have a radically different language and culture from the Russians. In many cases, for these countries, the traditional language suggests a natural political ally—Finland for the Estonians, Turkey for the Azeris, Romania for the Moldovans. These linguistic and cultural affinities are not without their difficulties, but they do give a long-term geopolitical orientation to these countries.

Ukraine has this to some extent in its western part, formerly known as Galicia, which has cultural and linguistic affinities with Poland. But the country’s capital, Kyiv, has much stronger ties to Russia: Russians consider Kievan Rus, which lasted from the 9th to the 13th century (when it was sacked and burned by the Mongols), to be the first Russian civilization. Russian Orthodoxy was first proclaimed there. Most people in Kyiv speak Russian, rather than Ukrainian, and in any case the languages are quite close (about as close as Spanish and Portuguese). On television, it is typical for any live broadcast—whether it’s news, sports, or a reality-TV show—to go back and forth seamlessly between Russian and Ukrainian, with the understanding that most people know both. Russians all too often assume that these cultural affinities mean that there is no such thing as a separate Ukrainian people. There is. But the closeness of the two peoples makes forging an independent path for Ukraine extraordinarily difficult.

Adding to this difficulty has been the Soviet legacy, which in Ukraine as everywhere else is always and everywhere visible. The Ukrainian historian Giorgy Kasianov has written that Ukrainians are forced to exist in several historical and semantic fields simultaneously: the roads they drive on, the factories they work at, the social relations they engage in—all are part of the Soviet heritage. As in the rest of the former Soviet Union, including Russia, this heritage is crumbling, but in Ukraine in particular it remains formidable.

As a result, Ukraine has essentially been frozen in time since independence. Nationalist and pro-Russian political parties (each bankrolled by a handful of oligarchs) have passed the presidency back and forth between them, neither getting much done while they ruled. The country’s two countervailing forces—Ukrainian-language nationalists in the west, and Russian-language nationalists in the east and Crimea—have ensured that neither maintains the upper hand. Because of this, Ukraine has consistently had a better, more lively public sphere than most of its neighbors—more freedom of speech, more freedom of assembly, more diverse political actors. Ukraine was also distinguished by the repeated, and usually peaceful, transfer of power from one party to another (something that post-Soviet Russia has still not achieved more than two decades in). And yet these positive democratic indicators did not, as contemporary dogma would predict, lead to positive economic results. Instead, Ukraine, a country that in 1991 had hope that, left to its own devices, it could flourish—with its highly educated workforce, proximity to Europe in the west and the Black Sea to the south, and many industrial enterprises inherited from the USSR—has instead lagged miserably behind its neighbors. Its per capita GDP is half of Russia’s, one fifth that of the US. Its economic performance is worse than that of its authoritarian neighbors Kazakhstan and Belarus. It is a country about as poor as El Salvador. And the poorest regions are in the west, which sends many undocumented migrant workers farther west, to Europe, and north to Russia. It is the disjuncture between Ukraine’s solid democratic performance and its miserable economic one that provided the protests with much of their pathos and durability.

The issue of Ukrainian nationalism must be treated separately. Two major 20th-century events play into contemporary Ukrainian nationalist conceptions. One is the Holodomor, or “hunger famine,” unleashed in the early 1930s by Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture. The other is the Second World War, during which a group of paramilitaries in western Ukraine, known as the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, collaborated with the Germans to clear the region of foreign (Polish, Russian, Jewish) influence.

