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Ukraine on the Edge

The latest news from Ukraine is not heartening to those who stand with Ukrainian reformers’ demands for a restoration of decency, legality, and probity in their country’s public life.

Interim prime minister Serhiy Arbuzov is making ominous noises about buildings’ in Kiev having to be cleared by Sunday. Reports of activity by Russian special forces behind the scenes and around the country continue to leak out to the West. Ukrainian news sources report plans by the Yanukovych regime to cordon off the parts of Kiev surrounding the Maidan movement’s central encampment on Independence Square. After a 48-hour flap over some intemperate remarks about the European Union by U.S. assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland (a verbal bomb pulled out of the ether and leaked, almost certainly, by Yanukovych’s friends in Moscow), there seems to have been a lull in both U.S. and EU pressure on the Yanukovych regime and the Ukrainian oligarchs who help keep the regnant kleptocracy in power. Just a few days ago, the house of an independent journalist in Odessa was burned down. And while some provisions of the anti-NGO laws rammed through the Ukrainian parliament by Yanukovych’s people were rescinded on January 22, Ukrainian NGOs that have received support from U.S. sources are now being investigated for “money laundering.”

Thus the tense standoff in Ukraine — between a corrupt government that has come to embody everything reformers don’t want in their country and a reform movement that has yet to coalesce around a leader or leaders who can articulate a feasible path from the unacceptable present to a better future — seems to be coming to a friction point once again. And while fears that Vladimir Putin would use the Olympics as a blind behind which to “restore order” among his “brothers” in Ukraine have abated, February 23, when the Sochi winter games will end, is another date causing grave concern. Diplomats in Kiev, however, are worried that Yanukovych and his own thugs may resort to violence again before that.

With Ukraine poised on a dagger’s edge, a review of what has happened in the twelve weeks since the Maidan movement first burst onto public attention last November 21, and a sketch of the issues now most urgently in need of resolution in the short term if Ukraine’s European future is to have any prospect of long-term success, is in order.

What began on November 21, 2013, as a Kiev- and western-Ukraine–based protest against the Yanukovych government’s decision to withdraw from the process of accession to the European Union and the regime’s decision to take an economic bailout from Putin’s Russia (which had been lobbying hard, and often viciously, against Ukraine’s EU aspirations) has transformed itself into a broad national movement for civil renewal: a transformation perhaps best described by Greek Catholic bishop Borys Gudziak on Vatican Radio as a transition from a “Euromaidan to a Maidan of dignity.” The issue is no longer “joining Europe,” in the narrow sense of gaining access to European markets, jobs, and consumer goods; the issue is “joining Europe” in the sense of joining a zone of law-governed democracies in which elementary civil liberties are respected and public affairs are conducted in a dignified manner, for the common good rather than personal gain. That morally driven form of “joining Europe” is an explicit rejection of the “managed democracy” of Putin’s Russia, which the Ukrainian reformers know to be a kleptocracy of oligarchs with a monopoly of political, economic, and media power, indulging fantasies of Great Russian imperialism while the society beneath them rots away with the worst public-health problems west of the Urals. (It is also, implicitly, a challenge to “Europe” to rediscover and reclaim the moral patrimony of the EU, whose founding fathers in the post–World War II period did not imagine it to be simply a set of mutually advantageous economic arrangements.)

The Maidan movement has also changed geographically and demographically. Once centered on western Ukraine and the capital of Kiev, the movement for civil renewal and reform has now established itself in parts of central and eastern Ukraine, not without difficulty, but with considerable tenacity. Entrepreneurs and small-business owners are also more evident in the Maidan movement today than they were late last year.

What has not changed about the movement, and what is both impressive in itself and a potential weakness for the near future, is that the movement is completely self-organizing. There is no “power vertical,” and the movement follows no one political leader. There are three political-party leaders with international media visibility, but there is no Lech Walesa or Vaclav Havel on the horizon in Ukraine at the moment.

