Reflections on a Revolution—Yes, a Revolution—in Ukraine

Yanukovych, not the EU, is the problem.

What is now occurring in Ukraine is, if not a revolution, a veritable revolutionary crisis, and it must be understood as such. The flood of articles in the Russian press by Putin’s media claque denouncing the EU and accusing it of being miserly, unconcerned with Ukraine, etc.—as well as similar Western accusations concerning the stinginess of the EU —is therefore largely misplaced. The EU failed to grasp that under no conditions can Russian President Vladimir Putin let Ukraine sign an association agreement with the Europeans. But Brussels’ refusal to bail out the Yanukovych regime and its insistence on the freeing of Yulia Tymoshenko are the right moves.

Grasping this fact is critical now that bargaining over the terms of a rescue of Ukraine has begun. Russia may not raise the issue of the Customs Union, but any offers it makes to Ukraine will substantially diminish both Ukraine’s sovereignty and its capacity for recovery over the long term. These are critical reasons why we must support the EU. They also suggest that, as a condition of any EU bailout, the Yanukovych regime, largely composed of the president’s family members and political cronies, must also go.

Ukraine’s current crisis is merely the latest stage of an ongoing, twenty-year crisis consisting of two interactive parts. One part is the dysfunctionality of Ukraine’s government and political system, which has steadily worsened under Yanukovych’s corrupt authoritarianism and has brought the country to the brink of default. According to one recent analysis, Yanukovych’s regime embezzles approximately $8-10 billion annually.

The other part is Russia’s unbending hostility, going back to Boris Yeltsin’s time in power, to the idea of a truly independent Ukraine. This interaction has brought Ukraine to the brink of default and placed its territorial integrity and real, as opposed to nominal, sovereignty at risk from Russia, not the EU. This is because the dysfunctionality of Ukraine’s political structures, laid out in detail in numerous studies by Ukrainian and Western academics and think tanks, has only enhanced its vulnerability to Russia. Even worse, in his nearly four years in power, President Viktor Yanukovych has repeatedly shown that he cares more about staying in power than about Ukraine’s territorial integrity and independence, or for actions to foster the growth of Ukraine’s economy or its capacity for self-governance. It is not surprising, under the circumstances, that neither Brussels, nor Moscow, nor the demonstrators have any residual belief in his credibility.

As a result, it should be apparent to any but the most biased that Yanukovych has lost whatever legitimacy he may have had, and can only prevail in this crisis by repression and force. Indeed, his initial efforts to employ those weapons backfired and intensified the opposition to him. Perhaps the most telling factor here is the relative silence of eastern Ukraine, his power base. While this region may not embrace the demonstrators in Kiev and other cities’ positions, it clearly has not and will not come out in support of Yanukovych.

It should also be clear to observers that the EU was and remains correct in insisting on a real commitment to reform before bailing out a corrupt, criminal, and ineffective regime. No amount of subsidies (for that is what was at issue) could ensure the adhesion to EU standards stipulated in an Association Agreement. Neither could anyone trust Yanukovych to uphold his side of the bargain; Brussels was dealing with a government that could not in any event be counted on to make a credible commitment. Therefore, the EU was right to demand exactly that sort of action, namely the release of Yulia Tymoshenko from prison and domestic economic reform. And its current demands for even greater reform as a precondition of support are equally justified for the same reason. Neither Brussels nor Moscow will write Ukraine blank checks that go directly to Swiss bank accounts.