Replacing a corrupt oligarchy with a reformist democracy is such a good idea that Ukraine does it every couple of years. You might call it a balanced constitution: Democracy ensures change, oligarchy continuity. This May’s elections, which brought to power the billionaire chocolatier and television magnate Petro Poroshenko, were occasioned by a winter of urban protest in the capital of Kiev, to which the United States and much of the European Union lent moral support. After dozens were killed on Kiev’s main square, the Maidan, in February, Viktor Yanukovych, the corrupt but elected president, fled the country. Russian president Vladimir Putin, Yanukovych’s ally and sponsor, declared the historically Russian and strategically indispensable Crimean peninsula Russian territory again, after a hasty referendum. And a war was launched by Russian-sympathizing Ukrainians in three eastern provinces.
President Obama, who has been taunting Putin for months, now finds himself in a pickle. For Putin, events in Ukraine are a matter of national survival. Ukraine is right next-door. It has 45 million people in it. It has long been the home of Russia’s warm-water navy. But Obama and the leaders of the 28-nation European Union are, diplomatically as well as geographically, all over the map—from Poland, which sees countering Russian power as its top foreign-policy priority, to Bulgaria, which depends on Russia for close to 100 percent of its oil and gas.
The United States and the EU passed pro forma sanctions in March, after Russia annexed Crimea. But in the flurry of European summits on the eve of the seventieth anniversary of D-Day, Obama had a hard time rallying allies. London-based BP has just signed a big shale-oil deal with Russia’s state oil company, Rosneft. France spent the winter boasting about its willingness to cancel the sale of two advanced Mistral warships to Russia, contrasting its principled stance with Britain’s indulgence of Russia’s oligarchic elites in London. But then French president François Hollande took a look at his country’s economic statistics and decided to make the deal anyway. (Before D-Day, Hollande had separate state dinners for Putin and Obama on the same night.) Since Angela Merkel’s decision in 2011 to phase out nuclear power, Germany has grown more dependent on Russian energy. These considerations have gone over the head of Washington, which has constructed its diplomacy as if the West were still united, confident, and economically invulnerable.
In the quarter-century since the breakup of the Soviet Union, corruption has been, as one Western diplomat puts it, the “alpha and omega” of Ukrainian politics. An oligarchy was born out of communism’s fall, much as it was in Russia. Insiders took advantage of “privatization” to corner natural resources, industrial plants, and the networks that went with them. The mineral- and coal-rich Donbass region (named after the basin of the river Donets) became the main center of the country’s magnates, who have succeeded in befouling national politics. According to Transparency International, Ukraine is the most corrupt place in Europe, ranking 144th of 177 countries in the world. State authorities often do not meter the flow of gas through Ukrainian territory, making siphoning and overcharging possible. Ukraine’s government estimates $70 billion has been stolen from state coffers over the past three years.
By the time Viktor Yanukovych was chased from power four months ago, his Party of the Regions was seen as the party of one region—the Donbass—and the symbol of the corruption that went on there. But things were more complicated than that, because corruption was national, and Yanukovych had a genuine power base. The “Orange Revolution” of 2004 happened when a court ruled Yanukovych’s election victory over reformer Viktor Yushchenko had been fraudulent. Into the bargain, someone had poisoned the handsome Yushchenko in the course of the campaign, horribly disfiguring him. A re-vote produced an 8-point margin for Yushchenko, but he could not do without Yanukovych. Eventually Yushchenko made Yanukovych prime minister. Yushchenko’s Orange Revolution ally and rival, the charismatic Yulia Tymoshenko, lost to Yanukovych in the 2010 elections, which international observers have called free and fair. Tymoshenko, who began as a reformer, herself sought out political contact with oligarchs in both Ukraine and Russia.
Yanukovych was friendly to Russia. He carried on the post-Cold War tradition of accepting rock-bottom rates on Russian gas and oil as payment in kind for Russia’s continued use of its naval base at Sebastopol on the Crimean peninsula, first built for the czars in the 18th century. Yet Yanukovych was not categorically opposed to Westernization, nor can he be dismissed as a post-Soviet stooge. He called for Ukraine to enter NATO. He favored closer
ties to the European Union, despite a manifest unwillingness on the part of the EU to offer him full membership. And last fall he came this close to signing an “association agreement” that would have harmonized Ukrainian trade rules with the EU’s (and thus disharmonized them with Russia’s). Only when Vladimir Putin offered a similar deal that included $15 billion in incentives did Yanukovych reject the EU deal. That is what brought everybody into the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or “Independence Square.”
Protesters spent all of last winter there, and by the time they were done, the Maidan had given its name to a new revolution. The Maidan has brought opportunities and risks for everyone: Ukrainians, obviously, but also the Russians who wound up gaining territory from it and the Americans who hope to use it as a springboard to a new European security architecture. The Maidan was not a movement of civil disobedience. It was at least in part an armed uprising. On February 18, on the eve of Yanukovych’s hurried departure by helicopter from his tacky palace, 26 people were killed in the Maidan, 10 of them police. Even in late May, armed irregulars were walking among the tourists, the kvass carts, and the still-standing barricades of tires and sandbags.