Those who have stayed for nearly three months in the Maidan’s encampments in central Kiev, and those who have established similar resistance centers in other parts of the country, have withstood freezing weather and regime brutality by means of self-organized self-defense. At one of the chief Maidan posts in Kiev, on Hrushevskoho Street, a defensive perimeter has been organized by a Jewish Ukrainian with counterterrorism experience in the Israeli Defense Forces. Other Ukrainian veterans of either the old Red Army or the post-1991 Ukrainian military have put themselves in harm’s way again to offer similar expertise. And while these efforts have, for some weeks now, been keeping the brutal Ukrainian special forces and their hired hooligans at bay, other Maidan leaders have organized meals, housing (in tents), and medical care for the reformers (who stopped going to local hospitals after wounded activists were kidnapped there by the regime, with some later found dead in the woods).

One final point should be stressed, in trying to understand the composition and challenges of this complex, self-organizing, emergent civil society. There are, indeed, what Western reporters are pleased to call “ultra-nationalists” protesting the current regime. A few of them display anti-Semitic attitudes. But only a few. The notion that the Maidan movement is riddled with anti-Semitic right-wing crazies is, Ukrainians believe (and sensible Westerners ought to, as well), a classic example of Russian agitprop being swallowed by a gullible Western media. The former IDF man who organized the defenses on Hrushevskoho Street said that, while he has dealt on the barricades with people “I would probably not see eye-to-eye with during peaceful times,” he has not found “even a hint” of the classic anti-Semitic attitude of “we” (the real Ukrainians) and “they” (the Jews).

That former Israeli soldier summed up the Maidan movement in these terms, which, in their combination of realism and moral earnestness, serve as well as any to describe what has been happening since last November in Ukraine:

Like the majority of people, I came to Maidan not “for” something but “against” something — in general, society is easier consolidated around protesting slogans. But . . . people’s deaths became a Rubicon. That was the moment I realized I had to join the people on Hrushevskoho. . . .

I do not idealize the protest movement, nor do I know if a new civil nation is currently being born on Maidan, but I am very impressed with a number of processes. For over 20 years Ukraine was viewed as a relatively artificial formation with . . . superficial attributes of statehood — people did not feel proud of their country. . . . Nobody expected that, nine years after the Orange Revolution, after a full disappointment, people would find the strength to rise again. . . . There is little doubt that the spirit of freedom and unity is concentrated in Maidan in abundance. Just go around the barricades — it has been a long time since we have seen such responsibility. I remember how people would walk by a person that fell on the street in the past. And suddenly a civil self-conscience appeared — people who work all day stay on Maidan all night, carving out a couple of hours for sleep. . . .

At the end of the day, living in this country has been worth it — because we’ve lived to see the Maidan. . . . And if after all these events people have not lost their human face, then we have matured and we have a future.

The threat of one form or another of Russian intervention, either to prop up Yanukovych or to replace him with another Ukrainian leader who would dance to the tune being piped from the Kremlin, remains a major concern of Ukrainian reformers. Their concerns are not unfounded.

Russian policy analysts and politicians close to Putin talking about “finding a solution to the Ukrainian question” and have, on occasion, openly used the term Anschluss (which one might have thought had been barred from polite Russian society some 70 years ago). Russian state TV hosts discussions of Ukraine as a “failed state” whose alleged failure opens the door to “the reunification of the Russkiy mir [Russian space].” Sergei Glazyev, a Putin crony, has on several occasions accused the U.S. of “arming” Ukrainian “rebels,” and other Russian officials have publicly stated that American efforts in support of the Ukrainian reform movement are in violation of post–Cold War agreements about “non-interference.”

Putin would seem to have four options vis-à-vis Ukraine.

The first would be to try to effect full control over Ukraine via an acquiescent Ukrainian president operating under the strong-president/weak-parliament constitutional changes made by the Yanukovych regime; yet it is unlikely that Putin, the Chekist who despises the petty thief Yanukovych, imagines the incumbent Ukrainian president in that role.

Option 2 would be to work through various means to impose a “federal solution” in Ukraine, with power devolved to the regions and Russian control over the Russophone areas of the south and east; this gambit may have been forestalled, or at least made more difficult, by the emergence of Maidan movements in those areas. Option 3, which is really Option 2.5, would be for Russia to control the major cities, and thus the industry, in the south and east (Odessa, Donetsk, Lugansk) plus the Crimea, which may face the same difficulties as Option 2.0. And Option 4, the fallback, would be Russian control of the Crimean peninsula and especially the city of Sevastopol, which is essential for the Russian Black Sea fleet.

