Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt and Syria have taught us that even in conflicts where it is easy to spot the villain, virtuous actors can be much harder to find, and effective virtuous actors can be rarer still.
That’s why the early success of the new Ukraine is so significant.
Of course, it’s also true that at every stage in this crisis, Ukraine’s democratic victories have had the perverse consequence of escalating pressure from the Kremlin. That pattern has now led to possibly as many as 45,000 Russian troops once again massed on Ukraine’s border, as Moscow considers how to check the success of the Ukrainian military in re-establishing control over the eastern Donbass region where Russian-backed fighters have been trying and failing for months to create a breakaway republic. NATO and Ukraine’s leaders are warning there’s a significantly heightened threat of Russian invasion.
Russia’s bellicose brinksmanship has made Ukraine’s eastern border the world’s most dangerous tripwire—it is no exaggeration to worry we could be on the edge of the greatest conflict since the World War II. But in determining how to respond, it is essential to understand this standoff has been created by the surprising and growing strength of Ukrainian democracy—and by Vladimir Putin’s refusal to allow a peaceful democracy to exist on his western border.
This crisis is not about an American power play in the former Soviet Union— indeed, it often seems as if President Barack Obama privately wishes Ukraine’s democracy revolution would just fade away. This is entirely about the Ukrainian people’s decision that they were no longer willing to live in an authoritarian kleptocracy—and the annexation and invasion of their territory that was the Kremlin’s response. Ukraine could only have avoided this struggle by not choosing democracy, or by failing in the effort to build it.
No matter how hard Putin tries to spin it (or to turn from attack line into a reality), Ukraine isn’t a failed state, prey to domestic extremists and weakened by civil war. This is a young country swiftly uniting around the democratic idea in the face of foreign aggression. Ukraine’s new leaders aren’t angels. Their ranks include oligarchs with checkered biographies and politicians who were members of past, failed governments. But, after 23 years of chaotic post-Soviet independence, Ukraine now has a wired and educated civil society prepared to fight for democracy and a leadership that knows how the West works and wants to emulate it.
Which is why the right parallel when thinking about how the West should respond to this crisis isn’t with the West’s past decade of military misadventures in the Middle East, it is with Eastern Europe in the 1980s, where civil society overthrew communist regimes and produced leaders who were, albeit with plenty of mistakes and hardship along the way, able to build capitalist democracies in their place.
The first success is the consolidation, maturity and determination of Ukraine’s civil society. Remember all of those warnings from Putin and other Russians about the dangerous power of the far right and the worries that the euphoria of the pro-Europe protesters who rallied in Kyiv’s Maidan Square last winter would give way to rule by armed, brown-shirted militias?
The May 25 presidential election, in which Petro Poroshenko, a Russian-speaking centrist businessman from the south, won a strong majority on the first ballot in a field of 17 candidates, gave the lie to that putative threat. Ukraine’s two far-right candidates polled less than 2 percent each, far less than the hard right polled in European Union parliamentary elections held on the same day.
Ukrainians didn’t elect Poroshenko for his charisma or his barnstorming speeches. They voted for him because he backed the Maidan protesters from the start, he was the frontrunner, and he is competent. His most effective campaign slogan—which appeared with no photo or visual image, just words, on billboards across the country — was “to stop the war, let’s elect a president on the first ballot.” Ukraine is normally a sort of Slavic Italy—a disputatious society that revels in political disagreement and debate. It is a measure of the gravity of the moment that Ukrainians accepted Poroshenko’s argument and, for the first time since independence, chose a president on the first ballot and with strong backing from across the country.
Ukraine’s second success is its unprecedented degree of national unity. That reality is obscured by the lazy shorthand that often frames the conflict in eastern Ukraine as a Yugoslav-style civil war, driven by ancient cultural, linguistic and religious divisions. In fact, the fight in Ukraine is almost entirely a political and even ideological struggle. This isn’t about Russian speakers vs. Ukrainian speakers—an absurd idea in a country so at ease with its nearly universal bilingualism that everything from television interviews to jokes to parliamentary debates are conducted in an easy back-and-forth between Ukrainian and Russian.
The dividing line in what Ukrainians call their “dignity revolution” is instead the choice between Western liberal democracy and the Kremlin’s neo-authoritarianism. What has been striking is how determinedly most of Ukraine has chosen democracy. For Ukrainians, this isn’t about the reshaping of the world’s geostrategic chessboard—who would chose to be a pawn in someone else’s power play? But Ukrainians have now seen both Western democracy and Putin’s post-Soviet kleptocracy up close. They have made the same choice all of us would, and they are proving they are willing to fight, and to die, for it.
We saw that first with the Maidan, where Ukrainians defied freezing weather, tanks and finally snipers to bring down their authoritarian regime. The next proof points came in the fraught months between the flight of President Viktor Yanukovych and the presidential election won by Poroshenko, which gave Ukraine the stability of a democratically elected leader.
During that fragile interregum, Russia worked hard to undermine the new Ukraine. The Kremlin started by sending in “little green men,” as the Russian troops infiltrating Ukraine wearing uniforms but no official government ID have come to be called, to Crimea. The little green men swiftly took control of the government and military infrastructure there. Moscow followed up with the unexpectedly aggressive step of explicitly annexing the peninsula. Russia then attempted to replicate the Crimean scenario in the geographic arc running from its satrap Transniestria in the southwest, along the Black Sea coast, then north to Kharkiv in the east. These efforts had some success in the Donbass, but it is important to appreciate how completely they failed in the rest of what Putin has named “Novorossia,” or New Russia.