What triumphed was a new regime better disposed to the European Union and the United States than that of the ambivalent Yanukovych. Westerners can applaud it on these grounds. But they should not applaud it on grounds of principle. The Wall Street Journal editorialized in the wake of Poroshenko’s win that “Ukrainians gave Europe a democracy lesson.” That is, to put it politely, inattentive. The Maidan Revolution overthrew a democracy. Yanukovych was corrupt—though not more so than most Ukrainian leaders since the Cold War ended. He was unpopular—though not more so than France’s François Hollande, or even Barack Obama in certain parts of the United States. And if, according to the New York Times, he left the treasury “bare,” it is hard to point to any Western treasuries that are flush.
It is good that, under international pressure, the Ukrainian caretaker government chose to hold elections. Ukraine has held mostly democratic elections since 1991—but it has not done much else democratic. Until Ukraine can remove governments democratically as well as install them, we should reset to zero the dial on its status as a democratic nation. The late-May elections only put a fresh oligarchic face on the presidency and the Kiev mayor’s office. They did not replace the legislature, and legislative elections have not been scheduled, even though that was one of the uprising’s demands. The government that has run Ukraine for the past three months is dominated by forces associated with the Batkivshchyna party, led by the flaxen-haired firebrand Tymoshenko, whom Yanukovych defeated at the polls in 2010 and then jailed. The prime minister who led these Tymoshenkoite forces was Arseny Yatsenyuk, one of three leaders to come out of the Maidan.
The most popular of the three was Vitali Klitschko, the boxer, who renounced his WBC heavyweight championship in December and won the Kiev mayor’s race. The old system had not been kind to Klitschko: His father, who died of cancer in 2011, was a Soviet Air Force colonel assigned to help clean up the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in 1986. The most voluble of the three was the nationalist hothead Oleh Tyahnybok, whose Svoboda (formerly Social-National) party holds 37 seats in parliament. Tyahnybok was booted from Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine bloc during the 2004 election for his allusions to a “Moscow-Jewish mafia” and other such oratory. The present government has also relied on a brand-new nationalist movement called the Right Sector, bulletproof-vest-wearing representatives of which were hanging around a polling station in the city of Irbin on election day. They said they were providing security.
It is a staple of post-Maidan opinion that, once unshackled from corruption, Ukrainian society will naturally align itself with the West. David Ignatius of the Washington Post wrote in May that “Ukraine was set to join this movement toward the European Union last November when Yanukovych suddenly suspended trade and financial talks with the EU and accepted what amounted to a $15 billion bribe from Putin to stay in Russia’s camp.” This is the usual view—anything Europe offers Ukraine is a welcome invitation, and anything Russia offers is a corrupting bribe. In April, the West found itself matching Putin’s “bribe” in the form of a $17 billion IMF loan. As for NATO, in 2008, when Russia had just invaded Georgia, only 22 percent of Ukrainians favored membership in the Western alliance, while 53 percent opposed it, according to the Razumkov Center in Kiev.
It might seem obvious to Americans which world a reasonable Ukrainian would rather find himself in, but it has not been obvious to Ukrainians. Crimea was overwhelmingly Russian in both culture and allegiance even before Russia laid claim to it in February. Nikita Khrushchev handed its population over to Ukraine in 1954 in hopes of doing a good turn to (and appeasing) a country in which millions had starved under Stalin. Even if Russia’s redrawing of borders sets a destabilizing precedent, it also undoes one of the crimes of communism. It is a geopolitical absurdity to believe that Russia would ever allow Crimea to fall into the hands of a Ukrainian government sympathetic to a hostile West. The bulk of Russia’s naval power is based there. Poroshenko announced on taking office that Crimea would always be Ukrainian, but it is rare to meet a Ukrainian who will say in private that he believes this.
Russophones have always been a majority not just in the Donbass but also in the country’s biggest cities. Ukraine’s greatest writers—Vasily Grossman, Mikhail Bulgakov, Nikolai Gogol—wrote in Russian. Most radio, TV, and newspapers, almost all literary culture, and 90 percent of college courses are in Russian. Prominent Ukrainian politicians, including its second post-Cold War president, Leonid Kuchma, and Tymoshenko herself, have had to brush up on their Ukrainian or learn it from scratch, and many members of the parliament don’t speak it at all. You can say that, despite a common language and culture, Ukrainians have their own governing traditions, as Canadians do with respect to the United States. But that would not really be true. Ukraine is not Poland or Serbia. It endured the rule of the czars, suffered under the Communists, and since the end of the Cold War has been Europe’s laggard. That doesn’t give Moscow a right to rule Ukraine, but it gives Moscow a strong incentive not to see the place used as a base for those who wish Russia ill.
