The liberal hawks and neoconservatives—practically the whole of the commentariat, it seems—have joined with western governments in a common view of the Ukraine crisis. They consider it as an instance plain and simple of Russian aggression, entailing massively illegal steps that cannot be countenanced. They say it must be met by the application of counter-pressures along a whole series of shifting points. They act and write as if the United States has done nothing wrong, that on the contrary we should be proud of the role we played in supporting a revolution that brought about the fall of a hated tyrant and the installation of a new democratic regime.
The big problem with this narrative is that the United States and its western and Ukrainian allies did in fact do something very wrong. They broke a vital democratic norm—to wit, that in democracies the transfer of power occurs as a result and in the aftermath of elections or, in extremis, impeachments. There is simply no consciousness in the West that the revolution was brought about by illegal means. Yet it most emphatically was so. Power was seized, not transferred. In this tit for tat contest with Russia, we have focused exclusively on the tit; we have just as resolutely ignored the tat that preceded it.
The commitment to the peaceful transfer of power in elections is basic to the democratic creed. In his first inaugural address, Jefferson summarized that commitment as follows: “absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority, the vital principle of republics, from which is no appeal but to force, the vital principle and immediate parent of despotism.”
The United States government apparently believes that we can set that principle aside without consequence. According to Victoria Nuland, the United States has invested $5 billion over the last two decades in building knowledge of democratic institutions “and other goals.” It is now very clear that that the US left out of their instructional materials that little point about the transfer of power in elections.
Americans have previously acknowledged a right of revolution in a circumstance where there has been no previous instance of an election and no possibility of one. But in a regime that has a constitution and that has prescribed rules for the transfer of power? Revolution in those circumstances has been generally seen as deeply illegitimate, and for the simple reason that once you depart from that rule you are in no man’s land.
And yet the United States government, along with other western powers, did so abet and orchestrate the downfall of the president, Viktor Yanukovych. He won a 2010 election that the OSCE judged more free and fair than the 2012 vote that elected the current Ukrainian parliament. Even the mob-dominated vote by the Rada to impeach Yanukovych fell short of the required 3/4ths supermajority. They needed 338 votes in the 450-seat parliament and only got 328. Oops, ten votes shy. Not a big deal.
According to Radio Free Europe, there is also a constitutional provision mandating a review of the case by Ukraine’s Constitutional Court. It does not say who is to bring the case, or whether that procedure was observed. Without knowing much about the technicalities we can certainly affirm on the basis of common experience that impeachments, properly conducted, take time. But there was no time for such laborious proceedings in Ukraine. Given the failure to observe this elementary judicial procedure, the conclusion is unavoidable that the vote in the Rada would have been illegitimate even if it had passed—which, as we have seen, it did not.
These facts seem rather disconcerting. It was as if, when Clinton did that thing with the intern that we heard about on the radio, the Republicans had bypassed all that messy impeachment stuff in the House and instead bussed in the Moral Majority by the millions to DC, finally taking the White House after three months of courageous demonstrations where they braved the cold and sang songs about their country. And none of the foreign press, in depicting these stirring events, thought that the archaic impeachment procedure in the Constitution was particularly significant. Most, it appeared, didn’t know it existed, and they certainly didn’t report that it had been violated. Then some savvy Foreign Office weighed in with the observation that “the democratic transition that occurred in America was an expression of the will of the American people.” Case closed.
Impeachment, of course, was never really in the cards in the Ukraine winter; it was the electoral calendar that was most important. Maidan had to endure little more than a year before the constitutionally mandated presidential elections on February 26, 2015, and would not do so. The mob rejected an even better deal, with Yanukovych staying until December 2014 with diminished powers, on the night of the revolution. The “reign of witches” they so greatly detested had to be ended immediately.
Remembering Jefferson and how he had endured the Federalist tyranny of the Alien and Sedition Laws in 1798 and 1799 (whence cometh that “reign of witches” phrase) got me to thinking of what we value in a democratic politics. We seniors (the 60-plus set) have had too many hopes busted to accept the fairytale version whereby a basically good people elects basically good leaders, all round the world. Experience teaches, rather, that the grandest thing in democratic politics is the forbearance of voters under an obnoxious and detestable ruler. There is something admirable in patiently waiting a prescribed limit to throw the bastards out. What is even better is the willingness of the self-same bastards to depart in peace (as Yanukovych once did previously). It is all done according to rules.
The absolute refusal to resort to violence, even under the provocation of a ruler we have come to hate, is a commendable thing. It is much better for any polity than irregular seizures attended by violence, such as have in the instant case been ignominiously branded as entirely democratic by the State Department.
Why do we Americans thrill to presidential elections and the solemn inaugurals that follow? The noble majesty of those sacred occasions is all about the peaceful transfer of power. The most important habit of a democratic politics—waiting your turn according to the electoral calendar—is the one we encouraged the Ukrainians to break.
