It’s not just about democracy. And it’s not just a fight between good and evil, either. Over the past two months, as protests rattled Ukraine and raised questions about its future, Western leaders tucked the complex conflict into a neat box, translating the stakes in ways we could understand: The struggle between eastern and western Ukraine – the faction that supports Moscow, and those that would prefer to align with the European Union – is a struggle for democracy. As new leaked tapes appear to demonstrate, the U.S. has acted on this narrative by actively backing the opposition. At the conflict’s core, say these influential Westerners, are questions of morality – not rational, economic and political interests. That framing is dangerously inaccurate and oversimplified. If we want to grasp the true nature of Ukraine’s unrest – and its myriad geopolitical implications – we must toss Cold War conventional wisdom and wake-up to a very different foreign policy reality.
First – how did the unrest begin? President Viktor Yanukovych catalyzed the first round of protests after he rejected an offer for an association agreement from the European Union in November. The demonstrations continued for close to two months with no resolution. In late January, in an effort to quell that uprising, Yanukovych passed an anti-protest law that, among other things, limited freedoms of speech and assembly and promised draconian punishments for things like criticizing judges or the police. More protesters came to the streets. The government cracked down – violently. That didn’t stop the protestors. So the government repealed the law, and Prime Minister Mykola Azarov resigned along with his entire government. In early February, President Yanukovych returned after a suspicious leave of absence due to illness. Demonstrations now continue; and in some parts of western Ukraine the opposition has taken control of the government.
The tumult is part of a broader struggle between Russia and the West for influence in Ukraine – a tension that has existed since at least the Orange Revolution in 2004. But the way Westerners characterize this fight for influence – the moral (democratic, pro-EU protestors) vs. the amoral (Moscow’s authoritarian agents) is problematic. Ukraine rejected the EU association agreement largely because Russia offered more money, and Yanukovych’s political base in eastern Ukraine was not nearly as enthusiastic about joining the EU as those in western Ukraine who made up the bulk of the protesters. Russian President Vladimir Putin is an authoritarian, to be sure, and Yanukovych has shown himself to have strong dictatorial tendencies. But both Putin’s and Yanukovych’s actions last November were nonetheless rational.
Yet, the West rarely recognizes that Russia, like countries in the West, has its own interests. To Westerners, Russia’s actions are part of a storied narrative: It consistently acts in outrageous ways to thwart not Western interests, but also moral and political good in Ukraine. There’s a big problem with that view: By recasting a struggle between two political forces and interests as one simply between right and wrong, the West makes it more difficult to understand and combat Russian influence. If the U.S. and Europe want to change Russia’s behavior, they must toss those antiquated, Cold War notions, and accept that modern tensions are substantially based on economic and political interests, not just on latent Russian anger, or its alleged inferiority complex. That means accepting, for example, that scolding Russian leaders for breaking Western rules and expectations won’t provoke changes in Moscow. More dramatically, it may require the U.S. to recognize the limits of its ability to influence outcomes in Ukraine or other countries where Russia also has interests at stake.
Reframing the stakes in Ukraine also helps us see how this unrest could play out: It’s likely that the protests won’t mark another great democratic revolution, and that the nation will return to its stasis – vacillating between the more liberal and pro-west orange group based in western Ukraine, and the more heavily Russaphone, pro-Russia and less liberal blue faction based in eastern and southern Ukraine.
Ukraine has switched between orange and blue leadership for about a decade. There’s an enduring sense that the next election will be the one to unite the country and temper this dynamic. Westerners cheer when the orange forces win – it’s a step forward for democracy! But then, inevitably, the blue forces regain power, and hopes for democracy are shelved. The notion that these long-simmering tensions could cool with one race is idealistic: Ukraine will only be able to become an enduring democracy when it transcends orange and blue to build a consensus for democracy that is not so closely linked to reigning partisan views – and to the west. Ukraine needs a leader that will put political resources into crafting a new post-orange and blue vision for the country; it is not apparent that such a leader currently exists there.
Ukraine is uniquely divided and faces a very difficult challenge, not just to resolve questions about EU membership or to become a democracy, but perhaps even to survive as a cohesive state. Russian and Western influence currently provides succor, and often sustenance, to blue and orange hardliners, but these influences are waning. Despite hopes to the contrary, the ability of the US to influence current political developments in Ukraine is considerably less that our diplomats might think. Refusing to play the game the same way while hoping for a different outcome could be a good first step. It may lead politicians across the Ukrainian political spectrum to recognize that they can’t rely on help from the outside, and that they need a new approach to hold the country together. The West should recognize that reality, too. Paradoxically, it may be best able to unite Ukraine under democratic principles by toning down the rhetoric and seeing democracy as a process, not just a victory for one side.