Even in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where civil society has historically been weakest, the Russian-led and -armed separatists haven’t managed to take over the local government, as their peers did in Crimea. Their reign is a partial occupation, based on individual buildings their gunmen have seized and camped out in, and roadside checkpoints. Another important point to note is that Ukraine’s national consolidation includes its business elite. Most of Ukraine’s oligarchs are Russian-speaking, all of them are economically dependent on Russia, and many of them are from the east. But not a single significant business leader anywhere in the country—including the Donbass—is backing the Russia-led rebels.
Ukraine’s third success is the consolidation of its post-revolutionary government. Putin has sought to portray Ukraine as a failed state, and in his collaboration with Yanukovych he came close to making that rhetoric reality. The regime was hollowed out by corruption, infiltrated by Kremlin agents, and its coffers emptied by theft from the top.
Yet in just five months, and in the face of occupation and annexation of its territory by its nuclear-armed neighbor, the Ukrainian state has started to rebuild and to develop an ambitious program of economic and political transformation. Less than 48 hours after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down, an international group of some 200 experts was gathering in Kyiv to work on a comprehensive reform plan. Its goals include identifying structural ways to reduce corruption—Estonia’s e-governance innovations, which offer fewer opportunities for individual apparatchiks to demand bribes, are one inspiration—and streamlining the tax system. On July 31, President Poroshenko signed a new education law, drafted in large part by professors and students, many of whom were active on the Maidan, granting universities more autonomy from the central government and introducing a Western-style system of graduate degrees.
Passing laws about academic freedom while your country is being invaded might seem like fiddling while Rome burns, but this double act is at the heart of what is happening now in Ukraine. Ukrainians aren’t fighting only for their sovereignty—which would be good enough cause—they are fighting for what they call the new Ukraine, which they are simultaneously trying to build.
These three elements—civil society, state and national unity—account for Ukraine’s fourth success: since May 15, when the steel workers of the eastern city of Mariupol took to the streets to force would-be separatists to leave, Ukraine has steadily been pushing back the Russian-led insurgents.
Already, Kyiv has recaptured about 75 percent of the territory once held by the separatists. Ukraine’s leaders predict that, absent further Russian escalation, they will be fully back in control of their country by the end of the month.
Further Russian escalation is, of course, the great uncertainty, particularly this week, as Ukrainian forces close in on the Russian-led separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk and the Kremlin has masses troops on Ukraine’s border. The biggest question in world affairs today is whether Russia will take the immense gamble of explicitly invading Ukraine rather than allow its proxies to be defeated.
To understand if Putin will roll the dice and what that would mean, begin with one central fact—since November, when this crisis began, Putin has repeatedly misread Ukraine. (With the single exception of his takeover of Crimea, where Ukraine’s post-revolutionary disorganization, Putin’s unexpected lightning attack and the presence of the Black Sea Fleet made for a deceptively fast and easy victory.)
Start with Yanukovych, Putin’s would-be authoritarian junior partner. The erstwhile Ukrainian president proved too weak and too unpopular to do the job, eventually opting to flee the country that had elected him less than four years earlier.
Next, Putin underestimated Ukrainian civil society. The increasing pressure that he thought would disperse the Maidan instead inspired ever greater resolve, ending with a willingness to march directly into sniper fire.
Then, Putin believed his own myth of an ethnically divided Ukraine. His efforts to provoke the Russian speakers of “Novorossia” into rebellion have instead strengthened their support for Ukraine, particularly in the crucial regions of Dnipropetrovsk, Odessa and Kharkiv. Finally, as with Yanukovych, Putin has tragically overestimated his proxies in the separatist leadership of the Donbass.
Putin’s mistakes have the virtue of intellectual consistency—he really does seem to believe that Ukrainians are Russians and that he will likewise succeed in bringing them to heel. That, of course, is what makes Ukraine doubly important. Putin isn’t the only Russian who thinks Ukrainians are part of his Slavic tribe. This is conventional wisdom in Russia, even among liberals. But the same logic that makes Ukraine a tempting morsel for irredentists makes it a powerful example for democrats.
Here’s how Max Skibinsky, a Russian Silicon Valley venture capitalist, describes it. “The differences between Ukrainian and Russian people are cosmetic,” he wrote in a recent blog post. “They [the Ukrainians] are the first large group of ethnic ‘Russians’ who become free on their own power and valor. To understand the scale of that achievement, here is the last group of Russians who were not ruled by khans, czars, communist chairmen, or KGB generals: the Free Novgorod Republic. That was over 1000 years ago. Ukraine was a cradle of Russian civilization—they might become a source of rebirth yet again.”
Few Ukrainians would agree. Ukraine’s political culture has no messianic or imperialist strain, and today building democracy at home is more than enough to keep the country’s leaders busy. Unfortunately for all of us, the Kremlin’s unrelenting aggression against Ukraine shows that Putin sees Ukraine’s democratic renaissance the way Skibinsky does. In seeking to destabilize the new Ukraine, Putin isn’t trying to protect Russian speakers from the Ukrainian language. The fight in the Donbass is a continuation of the battle against a liberal Russia that Putin began when he arrived in the Kremlin in 2000.
If the Russian forces massed on Ukraine’s border invade, it will be because Putin has decided to show Russians, Ukrainians and the world that he has the power and the will to impose autocracy not just at home, but at gunpoint in foreign, sovereign states. The tragic paradox for Kyiv is that each democratic success has made it more vulnerable to a further Russian escalation. Will the world’s democracies stand by and let Putin have his way?
Chrystia Freeland is the federal member of parliament for Toronto Centre and the author of Plutocrats: the Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else