That these events of the past are not dead and buried was revealed most vividly by the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko, the man brought to power on the waves of popular protest known as the Orange Revolution. Yushchenko, whose wife is from the Ukrainian American diaspora that kept alive the flame of Holodomor consciousness, spent much of his political capital and time raising the issue of the Holodomor. The goal was nation-building on the example (diaspora theorists had made this clear) of the Holocaust, so that the death of millions of Ukrainians could do for Ukraine what the death of millions of Jews had done for Israel in solidifying national identity. The problem was twofold. First, a terrible famine is not the best basis on which to build a new, modern nation; second, Stalin’s “hunger famine,” while a massive crime, was directed not at Ukrainians as such but at the Soviet peasantry—much of which was in Ukraine, but large portions of which were also in southern Russia, where they died just as horribly as their Ukrainian counterparts. For Stalin, the destruction of Ukrainian culture and its attendant nationalism was a bonus in the war against the peasantry, nothing more. And so to shape this into a specifically national story Yushchenko and his historians had to twist the truth. They had to insist on the Russians’ genocidal intentions, and implicate by extension the people who were often charged, in the Soviet 1930s, with carrying out collectivization: Ukrainian Jews working for the NKVD.

The second aspect of Yushchenko’s concept for a Ukranian national narrative focused on rehabilitating the memory of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (the Ukrayinska Povstanska Armiya, or UPA). The leaders of the UPA remained active after the end of the Second World War, and were hunted down and assassinated by Soviet agents. Soviet propagandists then worked assiduously to remind citizens that small-nation nationalism (as opposed to Great Russian nationalism) led to fascism, as demonstrated by the collaboration of the UPA with the Wehrmacht. Soviet propagandists loved this story. The Chechens, Ingush, Volga Germans, and Crimean Tatars had all been accused by Stalin of working with the Germans, but with the UPA it was actually true. The Soviets loved this story so much that they couldn’t leave it alone; where necessary, they forged documents to prove the UPA’s guilt. The result was a multilayered story that changed depending on who was telling it and how much they knew; it was like that episode of The Simpsons where the family gets kidnapped by aliens, who may or may not be planning to eat them, and Lisa and the aliens take turns blowing dust off an old cookbook, which seems to say, with each bit of dust removed, How to Cook Humans, then How to Cook for Humans, then How to Cook Forty Humans, then How to Cook for Forty Humans. When Yushchenko was told that the UPA had committed massacres in western Ukraine, he responded that this was KGB propaganda. And some of it was! But some of it, unfortunately, was not. This, too, set Yushchenko against and alienated him from his neighbors to the north. (Not coincidentally, this argument paralleled the later argument about the presence of the right wing on Maidan. The protests were massive and varied and full of ordinary people with either no political affiliations or a commitment to “democracy,” which, however vague, they were willing to defend with their lives; but there were also groups raising the red-and-black UPA flag and chanting the old UPA slogan, “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to heroes!” Nonetheless, ideological defenders of the Maidan protests repeatedly pointed to overheated Russian propaganda as proof that allegations of a right-wing presence must be false.)

As all this was being argued about in the West, not always in good faith, and as Russian and Ukrainian leftists engaged in much more honest self-criticism about the lack of a leftist presence in the protests, events in Kyiv continued to develop. In mid-January the Ukrainian parliament, controlled by the ruling party, passed a draconian law to punish the protesters, including sanctions against driving in a motorcade, wearing a helmet, setting up a tent, refusing to block access to internet services (for ISPs), “blocking access to personal property,” et cetera. In response, protesters overran administrative buildings throughout western Ukraine, where police refused to intervene. Yanukovych meanwhile managed to squander his significant advantages—the fact that he was a legitimately elected president, for one thing, and that he controlled the army, for another—through a mixture of indecision and stupidity. Sometimes it seemed he was brilliantly waiting out the protesters—and it was very cold out—until suddenly he would send the riot police to try to clear the square again. Activists began to be kidnapped and tortured and sometimes killed. The determination of the protesters hardened. What had once been a crowd with iPhones was transformed into men in battle fatigues, balaclavas, orange construction helmets, welder goggles, knee pads, shin pads, greaves, metal shields, and all sorts of improvised weaponry—two-by-fours, Molotov cocktails, flails, the occasional hunting rifle, sticks, and rocks. They looked like some army of the damned, out to fight zombies—but in fact they were facing down their own police.