One canary in the mineshaft for measuring Russian obsessions and ambitions in Ukraine is the attitude taken by Russian leaders to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (which was forcibly suppressed by the Soviet state in 1946). In Brussels recently, Putin himself went out of his way at a press conference to attack “Greek priests” in “western Ukraine,” who are, by the Russian president’s lights, stirring up trouble. The “foreign minister” of the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, went Putin one better by publicly accusing Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests of inciting violence — a lie, but one that, given relationships between the Russian Orthodox leadership and the Kremlin (which have not materially changed since 1991) cannot have been displeasing to the Russian Church’s political masters. Thus one sign of Russian intentions to crank up serious pressure on Ukraine will be further Russian attacks on the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

Thus far, the Sochi Olympics have not been the occasion for a broadening and deepening of Russian mischief-making, or worse, in Ukraine. But the Olympics do not last forever (despite the impression created by endless luge runs). And Putin’s recent successes in getting his way in Syria and Iran, plus his previous success in bringing other former Soviet “republics” to heel without paying any significant international price, may embolden him to find that “solution to the Ukraine question” of which his minions openly speak, and to restore what he and many other Russians regard as the right order of things after the last snowboarders and biathletes have bid farewell to Sochi.

There is no solution that does justice to the legitimate aspirations of the reform movement in Ukraine that will satisfy Putin; there is no solution that will satisfy Putin that does not involve some form or another of betrayal of the Maidan movement. It would be well if Western governments would concentrate their minds on this elementary, binary fact of geopolitical life — and prepare to forestall Putin’s geopolitical gambit, which, if successful, would lead, sooner or later, to another Cold War.

The Maidan movement has not yet managed to find either a single leader who can command respect and guide the movement in a single, concerted effort at change, or a real-world program for the radical change that all in the movement want. Amidst the swirl of personal and social forces in the Maidan movement, however, some seeming non-negotiables have emerged.

House arrests, house-burnings, kidnappings, beatings, car-burnings, and other forms of intimidation must cease.

Ukraine must return to the strong parliamentary model of its 2004 constitution. Or, as some movement activists have put it, there can be “no king” in Ukraine.

All political prisoners must be released, and those who have been involved in the kidnapping, torture, beating, and murder of Maidan activists must be brought to justice.

All aspects of the anti-civil-society laws passed on January 16 and semi-rescinded on January 22 must be fully repealed.

Viktor Yanukovych must go.

Beyond those basic points, there seems little agreement. Some argue for trying to find a “soft landing” for Yanukovych, with a technocratic government brought in to deal with the country’s financial and economic crisis (by securing major assistance from the EU and the U.S.) and to pass constitutional reforms, with accelerated parliamentary and presidential elections to follow. Others have no intention of letting Yanukovych off the hook, as they perceive any “soft landing” would do, and those same activists tend to think the technocratic-transitional-government scenario plays into Yanukovych’s hands by ascribing to him continued legitimacy.

Then there is the question of how to deal with the Ukrainian oligarchs who have some degree of sway with Yanukovych. At a minimum, some Ukrainians of experience suggest, Western slowdowns and increased security checks on financial transactions and international travel by these half-dozen men might concentrate their minds on putting pressure on Yanukovych to start serious negotiations with the opposition. Still other activists argue that using the oligarch lever on Yanukovych is playing by the old rules that the Maidan movement is determined to replace.

The “underwhelming” performance of the most visible opposition leaders is, according to other activists, one major obstacle to any forward movement in a situation that is unlikely to stay in its present state of tense stasis indefinitely — especially after the world’s eyes turn from Sochi and the surrounding neighborhood.

It all seems increasingly more difficult. It certainly is becoming more dangerous. And yet one comes back, at the end, to the people of the Maidan, their determination and their integrity. That is why this brief, Maidan-produced video is worth watching time and again:

This article was originally published on National Review Online

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