How the West – and Vladimir Putin – failed Ukraine

Russia's Vladimir Putin is a big factor in how the tragedy in Ukraine came about, former ambassador Jeremy Kinsman writes. But Western democracies aren't entirely blameless either for the way Ukrainian hopes have been dashed since independence.

Ukraine's challenges run deeper than most former Soviet satellites, the road ahead won't be easy

An aerial view shows Kyiv's Independence (Maidan) Square following some of the worst clashes between anti-government protesters and riot police on Wednesday. (Olga Yakimovich / Reuters)

There is much to learn from Ukraine's rocky ride from communism to its opposite, meaning an open democracy with a market economy.

That the trajectory has been uneven, with sharp setbacks on the way, should not be that surprising, since many in Central and Eastern Europe have experienced similar disappointment in their transitions.

However, Ukraine's challenges run deeper than most in that the country is divided between western Ukrainian speakers and eastern Russian speakers, each region with a collective memory of its cultural ties to the Hapsburg or Russian empires.

In the western part of the country, Ukrainians harbour a special bitterness over the fact that communist rule from Moscow was particularly crushing at times.

Still, the reconciliation of wary communities is possible in new democracies if the governing is inclusive, transparent and fair.

But just saying that doesn't make it happen. Citizens have to learn to behave democratically — from top to bottom.

In Ukraine's case, when the communist leadership declared independence in 1991, Western democracies, especially Canada, rushed to help — as we did in Russia and other countries seeking a democratic transition from communist rule.

I remember that period well. Canadians helped Ukraine in writing new laws.

We had lots of advice, but no experience in changing an economy and society from black to white.

Not rocket science

What we didn't understand properly was that, as democracy theorist Thomas Carothers has written, the rule of law resides within the heads of citizens more than in any new statutes.

The rule of law is a behaviour, not a process to be transferred like an assembly line. It takes time, and it has to come from the people concerned.

In Ukraine's case, the added problem was that the guys running the country only pretended to be democrats.

In 1994, a rocket scientist, Leonid Kuchma, won the first presidential election and governed for a decade alongside corrupt clans that ripped off the economic transition from state-run enterprises (much as what happened in Russia).

At the same time, a more democratic opposition was gaining a stronger voice. But state violence against investigating journalists — not unlike the street-clearing violence that we've seen in recent weeks — reflected a governing mindset of entitlement and intimidation.

When his term was up, Kuchma supported a fellow Russian speaker, then prime minister Viktor Yanukovych, to succeed him.

Yanukovych (the current president) was an uninspiring machine candidate taking on an insurgent Ukrainian nationalist, Viktor Yuschenko, a former central banker in the Soviet system.

That was when Russia's Vladimir Putin entered the play.

The fix was in

By 2004, the Russian president had dropped his early overtures to align Russia more closely with NATO and the U.S., and was set on creating an alternative Russian sphere of influence, in which Ukraine would be a key component.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych winks at his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin during a signing ceremony in Moscow in December to confirm Russia buying $15 billion worth of Ukrainian eurobonds, an economic lifeline to the cash-strapped Ukraine. (Reuters)

No democrat himself, Putin was nonetheless still popular at home and he had his administration tutor Yanukovych on how to fix an election.

The fix was in, but it was inept. After the vote, Ukrainians of all stripes gathered at Maidan Square, and in 17 days of highly disciplined peaceful mass protest forced through a re-run of the election that Yuschenko finally won.

That was the Orange Revolution. Kuchma had ordered his military commanders to use force on the protesters, but they refused to fire on fellow-citizens.

It was a classic example of how, if mass protest and civil disobedience can stay peaceful, and if the military doesn't shoot to kill, an insurgency has its best chance of success against an authoritarian regime.

Putin never understood what happened. Ever suspicious, he saw it as a Western-steered effort to co-opt Ukrainian groups so that they would organize protests to produce regime change.

Unable to comprehend the motivations of democrats back home, he couldn't accept that this was a bottom-up protest against blatant electoral fraud.

The tough road ahead

Fast-forward a decade to the present.

The Yuschenko period in office was mostly a disappointment, and Ukrainians were fed up enough, particularly by the recent world recession, which hit them hard, to vote Yanukovych to the presidency in 2010.

He had promised to be the president of all Ukrainians, but once in he cut sordid deals to get a parliamentary majority, and used that majority to strengthen his presidential powers.

He also launched vindictive prosecutions of former political opponents and cracked down on the media.

In press freedom, Ukraine slumped to 126th in the rankings of Reporters Without Borders, while Transparency International placed Ukraine near the bottom of corrupt economies and political systems.

For Putin, everything must have seemed familiar and normal.

But for many Ukrainians, especially the younger, post-Soviet generation, this was not at all what they were expecting.

Two protesters in Kyiv make their way out of the clash zone Tuesday after riot police advanced on the main square at the heart of the 12-week protest against President Victor Yanukovych. (Vlad Sode / Reuters)

Already dispirited by narrowing economic opportunity, they compared how they were being governed to the European norms they believed were their due.

The closer economic relationship that the European Union offered Ukraine last year appealed to this group especially because it would lock their country into a process of political reform.

When Yanukovych, confronting dire economic facts, chose instead to swing back into Moscow's economic orbit, the young — and many older Ukrainians, too — again occupied the Maidan in Kyiv, in the spirit of the Orange Revolution.

This time, though, nonviolence has not prevailed.

And while there are undoubtedly some extreme nationalist elements involved in the protest, inclined to force the issue by a more violent insurgency, Yanukovych himself, having met with Putin in Sochi, seems similarly determined to save his regime by whatever means it takes.

In the coming days and weeks, the drama will play out.

European leaders will no doubt intervene to seek a negotiated solution. U.S. leaders will warn Yanukovych about the consequences of using deadly force. Economic sanctions will be threatened. Putin will rant and rage about "Western manipulation and interference."

I am certain that the people will prevail and win their democracy, though we know now that the road is long, steep and winding, a journey not made for the faint of heart.


Jeremy Kinsman

Diplomatically speaking

Jeremy Kinsman is a former Canadian ambassador who served as High Commissioner to the U.K., and as ambassador to the Russian Federation and the European Union. He is co-author of the Diplomat's Handbook for Democracy Development Support by CIGI.