Fighting died down in early February, as the Rada worked toward an agreement to amnesty the protesters. As a gesture of goodwill, the protesters agreed to clear out some of the government buildings they occupied in Kyiv; when one group of right-wing protesters refused to leave the Ministry of Agriculture, another group of right-wing protesters forced them out anyway.

But the cessation in hostilities did not hold. On February 18, during a vital session of the Ukrainian Rada, a large column of protesters headed for the parliament to voice their support for the parliamentary opposition. The march led to fierce clashes with police, with the latter opening fire on the protesters. People fell, wounded, some of them dead. The crowd fired back. Some policemen were also killed; on Maidan, the occupation held.

The situation had reached unprecedented levels of violence, and the international community stepped up its pleas for a peaceful resolution. Yanukovych, too, seemed frightened by what had occurred (and possibly by his inability to clear the square) and agreed to talks. At the end of this process came an agreement between Yanukovych and the opposition leaders, witnessed by the foreign ministers of Poland and Germany, as well as a Russian representative, to hold early presidential elections and guarantee amnesty to the protesters. It seemed like finally the standoff was over.

But things had gone too far by this point, and the agreement did not hold. Events began to develop very rapidly. It was reported that Yanukovych and his cronies were trying to flee the city, whether because (as Yanukovych later claimed) his car had been fired on, or because it was clear that their situation was hopeless. In response, thousands of people blocked the road to the airport. Yanukovych fled the city anyway; this became clear when his palace, just outside the city limits, was left unguarded. Curious, people started going in. Yanukovych had left in a hurry—papers clearly showing massive corruption were left in his office. The internet was soon flooded with photos of the luxurious estate; one showed the self-defense forces of Maidan—in their weird outfits, with helmets, unshowered—trying to play golf on the presidential course.

The parliament assumed power and quickly appointed a new government. Yanukovych was laughed out of Ukraine—unable to leave on a chartered plane because he lacked the proper documents, he was reduced to heading for Crimea, where he was able to board a Russian military vessel and be spirited to the friendly neighbor to the north.

Less than a week later, in gross violation of the conditions of their long-standing lease on Crimean territory, Russian troops left their bases in Crimea and began to take up positions around the peninsula, disarming Ukrainian troops where they could. More Russian troops arrived, and the Putin administration began to make noises that this was just the beginning; that Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine—ten million people, give or take—could also, perhaps, use Russian protection from Ukrainian nationalists.

How did it come to this? If there was one thing everyone agreed on just five years ago, it was that, say what you would about post-independence Ukraine, it was a country. “Ukraine exists,” was the understated but undeniable election slogan of the (failed) 2010 Yushchenko presidential campaign. Crimea, Ukraine’s most restive and most beautiful area, was finally settling in for the long haul—better to be a strange, anomalous, mostly Russian-speaking Ukrainian appendage than to be inside a paranoid, authoritarian Russia. That the revolution against Yanukovych, a triumph of human fortitude, should result in the loss of territorial integrity is sad but comprehensible. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and here is this one.

What role has the American intellectual community played in this saga, if any? Certainly we failed to prevent it. But there is more. For the past two years, since Putin reassigned himself to the Russian presidency, we have indulged ourselves in a bacchanalia of anti-Putinism, shading over into anti-Russianism. We turned Pussy Riot into mass media stars. We wrote endless articles (and books) about how Putin was a mystery man, a terrible man, a KGB ghoul who lived under your bed. It got to the point where Western journalists in Sochi for Putin’s overpriced Olympics were cheered like heroes for tweeting about how the curtains in their hotel rooms were falling down. It was funny, but it was also not funny. Should Putin, the president of a country with inadequate hospitals, schools, and housing for its 150 million people, have spent $50 billion to host the Olympics? Absolutely not—especially when a third of the money was apparently expropriated by various officials. But the gleeful complaints about Olympic conditions seemed mostly bent on humiliating Russia in toto.