Poroshenko has a lot of strengths. He actually does speak Ukrainian. He made his fortune in chocolate, not natural resources, and has kept a relative distance from the Donbass power brokers, though he has connections to all of them. He served as a minister under both Tymoshenko and Yanukovych. He has weaknesses, too. He lacks a political party, although he is making use of UDAR, the reform-oriented force of which Klitschko is the most prominent member. Questions have been raised about Poroshenko’s integrity—he used to be called “Yushchenko’s wallet.”
Poroshenko’s options in fending off Russia are unclear. The Russophile rebels in the three eastern provinces are sophisticated, much better motivated than the central government, well enough armed to have neutralized Kiev’s air superiority, and probably aided by Moscow. Whatever the West may proclaim de jure, these three provinces are opting de facto for an alignment with Moscow, and thus far Kiev has managed to do little. The Ukrainian interior ministry is funding “national guard” units who have been seen in irregular combat garb. Pravy Sektor and Tyahnybok’s Svoboda party are sending volunteers there all the time. Tyahnybok claimed in an interview that his party had lost 19 dead and 193 wounded as of late May. But these men are not well enough trained or disciplined to counter the rebels along the Russian border. As one Ukrainian strategic expert put it in late May, “It is easy to say ‘I want to fight the Russians’ in the middle of Kiev.” The situation is in flux. Poroshenko has been shelling the stubborn Russophile city of Slavyansk, people have been fleeing, and the Ukrainian interior ministry announced on June 12 that three Russian tanks had crossed the border.
Of course, the West could aid Ukraine against the Russophile forces through shipments of arms or provision of military advisers. That would be reckless. Only if Putin had wide ambitions for territory, using the three eastern provinces as a beachhead, would such a move be worth the risk of escalation. One does not want to underestimate Putin, but he probably lacks the military resources for any larger imperial reconquest. His moves in Ukraine can be understood as defensive reactions to what he sees as an existential military threat on his country’s periphery, in a context of Western hostility. President Obama’s use of gay rights to rally the world against Russia during the Sochi Olympics was not a casus belli, of course. But it was surely taken as a declaration of contempt and enmity. World leaders do not often traffic in petty snubs.
There is always a nobility in the story of a plucky little nation striving to break free of a big one, but a number of illusions mar Ukrainian thinking. These illusions are widespread even inside the Ukrainian government. One is the idea that Ukraine’s role as a buffer state is not a misfortune of geography but a service to the world community for which, in a globalized economy, it deserves rent. A related idea is that Ukraine is owed a security guarantee in perpetuity for having given up “its” nuclear weapons under a much-alluded-to Budapest Memorandum, signed after the fall of communism. Of course, Ukraine as a political unit did not have nukes. It is where, under communism, the Soviet empire kept its nukes.
Modern-day Russia is not so fearsome as the old USSR. But there is one resource that Putin has in larger quantities than most of his interlocutors. This is legitimacy—which, of course, is not to be confused with liberality or punctiliousness or respect for international law. Putin is popular. When he speaks in the name of Russia, he does so confident of Russians’ backing. This doesn’t make him right. But Westerners should bear in mind that Russia is, politically speaking, a more unified and resolute place than the countries they usually tangle with. They should also bear in mind that there have been moments in the past decade when Putin has been the most popular politician in Ukraine.
Another Ukrainian misconception is that Western Europe is a charitable institution and that Ukraine’s misfortunes will now goad the West to reward it for years of kleptocracy and political chicanery with membership in NATO, the European Union, or both. True, favors were lavished on Albania after NATO finished its Kosovo war in 1999. But it is a different world now, and Ukrainians are building castles in the air. They point to a 2004 memo called the European Neighborhood Policy, which held out the prospect of visa-free travel to the EU if Ukraine’s government cleaned up its act. Although their country never made much progress on reforms, many Ukrainians assume that, under the circumstances, Europe will simply look the other way. But a rapprochement is farther off than ever, no matter what happens on trade. The recent EU elections gave big victories to parties up in arms about the influx of Eastern Europeans to Western Europe, most of them from Poland and the Baltic and Balkan countries. Ukraine is bigger and economically worse off than any of those places.
Ukraine has wound up on a fault line of an international system in which countries’ sovereignty extends only so far as they abide with the “values” of the “international community.” From a U.S. perspective, this community constitutes civilization and freedom. A Western diplomat in Kiev was heartened by the way Poroshenko had been “echoing [Joe] Biden’s talking points,” adding, “The first principle is to stay in lockstep with Europe.” From a Russian perspective, the international community consists of the demands of Western elites dressed up as neutral ground rules. Ukraine is caught between Western interlocutors who are seductive but untrustworthy and Russian ones who are rude but nearby. The country has few options and has poorly played the ones it has. It will not have much sovereignty, no matter which bloc it falls into. Ahead of it lies a choice between two post-Cold War ways of being what used to be called a “captive nation.”
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard. He did reporting for this piece on a study tour organized by the German Marshall Fund of the United States.