What the West Can Learn from the Ukraine Crisis
The Ukraine crisis has potentially damaged the West’s influence and credibility in the region. Here are five lessons to keep in mind. By Andrew Wilson
After a popular uprising in February, protestors in Ukraine were full of optimism that the nation could improve on its last attempt to change its dysfunctional post-Soviet system, the so-called Orange Revolution in 2004. Now Ukraine faces make-or-break elections on Oct. 26, with the very survival of the state at stake.
In my latest book Ukraine Crisis: What it Means for the West, I make no qualms in blaming Russia for the crisis, and for destroying the initial optimism in Ukraine, unlike many of the “Russia Understanders’” in the West. But the exact nature of the Russian regime and its modus operandi is still not widely understood. There can be few people left in the world who do not know that Russia is corrupt, but there is much less knowledge of its ability to corrupt others.
There’s also been potentially catastrophic damage to the West’s influence and credibility. The US is accused of over-prioritizing and withdrawing attention and resources from Eastern Europe; it’s an open question whether the EU is an effective foreign policy actor at all.
All of these things will keep policy-makers and analysts busy for a long while, but here are five lessons to keep in mind from Ukraine’s crisis:
1. Patriotism can be both enemy and friend
Ukrainians themselves like to talk about the “Ukrainian idea.” So do a lot of East Europeans. Usually in a bad way—meaning loyalty to some kind of metaphysical or transcendent “nation.” But if it means the nation is just a work-in-progress, the sense is just right. Ukraine was not a united nation when it won independence in 1991. Serhii Plokhy’s excellent new book The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union is a useful reminder that Ukraine gained independence without any real social revolution, and after only about a quarter had backed the anti-Soviet movement “Rukh” in various elections in 1990-91. Ever since 1991 society has remained neo-Soviet and sharply divided on existential and foreign policy issues.
Now Putin appears to be making a new Ukrainian nation before our eyes. Ukraine is less polarized, because it has lost its eastern poles—Crimea and half of the Donbas. Public opinion in the rest of Ukraine is more patriotic and more pro-European. The elections on Oct. 26 will confirm this. The Maidan and the war in the east are new foundation myths (a war Ukraine was winning before Russia got away with sending in so many conventional troops in late August). But is it not yet clear whether this is a short-term effect and whether the new patriotism will make Ukrainians more prepared to accept the pain of long-delayed reform. Ukraine may be building a new nation, but it is not building a proper state. In fact, the new patriotism can be as much an enemy as an ally of reform; many argue that all resources should go to national defense.
2. There’s a new kind of global protestor
The Ukrainian protests were a hybrid of forms, but were part of the recent global cycle of protest from the Arab Spring to Occupy to Hong Kong. They therefore provide useful lessons for protestors and autocrats across the globe. For protestors, the Ukrainians made a good attempt to solve the now-familiar paradoxes of “leaderless protest”—social media can assemble a crowd, but they can’t direct it. As Ivan Krastev’s book Democracy Disrupted: The Politics of Global Protest makes clear, many modern protestors do not seek representation; they stand outside and do not trust traditional politics.
The Ukrainians found a half-way house in the muscle-memory of their own history. The protestors by-passed those who claimed to speak on their behalf; and grouped themselves in Cossack “hundreds,” with centurions rather than overall leaders. They therefore had just enough organization when they needed to resort to old-fashioned street-fighting in February.
The emotional speech at the end of the protests by one of the heads of the hundreds, Volodymyr Parasyuk, was emblematic. Parasyuk famously called for direct action “with arms” (which allegedly encouraged Yanukovych to flee)—but just as interesting was his disdain for “the politicians who stand behind my back” and “the stupid words we’ve been fed here for the last two and a half months.” This worked well during the period of “extraordinary politics” in the spring—it has since proven much harder to link up the protestors with the prosaic world of “normal” politics. Maidan veterans largely condemn the political process from outside; only a few are standing in the elections. Rather more of the old guard are doing so, relatively unchallenged.
3. Old-fashioned protest reigned supreme
Technology was important at the start of the protests, but not at the end. Social media and SMS helped assemble the initial crowds. They helped protestors dodge the police and the regime’s hired thugs. But ultimately the protestors reverted to “classic” or “vintage” revolution, throwing cobblestones and Molotov cocktails. Technology didn’t protect the protestors from sniper fire. They hid behind trees and used shields made from advertising hoardings. Compared to Moscow’s tech-savvy but dilettante Bolotnoya protestors in 2011-12, the tipping factor in Kiev was on old-fashioned willingness to fight and die for the cause.
4. Keep brutality off-screen
Lessons for autocrats. The Yanukovych regime tried to avoid international condemnation in three ways. First by inventing a narrative to discredit the protestors; and the line that they were all fascists was bought too easily by too many in the West. Second by using proxies, particularly the notorious regime thugs, the so-called titushki. Third by shifting violence “off-screen.” This was arguably working in early January. It was only when the regime lost patience and moved people down with sniper fire that it fell.
Regimes that are brutal early when protests are only incipient are more likely to survive. Regimes that are tough but patient are more likely to survive. The Hong Kong authorities just backed off from the mistake of over-using local versions of titushki thugs before the world’s TV cameras, as they sensed the protests were winding down anyway.
5. “Coarse power” is the new soft power
Russia fought dirty, but still operates within the paradigms of so-called “political technology.” Russia has invested huge amounts in soft power to rival the West in recent years, but academics have long thought soft power was not the right term. I found the right term in, of all places, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina—grubaya sila, meaning “coarse power.” Tolstoy was talking about society’s power to repress the individual, but it describes the Kremlin’s modus operandi well—it’s idea of soft power is really covert power, buying support behind the scenes, and using non-violent forms of coercion. Just as so-called “hybrid war” or “information war” (two other Russian favorites) are still war by other means.
But the façade is still important. Russia loves to clone and copy—to steal Western terminology on international law or human rights, and to present its operations as morally equivalent to ours. It therefore copied the Maidan with its own bastard version—”public meetings” that elected “leaders” that nobody had heard of in Crimea and the Donbas. But at the same time, Russia exploited the key weakness of Maidan politics; nobody actually elected the likes of Volodymyr Parasyuk. The Kremlin is highly-skilled at spinning narratives; its opponents need to avoid such open goals in the future. The West needs to be clear what it is dealing well—not a duplicitous power, but a system built on duplicity.
After the Orange Revolution in 2004 it was actually the Kremlin that learnt the lessons best. To the extent that it thought it was immune from any similar protest wave. Now the learning process begins again.