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

December 18, 2013 Topic: Politics Region: Ukraine

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.="#.urcus8eo5jo">

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.

Neither should we be so harsh regarding the EU. It may not be politic in Washington to speak well of that organization. Its problems are undoubtedly severe and in many cases have not been dealt with successfully. Nevertheless, the EU’s recovery of nerve in Eastern Europe is impressive. Its public positions are infinitely stronger than is the U.S. official position, which still remains to be seen and should consists of more than just giving bread to demonstrators. This year, the EU has forced Gazprom to admit that it has dealt illegally with Europe in its energy deals, brokered a Serbian-Kosovar agreement, admitted Croatia to the EU, and persuaded Serbia that it too should begin the accession process. The EU has resumed accession talks with Turkey, and has now also told Moscow that its priority South Stream pipeline, one of the chief goals of which is to force Ukraine into greater energy dependence upon Moscow, violates intergovernmental agreements among EU members. These are hardly the actions of a political organization lacking concern for Ukraine or European security. And these decisions do not even touch on the EU’s facilitation of Ukraine’s acquisition throughout 2013 of alternate sources of gas from Europe or readiness to cooperate with Kiev in reforming Ukraine’s dysfunctional gas distribution network.

Such criticisms, whether they emanate from Putin’s media machine or the West, are misguided and amount to blaming the victim. The real culprit here is Russia, because it has repeatedly precipitated crises with Ukraine since 1991-92 over its sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity. Indeed, Putin memorably told President George W. Bush that Ukraine was merely a Russian creation, not a real state, and if Ukraine attempted to join NATO Russia would dismember it—a statement that highlights exactly why Ukraine needs both NATO and the EU.

Similarly, we must understand that if Yanukovych is not replaced, Ukraine will continue to be a crisis spot not only for its own people and Europe but also for Russia. It will be so because the continuation in power of the present regime is only possible by a massive resort to force. At the same time, Moscow’s refusal to acknowledge Ukraine’s sovereign reality is a critical part of the imperial mentality that is the necessary handmaiden of its ever more repressive, patrimonial and criminal autocracy. It is clear that Putin and his team believe that Russia cannot remain secure under their control without imperial trappings like Putin’s cherished Customs Union. But it is clear that this Customs Union is a lose-lose project for both Russia and Ukraine, not to mention European security. A Ukraine suborned to Russia would represent Russia’s return to full imperial status, and a grave and persistent threat to the European status quo. But what is apparently insufficiently understood is that neither Ukraine nor Russia benefits from that arrangement. Were Moscow to effectively neuter Ukraine as a sovereign state it would mercilessly exploit Ukraine as it has been doing, forcing Ukraine to subsidize Russia’s corrupt, backward, and inefficient economy.

It is already clear that to save Yanukovych, Moscow would have to pledge some $10-20 billion in loans. And on December 17 Putin offered Ukraine lower gas prices and said that it would buy $15 billion of Ukrainian bonds. In other words, the reward of empire for Moscow is ongoing subsidization of an unreformed Ukraine that cannot be allowed to reform, lest it serve as an example to Russian citizens. To keep Ukraine quiescent, Moscow must keep subsidizing it. And thanks to Putin and company’s mismanagement and corruption, Russia can neither afford such subsidies nor sustain them for long. The quest for a neo-imperial formation can only exacerbate the already visible Russian crisis, making it a truly revolutionary crisis inside Russia and accelerating the crash of Putin’s system.

History has already shown that European integration provides security to all of Europe, not least Russia. Putin et al. may still view European integration and democracy as the greatest threats to their security, but their security is not synonymous with Russia’s. For Russia to have security, stability, peace, prosperity, and democracy, not only must it reform itself, it must allow Ukraine to find its own unencumbered way to European integration, since Russia can only benefit from Ukraine’s freely chosen path to integration with the EU.

Thus the Western critiques of the EU are misplaced, as is Washington’s call for a purely constitutional solution. Yanukovych already has shown that he will not and cannot play by constitutional rules and has thus forfeited any ability to rule Ukraine legitimately rather than via means of coercion or fraud. The better part of wisdom here would be a united Western policy telling him to resign (and even giving him and his family immunity), thereby clearing the way for a new Ukrainian government and elections under the constitution. That new government—and its successors—could then merit Western relief as it builds effective political institutions, democratizes Ukraine, and draws closer to the EU. Any other solution, as can already be seen, almost certainly involves a violent solution. And that would be the true catastrophe for Ukraine and Europe, as well as for Russia itself.

Stephen Blank is Senior Fellow for Russia at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.