It’s hard to know how much of what gets written in various places leads to American policies. Does it matter what’s in the Nation? What about the New York Review of Books? The New Yorker? It’s impossible to say. And the media or publishing game has its own rules, irrespective of politics. Evil Putin is just going to get more airtime than Complicated Putin or Putin Who Is Running a Country in a Complex Geopolitical Situation.

Perhaps the way to put it is that an intellectual mistake was turned into a political mistake. The intellectual mistake was to fixate on Putin as the bad man who came along and suddenly undid the good work of Boris Yeltsin. (Bill Clinton’s Russia hand Strobe Talbott the other day tweeted an inadvertent reductio ad absurdum of this position: “Putin has for years been systematically reversing reforms of Yeltsin, Gorbachev & Khrushchev, whose gift of Crimea to Ukraine he’s nullified.”) But as the Russian left has been telling us for years, Putin has not gone back on the Yeltsin-era reforms. In most spheres of Russian life, he has continued them—undoing the Soviet safety net and replacing it with nothing. That he has become an authoritarian ruler while doing so is a result of the fact that these reforms are cruel and unpopular.

An obsession with Putin—shared, by the way, by the Russian liberal opposition, which continues to pine for Yeltsin and refuses to admit the destruction he wrought on the country and its populace—was the intellectual mistake, and it created a political atmosphere. Why did Obama refuse to meet with Putin at the G20 summit in St. Petersburg last summer? Was it because the Russians had been intransigent and unhelpful on various foreign policy questions, or was it because Evil Putin had become such a media fixture in the US that meeting with him would have been politically poisonous, a “sign of weakness”? No doubt it was both.

And it was this atmosphere, too, of blind rage against one man, through which the events in Ukraine were filtered. Were there right-wing militants among the protesters? Not if the Kremlin says so! Should the Western ambassadors, formal and informal, so eager to give the Ukrainian opposition advice, counsel them to keep in mind the sensitive Russophone population of eastern Ukraine and Crimea? No—that would only give comfort to the Russian enemy. If the protests nonetheless remained pluralistic, committed to democracy, often in its most direct form, it was not because of any advice from the US, which tended, as usual, to be focused on zinging the Russians.

Putin has a habit of talking tough. In televised interviews, and in the strange staged televised cabinet meetings he likes to hold, he sometimes seems like he’s talking through clenched teeth. It’s irritating—to Russians more than anyone—but the American political establishment, and the American intellectual establishment right behind it, got dragged into it. If the US were truly strong—or rather, if the US understood that it is strong, much, much stronger than Russia in every conceivable way—would it not have found a way to placate this tough-­talking man and his proud but troubled country, and direct Russia’s energies somewhere useful? If a man who is weaker than you walks up to you aggressively in a bar, what do you do? Do you humiliate him? Do you write articles about how scary and mysterious he is? As is, Putin talked tough, and so the American media and then American politicians decided to talk tough, too. And now we find ourselves plunging, perhaps, into a protracted period of international standoff—a “new cold war”—with increased military budgets, decreased understanding and interaction, and once again the kinds of restrictions of movement that we thought we’d left behind. As for Russia’s fledgling opposition, both liberal and left, which could not help but be inspired by the courage and persistence of the Ukrainian opposition regardless of its political makeup—it will not be strengthened if Russia becomes, as it will inevitably, even more aggressive and paranoid during a period of intense reaction and retrenchment. The opposition may even be destroyed. The same goes for Ukraine, which, now partly occupied by a foreign power, is likely to shift politically toward its nationalist right.

None of this is to say that Putin doesn’t have a lot to answer for. Under his leadership Russia has failed to demonstrate, to its own citizenry and even more so to its neighbors the Ukrainians, anything positive, anything admirable, anything that they would want to gravitate toward except, occasionally, some cold hard cash. No, Putin, who lost whatever democratic legitimacy he may have enjoyed when he returned for a third term, is to blame. But did we on our side do everything we could to avoid this scenario? The answer, obviously, is no.

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