During the half-a-year since the courageous students in the Maidan dared to declare “enough!” and to sound the clarion call to national revolution, we have witnessed: the heroic resistance to, and overthrow of, a corrupt, cynical, and in essence anti-Ukrainian regime; the immediate back-lash from the ancient regime’s backers in the Kremlin aimed at denying Ukraine’s right as a sovereign nation to self-determination, both internally in terms of its democratic choice, and externally as regards self-identification and alignment with the Euro-Atlantic community of states and their values; and, annexation via brutal force, subterfuge and a pseudo-referendum of Crimea, and the replication of these vile methods, with a similar anti-Ukrainian aim, in the Donbas.
Poised as we are between what has already happened, the known, and the unknown – Putin’s further actions, the Ukrainian presidential and parliamentary elections being able to proceed and their results, the response of the outside world, and the mood and resolve of the people of Ukraine in these critical times – I want to draw attention to what I consider is the most important new element and challenge which has emerged and established itself as the new axiom in contemporary Ukrainian-Russian and regional relations, and which has major implications for peace and security in Europe, and for international affairs more broadly.
Ukraine, through its recent national revolution, has said yes to the family of free nations making up modern Europe and affirmed its identification with it, and its values; this means an emphatic “no thank you” to Russian-promoted Eurasian schemes, Russian tutelage, and the Putin model of governance, if that is the right term. Even more bluntly, this translates into the latest rejection in Ukraine’s history of Russian hegemony, of the Oriental despotic and imperialist model which Putin’s regime is merely the latest version, and affirmation of Ukraine’s enduring sense of being distinctive, European, and wanting to be free.
It is a continuation of Ukraine’s long struggle to be recognized as an independent state and secure conditions in which the simultaneous processes of state and nation-building could be completed. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and achievement of independence in 1991 it seemed that the requisite situation had been achieved. But now, suddenly, all this has been placed in question and Ukraine has been confronted yet again with questions and challenges which it seemed had been resolved once and for all.
We are again confronted with unfinished business left over not so much from 1991 – when the transition from dependence to independence was achieved surprisingly painlessly because of the exceptional conditions prevailing at that time, but change in form was not accompanied by a thorough replacement of content – as from 1917-20.
Russia needed to come to terms with its new diminished status after the collapse of the Soviet Union and, despite friction with Moscow over Crimea and the future of the Black Sea Fleet, Kravchuk and Kuchma were able to lay the groundwork with Yeltsin for good-neighbourly bilateral relations based on pragmatism and mutual respect. Russia’s current leader, Vladimir Putin, however, has made no secret of his hostility towards a genuinely independent Ukraine. The former KGB officer made evident his abhorrence of the Orange Revolution and what it represented and subsequently even went as far as to question before US President George Bush Ukraine’s right to exist as a state.
Some see Stalin as Putin’s source of inspiration for restoring Russia’s greatness, but he himself has indicated that he is an admirer of Denikin, one of the leaders of the White movement, who had championed the cause of “Russia, one and indivisible” and had been an implacable foe of Ukrainian independence and of the non-Russian national movements generally. Whether or not, as some believe, Putin had plans years ago to partition Ukraine and use Russian-speakers in neighbouring states to restore a greater Russia, it is clear that the existence of a Ukrainian state which does not identify itself with Russia rankled him.
While Yanukovych was in control in Kyiv, Putin could live with a Ukraine slowly but surely being brought back into Russia’s political and cultural orbit. He also had a powerful lever at his disposal – Ukraine’s dependence on energy supplies from Russia. Although Yanukovych raised expectations among Ukraine’s hopeful population of developing a partnership with the EU, Putin was gratified to see concrete steps taken by the regime in Kyiv to undo what had been achieved during the years of independence and to dilute the state’s “Ukrainian” content, e.g. in the official policies regarding the treatment of Ukrainian history (the Holodomor, and approach to World War II), the status of the Ukrainian language, the de facto pre-eminence afforded the Moscow Patriarch, and drawing closer to membership in the Eurasian economic bloc.
