The Democratic Values at Stake in Ukraine

March 18, 2014 Topic: Democracy Region: Ukraine

The Democratic Values at Stake in Ukraine

There is a profound gap in perceptions between Russia and the West.


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.