It was a year or two before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. I was sitting in the kitchen of a small, second-floor apartment in the Thuringian town of Ilmenau, when my friend’s mother turned pensive and pointed out the window to a hill nearby. In 1945, Frau Loebner explained, American soldiers arrived one day, pitched their tents and seemed to settle in. A few days later, Soviet soldiers arrived and did the same. A few days after that, the Americans left. Only later would this woman and her family discover that they had been fated to live their lives on the wrong side of the East-West German border.
In Ukraine today there seems to be an awareness for many that the country is at a turning point. There’s much talk of a divide between western and eastern Ukraine. But the so-called pro-Russian Eastern part—which comprises about a third of the nation’s territory—is more complicated than some commentators would have it.
In 1991, while support was indeed weaker there, all of Ukraine supported national independence. There’s no evidence today that eastern Ukraine wants to leave Ukraine to join the Russian Federation. There’s every indication across Ukraine of broad, if uneven and in some places shallow, support for Ukraine’s integration with Europe and the West.
Municipalities across Ukraine have been renaming streets to honor heroes of the Maidan. Businessmen in Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine are providing billboards—with the permission of local authorities—to honor the victims of the police crackdown in their area. Southeast of Kiev, the Dnipropetrovsk city council has renamed Lenin Square the Heroes of Maidan Square. One of the first people killed, before the major crackdown in February, was Serhiy Nihoyan, a Ukrainian of Armenian descent from the Dnipropetrovsk region. It seems to be a fairly diverse lot that supports this revolution. Ukrainian sociologist Iryna Bekeshkina has conducted surveys that indicate a majority of young people, including in eastern Ukraine, favor association with the EU. In “belonging to Europe,” young Ukrainians see for their future rule of law, freedom, and prosperity—and escape from corruption, cronyism, and authoritarian rule.
How do we help these young democrats? First, manage expectations. At the time of Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” in late 2004, spirits soared. There was swooning among pundits and NGOs. George W. Bush spoke of a “powerful example of democracy for people around the world.” Soon, though, there was dismay over Kiev’s gridlocked parliament, deferred reforms, and the incompetence and corruption of Ukraine’s new Orange leadership.
There is no Vaclav Havel in Ukraine. Certainly not in the person of Yulia Tymoshenko, the multi-millionaire former prime minister, who came to prominence during the Orange Revolution and who was recently released after more than two years in prison. The charismatic and ambitious Tymoshenko was seen as a threat by the departed Yanukovych regime. But of Yulia today, the mantra among activists is, “We’re glad you’re out, now leave us alone.” Tymoshenko was actually booed while on stage at a rally in Kiev.
Ukraine’s opposition is not unified. The revolution is not over. And there will be nothing “velvet” about it. A new government will not find it easy to tear itself away from oligarch money and the corruption that is part and parcel of Ukrainian life at all levels. Bret Stephens asks in the Wall Street Journal, “How does a nation become self-governing when so much of ‘self’ is so rotten?” That may go too far. Still, investing in democratic reform in Ukraine will require sticking for the long-term, bracing for inevitable bumps, and accepting serious blemishes.
The first step? President Obama must get over what Peter Baker in the New York Times terms his “clinical detachment” toward Ukraine. The country needs emergency financial assistance if it’s to avoid economic collapse. The United States can help, including by pressing for much-needed economic reform. The administration certainly can augment democracy and civil society assistance to Kiev. Congress is already working to redirect $150 million in aid to democracy assistance in Ukraine. That’s a start. Freedom House president David Kramer says the greatest specific need may be to help Ukraine prepare for presidential elections at the end of May. The United States should insist, adds Kramer, that Ukrainians focus “on justice and not retribution” for former regime members.
For the longer term, it’s time for American businesses in Ukraine to wrap as many exchange programs and internships as possible into their “corporate social responsibility” strategies there. Universities, think tanks, and foundations need to step up in similar ways. It’s critical to invest in Ukraine’s human capital. It’s also high time to help Ukrainians lessen their country’s dependence on Russian natural gas. To that end, Chevron signed an agreement with the Ukrainian government last fall, committing $350 million to explore for shale gas.