But when the Maidan and Yanukovych’s heavy-handed response triggered a veritable national revolution in Ukraine which swept away the regime, Putin was faced with something even more inimical for him than the Orange Revolution – the emergence of a new, regenerated and self-cleansed Ukraine, democratic and western oriented – and in which the Ukrainian had finally overcome the Little Russian. It was not the fear of democratic contagion from Ukraine and challenge which this might have eventually created as regards his own power which spurred him to take drastic counter-measures – but the realization that the re-emergence of a genuinely independent Ukraine undermined his vision of things and schemes for a restoring a greater Russia and consolidating a Eurasian hegemony.
Thus, in defiance of the international order, Putin has not only effectively declared war on the new Ukraine, but also renewed the war of the tsars and the commissars against the very idea of an independent Ukraine. Just as the defenders of Ukraine’s liberties were in the past branded as traitors, foreign agents, extremists and criminals, be they Mazepists, Petliurites, national deviationists, Banderites, or dissidents, Putin has publicly demonized today’s Ukrainian patriots as extremist, fascists and agents of the West. Though his reckless historical revisionism, scarcely disguised chauvinism and aggression, he has sought to reverse history and is forcing us and others to relive it.
Just as in 1918 Ukrainians are again faced with the harsh truths about the nature of their “brotherly” neighbour and the cost of freedom, and in Russia Bulgakov’s crude depiction of the defenders of Ukrainian independence as neo-barbarian hordes which Russians, whether Red or White, must unite together to destroy, is once more being officially endorsed and projected in the state-controlled media. Issues and weaknesses that were apparent a century ago have re-emerged: weak central government; the lack of a strong army and reliance on improvised defence by patriotic volunteers, or Kruty syndrome; and, the persistence of a significantly large alienated segment of the population in the south-east which has still not been won over and where now, as then, local “independent republics” are being established “with Russian bayonets”.
But there are major differences, too, which brighten this gloomy picture. With the exception of mainly the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, loyalty to Ukraine is stronger today than at any time in the country’s history. Most importantly, this is evident among the young generation of Ukrainians for whom the Orange Revolution, and especially the Maidan, have been defining moments; in Kyiv, which has become a veritable capital of Ukrainian national life and a “hero city” of the Ukrainian Revolution; and in regions, such as Sumy, Poltava, Dnipropetrovsk and Odesa where there has been substantial support for Ukraine’s renewal. In fact, the dramatic events of the last months have galvanized the population of Ukraine and helped create a greater sense of unity transcending linguistic, ethnic and religious differences. It has united Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, Crimean Tatars and others on the basis of a shared commitment to the creation of a new Ukraine based on democracy, inclusive civic nationalism and a European orientation. And of course, unlike in 1918-19, Ukraine is not isolated internationally and has the strong backing of most of the key Euro-Atlantic powers and within the OSCE, NATO and the United Nations.
Even with the dubious trophies of Crimea and perhaps the Donbas exacted from a weakened post-revolutionary Ukraine, Putin is unlikely to be satisfied. He and his regime, and the latter-day Black Hundreds which they have regenerated and unleashed, make no effort to disguise their hostility towards an independent Ukraine and that they will use all their means to subvert and destroy it. This new reality – the restoration of a traditional feature of official Russian policy towards Ukraine which one had assumed had been overtaken by time – has grave longer-term implications, and not only for Ukraine, which even with the territorial losses it faces is likely eventually to emerge stronger and better able to defend itself.
The renewed battle for Ukraine along Europe’s geopolitical fault-line will remain a source of instability, insecurity and distrust. Ultimately, it also represents a struggle between competing value systems and political civilizations reminiscent of the old Cold War, though it is increasingly becoming a manifestation of a new one. The tectonic movements after the geo-political earthquake created by the collapse of the Soviet Union are still making themselves felt.