Half a year ago, in the fall of 2013, Ukraine was well on the way to becoming an authoritarian vassal state of Russia. Now, thanks to Russia’s neo-fascist dictator, Vladimir Putin, Ukraine is well on the way to becoming a democracy and a full-fledged member of the international community.
How did Putin snatch a humiliating defeat from the jaws of surefire victory? How could he have walked into a strategic trap of his own making? In a word, how did he lose Ukraine?
And make no mistake about it: it was Putin, and no one else, who lost Ukraine. He had it. He could easily have kept it. But now he’ll never have it again. And he has no one to blame but himself.
Putin has never understood Ukraine. For him, as for all too many Russians, it’s a historical mistake: a part of Russia that’s been swayed from the path of righteousness by a few dastardly fascist imperialist cigar-chomping bourgeois nationalists in cahoots with the CIA. If you treat a bona fide country with a bona fide people with a bona fide identity as your dirty backyard, don’t be surprised if you slip in the mud and fall on your face.
Putin’s first major slip was during the 2004 Orange Revolution, when, stupidly, he backed Viktor Yanukovych. That disaster taught Putin nothing, and, nine years later, he made the same mistake during the Euro Revolution. How could a supposedly smart leader back the same loser—not once, but twice? How could that same supposedly smart leader still insist that the loser remains Ukraine’s legitimate president—even after a fair and free election gave a huge mandate to Petro Poroshenko? The sad thing is that, after 15 years in power, Putin still doesn’t “get” Ukraine.
Putin’s most egregious blunder was to coerce Yanukovych into rejecting the Association Agreement with the European Union last fall. That strategic error led to the demonstrations in Kyiv, Yanukovych’s downfall, the emergence of a pro-Western, democratic Ukraine, and Russia’s transformation into a rogue state and sponsor of terrorism. That’s bad enough. Worse, Putin’s move was premised on his belief that the agreement would remove Ukraine from Russia’s sphere of influence. Sure, it would have provided Ukraine with a foothold in Europe, and, yes, it would have diminished Ukraine’s international isolation in the long run, but a Yanukovych-misruled Ukraine would have remained firmly ensconced in Russia’s backyard for a long time to come.
After all, with the Association Agreement as his main claim to fame, Yanukovych would have probably been reelected in 2015; the penetration of Kyiv’s government by agents of the Kremlin would have remained high or gotten higher; and the presence of Russian propaganda, business, and other forms of “soft power” would have only grown. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s military would have continued to decay, Ukraine’s foreign policy would have remained unremittingly pro-Russian, and a large segment of the Ukrainian population would have stayed ambivalent about Ukraine’s independence. The Europeans, meanwhile, and Germany in particular, would have remained indifferent to Ukraine. What’s not to like from the Kremlin’s point of view? A smart Russian president would have encouraged Yanukovych to sign the agreement with Brussels.
Alas, when it comes to Ukraine, Putin’s IQ takes a nosedive. Having sparked the Euro Revolution, having destroyed his pal Yanukovych, having embarked on the idiotic Crimean adventure, and having supported terrorism in the Donbas, Putin has forced Ukraine to become independent, democratic, and pro-Western. He’s forced it to develop an army and security apparatus. He’s forced the population to take sides and discover its Ukrainian identity—and pride. He’s forced the government to streamline the state apparatus. He’s forced elites to embrace democracy. And he’s forcing them to embark on radical economic reform and administrative decentralization. Faced with Putin’s aggression, Ukraine has no choice but to embody all the qualities—democracy, rule of law, tolerance, a functioning market economy—that Putin systematically destroys.
Worse still for Putin, his imperialism is driving Ukrainian elites to seek refuge in Western security institutions. Half a year ago, the elite and popular consensus in Ukraine was distinctly anti-NATO.
The West, meanwhile, was suffering from “Ukraine fatigue” and had little interest in Ukraine as a strategic partner. Now, everything’s changed. Ukraine is the darling of the West, and Ukrainian public opinion on NATO is shifting.
Amazingly, Putin appears to think that, by supporting terrorism in eastern Ukraine, he can compel Ukraine to back away from the West. The effect, as any schoolboy confronted by a bully could have told him, is just the opposite. Faced with a hostile Russia, Ukraine has no choice but to turn westward. And, thanks to Putin’s treachery and mendacity, a democratic Ukraine will never again be the close, and fawning, partner of Russia that it was until a few months ago. Since Putin cannot be trusted, whatever deal Kyiv eventually signs with Moscow will at best establish a condition of formally peaceful relations between hostile neighbors (“cold peace”) or informally belligerent relations between hostile neighbors (“cold war”). Warily peaceful relations following a “de-annexation” of Crimea and recognition of Kyiv (“hot peace”) will be impossible as long as Putin remains in power.
For the time being, most Russians are still too bedazzled by Putin’s Tarzan yells to realize that he’s lost Ukraine irrevocably—and may be in the process of losing Russia. When they wake up to the reality of his “harebrained” blunders, Putin will discover that his sky-high ratings are as ephemeral as his swings on the vine are a pathetic pose.