Putin Is Forging a New Ukraine—Just Not the One He Wants

Putin Is Forging a New Ukraine—Just Not the One He Wants

A decade of Russian interference could turn Putin into a unifying figure for Ukraine—as a villain.

It is not just the oligarchs in the East who are concerned by Russian tactics. East-West divisions in Ukraine are easing because the young in the East do not have the natural inclination of their Soviet-bred elders to look toward Moscow, and they, like people in the center and the West, were not strong supporters of Mr. Yanukovych. And as young people from throughout the entire country are being drafted to defend Ukraine from possible Russian aggression in the East, the anger at Moscow is growing.


Moscow's diminishing influence is also evident in the position and circumstances of the UOC-MP. Metropolitan Volodymyr, the head of the church in Ukraine, understood that the church's position during the Orange Revolution hurt its standing. That's why he and most of his bishops stood on the sidelines during the Euromaidan crisis, much to the aggravation of Patriarch Kirill in Moscow. The UOC-MP has also been silent as Kremlin forces seized control in Crimea; but it has been embarrassed by the statement of Patriarch Kirill's spokesman defending "the Russian peacemaking mission in Ukraine." During this national crisis, the UOC-MP has been neutral. At the same time, clerics of the UOC-KP, the Autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church were on the Maidan standing between the protesters and the police in the effort to prevent bloodshed. This can only weaken the standing of the UOC-MP in the long run.

If Mr. Putin "succeeds" in splitting Crimea from the rest of Ukraine, he will alter the political balance in the country. The most reliable voters for pro-Russian policies are in Crimea. It has not required massive fraud for Mr. Yanukovych to gather 90 percent of the vote on the peninsula, which has 2.3 million inhabitants (out of a population of 46 million). Removing those voters from the national rolls gives a leg up to politicians orienting policy toward Europe.


When nations set off on a new trajectory, there are usually events that are seen as pivotal and cherished moments that become the object of veneration. For Bolshevik Russia, there was the legend of October, when Lenin's sudden appearance in St. Petersburg set off the Revolution and the crew of Russian Navy cruiser Aurora defected to the Bolsheviks and fired the first shots. If the upcoming presidential elections in Ukraine produces a stable, competent government (no certainty), then the courage of the Maidan demonstrators will become a founding myth of the new Ukraine. And Mr. Putin will join Mr. Yanukovych as one of the villains in the founding myth.

Yet Mr. Putin's villainy may well exceed that of Mr. Yanukovych in Ukraine's emerging national consciousness. Nations on new courses often find their paths blocked by foreign enemies. The French Revolutionaries faced the armies of a coalition of of monarchs. Their response was the levee en masse—the conscription of vast numbers of Frenchmen. Fired by zeal against foreign invasion, the armies of the French Revolution routed its opponents and cemented a new patriotism in France. Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran in 1980 served a similar purpose for the clerics who had just come to power. The Russian invasion of Crimea has attracted the ire of Ukrainians across the country. The young men being conscripted know whom to blame for their new military service. If Mr. Putin orders the Red Army into Ukraine's East and Ukrainian blood is shed, his fate as the new Ukraine's archnemesis will become the matter of lore.

John Herbst is director of the Center for Complex Operations at the National Defense University. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006. This piece represents the views of the author and not of the National Defense University.