Ukraine is not America, but democratic norms do travel across borders. This particular norm, which Americans once particularly treasured, was traduced and violated by the manner in which Yanukovych went down.1
The violation of this core principle in Ukraine reflects a colossal misjudgment. The illegal action made possible something that could never have been the product of a peaceful electoral victory. Occupying the new government are members of Ukraine’s far right, who have taken on a very handsome portfolio centered on the coercive power of the state: defense ministry, prosecutor, national-security council.
The Western reporters and commentators who have deigned to take notice of this development have been minimizing the significance of the Svoboda Party and Right Sector in the government. They are mistaken. The sequence of events that brought these elements to a powerful position is the very definition of a devil’s bargain, one which the civil-society contingent in both Ukraine and America will live to regret.
What defines the extreme right in the Ukrainian context? I think it should be understood in terms of men who have lived their mental lives preoccupied with atrocious victimization and redemptive acts of violence. The cult of Stepan Bandera, whence Svoboda springs, is all about that. The European project, by contrast, is all about the transcendence of that mode of understanding and existence.
The Russians are phobic about Svoboda and Right Sector, who in turn are phobic about the Russians. The Russians have not faced such a group under any Ukrainian administration of the last twenty-three years. In an election, even a mismanaged and corrupt one, the Russians would in all probability not have faced that prospect in the future. Because of Ukraine’s beautiful revolution, because nine months is an eternity, they now do.
We are to understand from the State Department that in the last year there has been a great mellowing of Svoboda’s perspective; it’s now mainstream. Of course, if there is a war, it will become even more mainstream.
The men of Svoboda and Right Sector are undoubtedly brave. They would make good soldiers. If the intent is to fight a war, you want the men who believe in war to fight it. If you want to make peace rather than war, however, you do not want these fellows in control of the police and military power.
The State Department is sweet on Swoboda now, but from Victoria Nuland’s indecorous January 29 phone call with the US envoy to Ukraine we learn that the US wanted to keep them out of the new government and thought it could do so. The plan was to encourage close consultation while denying them any of the key portfolios. The US got its favored prime minister—“Yats”—but lost control on this other front. The extreme right ended up in the ministries representing the state’s coercive power. (I hope this reading of State’s actions does not prove too generous and that it did seek to exert influence against Svoboda. That is intimated, but not established, by Nuland’s phone call. Such scheming against the far right would not acquit State of the larger charge of malfeasance, but at least would show that its movers and shakers are not entirely disconnected from reality.)
A Coup For You
The demonstrations that began in November (after Yanukovych nixed the EU’s offer and went with Russia’s) were entirely peaceful. Svoboda was marginal. The civil-society “let’s join Europe” crowd dismissed the participation of the far right as bothersome, but insignificant, considering their extreme minority status. They had never polled more than 10 percent in national elections; of course they were anathema in the East.
Gradually, their presence enlarged; the crowd surrendered much of its skepticism toward a group that had courage and had faced in common the privations of the camp. The firebombs of Right Sector followed, producing the expected delegitimating counterreaction by the regime; the necessary provocation occurred. Suddenly these paramilitary groups, which had previously been entirely marginal in the politics of this multiethnic nation, have the approval of Maidan and an unassailable claim to the security portfolios of the government. Maidan accorded them legitimacy because it was they who faced down the hated president and at the moment of truth made him go.
The Russians have called it a coup d’etat, and have been ignored or ridiculed in the West. Unfortunately, they have an excellent case to make on that score. In Russia’s somewhat boorish calculations, its subsequent actions in Crimea doubtless represented a meeting of force with force, and in a roughly proportional manner (for Svoboda was taking over governmental installations in western Ukraine before Yanukovych fell). The better the Russian case is, the more they are likely to feel self-righteous; that is going to influence their conduct.
The West has regarded Russia’s fears and calculations as hallucinatory and condemned Russia for the most brazen act of territorial aggression in modern times. The gap in perspective between Russia and America—increasingly, between Russia and the West—is enormous.
The Russians need to turn away from force and toward diplomacy, but for that to occur they need an interlocutor in the West who acknowledges their grievance. They have none.
The profound gap in understanding of the sources of the conflict—and of the legitimacy of the various strokes and counter-strokes—portends evil days ahead. Unless some miraculous feat of diplomacy now occurs, the crisis threatens to get much worse.
David Hendrickson is professor of political science at Colorado College. See his previous essay on Ukraine for The National Interest on March 11. He blogs at IR and All That: Classical Readings on International Relations.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Mstyslav Chernov. CC BY-SA 3.0.
1 It may be objected, of course, that the sniper fire wholly discredited Yanukovych, and that certainly was the instantaneous judgment of the world. But yet more terrible than the existence of the sniper fire was the discovery that police and demonstrators had been killed by the same bullets, suggesting an intention to create further slaughter, as each side responded to the sight of their fallen comrades. Competing theories abound; an investigation is on foot; but it is difficult to see the motive for Yanukovych in this incident.