Second, we need to grasp with realism the full extent of Russia’s connection and influence. Many Russians still believe that their country and Ukraine should belong to a single unitary state. Russian czars were buried in Kiev over the centuries. The 1654 Treaty of Pereyaslav, viewed by Ukrainians as the start of Russian domination, is seen by most Russians as the restoration of territories torn apart by the Mongol invasions of the 13th century. There are undeniably strong linguistic, cultural, and historical ties between the two countries.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin exploits this. Note Moscow’s promise of passports to Ukrainians in the east, causing concern among activists that the Kremlin may eventually use as a pretext for military intervention the excuse that it is acting to protect “its citizens.” Note the Kremlin’s formidable information and media campaign depicting Ukraine’s opposition as thugs, armed extremists, and neo-Nazis. Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev denounced Ukraine’s leader Viktor Yanukovych as a “doormat,” when Moscow’s erstwhile ally failed to crack down on protesters.
Putin’s fear of democratization in Ukraine is not entirely irrational. Opposition leader and former Russian prime minister Boris Nemtsov says the conditions that led to Yanukovych’s ouster in Ukraine are all present in Russia.
As a result, the Kremlin is likely to use all means necessary to keep turmoil at least on a low boil in Ukraine—while publicly calling for stability, unity, and restraint from all sides. Russia plays a strong hand. Business ties are deep. Russian intelligence is likely as active in Ukraine as it is anywhere outside the territory of the Russian Federation. And the country has in reserve its ultimate weapon of soft power. In addition to Kiev’s own dependence, Russia provides approximately a quarter of the natural gas used by EU countries, with roughly 80 percent of those exports traveling through pipelines across Ukraine.
All this means that our Ukraine policy is also Russia policy. U.S. assertiveness—robust democracy and civil society assistance—will have to be balanced with tactical restraint. It’s the wrong time to push NATO accession, which would only validate Russian propaganda about the alliance wanting “to annex” Ukraine. The Kremlin’s information campaign should be exposed for what it is—cunning, manipulative, deceitful propaganda. And we need to answer all this with what we do best, by providing accurate, reliable news and information through the programming of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America. The free flow of information and ideas is oxygen for civil society, and broadcasting is American soft power at its best. Still, we must realize that all of this is part of the long game. There will be no quarterly dividends or short-term return on investment.
“Russia isn’t going anywhere,” says Chris Walker, a senior executive at the National Endowment for Democracy. Which is why, Walker argues, we must also continue to play the long game in Russia, supporting democrats and civil society actors there as well. Indeed, a different kind of government in Moscow one day would mean a different relationship with Kiev.
Finally, we must recognize that this may be, finally, the hour of Europe. We’ve been seeing the hour of Poland, in any case. Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski has played a key leadership role, energetically supporting the pro-democracy movement, urging restraint from all sides, and insisting that the opposition remain in dialogue with Russia. This, while pro-Ukraine rallies have been held in a number of Polish cities, and wounded protesters from Kiev and elsewhere have been taken to Poland for medical treatment. “They are still taking people from Ukraine to Polish hospitals at no cost,” one activist tells me. There have been video appeals, decoration of Polish towns in yellow and blue Ukrainian flag colors, even acts of solidarity on the front line. Two Polish reporters, Tomasz Piechal and Pawel Pieniazek, were beaten by police at pro-democracy demonstrations in Kiev.
Never underestimate the power of gestures, the importance of symbols, and the capacity of a nation to remember later the vital support received in difficult periods. The Poles got this during the Cold War, and get this today. In times like these, the EU should open its doors very wide. A new government in Kiev should be able to fulfill quickly the EU’s conditions for signing the long-concluded Association Agreement. Full EU membership must be the endgame. Perhaps Warsaw can push Berlin to push the EU.
Let’s encourage the EU to lead. It actually seems so inclined. Brave and authentic cries for freedom are hard to ignore. Which is why it would be a betrayal of American ideals if, at such a moment, we failed to do our own part to help Ukrainians who are fighting for a freer, prosperous future.
Jeffrey Gedmin is a senior fellow at Georgetown University and a former president and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.