Continuing comment and reporting by New York Review contributors.
The scale of the devastation suffered by Ukrainian forces in southeastern Ukraine has to be seen to be believed. On a sixteen-mile stretch of road from the village of Novokaterinivka to the town of Ilovaysk, I counted the remains of sixty-eight vehicles, in which a large but as yet unknown number of Ukrainian soldiers died trying to flee the area.
On May 29 the bodies of more than thirty men killed fighting Ukrainians on the outskirts of Donetsk were loaded into a truck and sent home to Russia. The truck, on which a red cross had been hastily painted and which normally delivers chilled food, said on the side: “Fresh produce, to serve you better.” Four days earlier Petro Poroshenko had been elected president of Ukraine by a crushing margin. Both events marked the beginning of a new chapter in the story of the battle for Ukraine.
Ukraine’s president-elect Petro Poroshenko has his work cut out for him. He needs to end the rebellion in the east, make deals with Ukraine’s powerful oligarchs, fend off a possible threat from Tymoshenko, shore up a sinking economy, and talk to the Kremlin. One Ukrainian journalist told me that some people in Kiev are thinking that it might be better to let the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk go.
On the European left, criticism of the purported fascism of the post-revolutionary government in Ukraine has been de rigeur. It can only be hoped that the Europe’s electoral results will open some eyes. The European left has a real problem, and it is not the Ukrainian far right. It is the European far right, which happens to be popular, and is supported by the Russian far right, which happens to be in power in Moscow.
As Ukrainians go to the polls to elect a new president, something strange is happening in the east. Its rebels, who a few weeks ago were triumphantly wrenching the region away from Kiev, now seem stalled; but without much sign that the government in Kiev is recapturing its lost authority. Rebel control is partial, but few are ready to risk being beaten, kidnapped, or worse to help run polling stations—or vote.
Ukrainian elections mark the eastern boundary of European democracy, which is why they are so threatening for Moscow. With a regularity that is clearly unwelcome, Ukrainians stand up for their rights. Ukraine has deep problems, which can best be addressed by fresh elections—the presidential ones on Sunday, and hopefully parliamentary elections this fall. Ukrainians should be allowed to get on with it.
Just as the rebels say that the government and the people who support it are fascists, the government says that all the rebels are terrorists—and in fact neither is true. Between a few in government with an extreme right-wing past and a few in rebel territory who have used extreme violence to seize power, the vast majority of people in the east are simply downtrodden and trapped.
There is nothing inevitable about the future course of the conflict in Ukraine. It is absolutely essential for Western governments to focus on what they can do to avoid war, preserve democracy, and keep Ukraine united.
Talk to people manning the anti-government barricades in eastern Ukraine, and one thing in particular is scary. They talk as though they were a long persecuted minority, as if they have forgotten that easterners under former president Viktor Yanukovych ran the country until February. All they seem to register is a hysterical drumbeat from Russia about the new Nazis of Kiev and their NATO masters.
In late April, traveling in eastern Ukraine, I was in the midst of its phony war. Threats were flying, ultimatums were delivered, and jets screamed low over the countryside. Trees were felled to block back roads, tires were piled up to build barricades, and men from backwater towns strutted with their guns, their lives suddenly seeming to have purpose. In eastern Ukraine, where neatly kept memorials commemorate the fallen of the great battles fought there by the Red Army during World War II, all the omens seemed to tell of war coming once again. But even at the eleventh hour it is not inevitable.
If you compare the post-Soviet bear to the Soviet one, the only thing they have in common is the imperial roar. However, the post-Soviet bear is teeming with corrupt parasites that infected it during the 1990s, and have multiplied exponentially in the last decade. They are consuming the bear from within. Some might mistake their fevered movement under the bear’s hide for the working of powerful muscles. But in truth, it’s an illusion. There are no muscles, the bear’s teeth have worn down, and its brain is buffeted by the random firing of contradictory neurological impulses.
To anyone who has followed the Kremlin closely over the years, its actions in Ukraine should not come as a great surprise. To the contrary, the recent events bear out longstanding policy aims of the Putin regime, which for years has worked to roll back US and European influence and rebuild its own suzerainty over post-Soviet states.
Just what does Russian President Vladimir Putin think he is doing in Crimea? The clues are there, in the language of the Kremlin’s non-stop propaganda campaign. The invasion was not a reaction to an actual threat, but rather an attempt to activate a threat so that violence would erupt that would change the world.
The toppling of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, an autocratic leader whose government was plagued by corruption, hits dangerously close to home for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The memory of large demonstrations in Moscow and continued allegations of Kremlin corruption are doubtless much on the minds of senior Putin advisers.
Whatever course the Russian intervention may take, it is not an attempt to stop a fascist coup, since nothing of the kind has taken place. What has taken place is a popular revolution, with all of the messiness, confusion, and opposition that entails. The young leaders of the Maidan, some of them radical leftists, have risked their lives to oppose a regime that represented, at an extreme, the inequalities that we criticize at home.
Ukraine is not a theater for the historical propaganda of others or a puzzle from which pieces can be removed. It is a major European country whose citizens have important cultural and economic ties with both the European Union and Russia. To set its own course, Ukraine needs normal public debate, the restoration of parliamentary democracy, and workable relations with all of its neighbors.
President Viktor Yanukovych, in having the deputies of his Party of Regions endorse an extraordinary packet of legislation, has arrogated decisive political power to himself. In procedure and in content the laws “passed” by the Ukrainian parliament this week contravene the most basic rights of modern constitutional democracies: to speech, assembly, and representation.
“Revolution!” This is what they are shouting in Kiev. Ever since November 21 tens of thousands have been on the streets of the capital of Ukraine, defying the police and bans on demonstrations. On December 8 hundreds of thousands packed the city center, and a granite statue of Lenin was toppled in a scene recalling both Europe’s anti-Communist revolutions of 1989 and the symbolic fall of Saddam’s statue in Baghdad in 2003. Especially at the beginning of the demonstrations the riot police have reacted brutally, which brought out many more protesters. At times hard-liners among the demonstrators have resorted to violence but some of the violent actions seem to have been led by government-paid provocateurs.
Asked about the turmoil in Ukraine, Alexander Orlov, the Russian Ambassador to France, declared: “Russians and Ukrainians are one nation. It’s like the Bretons and the Normans in France. You can’t separate them.” In denying the existence of a Ukrainian nation, he was echoing Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The hundreds of thousands of people who have taken to the streets in Ukraine have few options. They cannot force their own officials to sign a trade agreement with the EU. No elections are on the horizon, and Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych has no interest in calling them—unless a deal can be struck. But the Ukrainian constitution may offer a way out.
Ukraine has long been a borderland between greater powers. What is different about the present moment is that it is now an independent state, and that it has become a borderland between two authentically different approaches to foreign relations. The European Union has no interest in admitting Ukraine as it is today, but might be interested in admitting the orderly, lawful eastern neighbor it might one day become. Russia has no interest in the rule of law in Ukraine, but is happy to exert influence upon its territory as part of its efforts to control the distribution of natural resources and reassert its power in the post-Soviet space.