Paul Dodds worked in Kiev for 3 ½ years as a key player in privatisation reforms in the late 1990s and recently returned on a donor-funded project assessment mission.
The true dividing line between Ukraine and Russia is not language – certainly not from the central Ukraine perspective, where both languages roll equally smoothly off millions of tongues. Certainly not in Kiev, where Russian-speaking cab drivers describe Putin as Hitler, Stalin or the Tsar.
The Western press falls too easily into Putin’s trap of describing the main fault line in Ukraine as between ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians. While Mr. Putin tries mightily to force ethnic splits, he will never convince the tens of millions of Russian-speaking Ukrainians who are trying to purge their homeland of post-Soviet poisons. The Kiev cabbies don’t buy it. They know that Putin does not speak for them. They clearly see the sham in his “protection”. All Russia can offer is more of the same misery Ukraine has suffered for decades, or more intense misery as it tries to wriggle free.
While Mr. Putin may foment civil war among the remnants of a ruined empire, his vision holds no sway over most Ukrainians. It is too clear how his puppet Yanukovitch misled and betrayed Ukraine. Ukraine and Poland had the same per capita GDP in 1985. Poland now has four times Ukraine’s GDP, much more evenly distributed than Ukraine’s de-motivating oligarchy would ever allow. This, also, is embarrassingly clear.
No, Ukraine’s choice is not between Russian nationalism and Ukrainian “fascism”, as Russian State TV constantly proclaims. Russia offers brutal authoritarianism, funneling the fruits of a stunted economy into a few grabbing hands. Europe-oriented Ukraine offers democracy and a freer market economy. Mr. Putin is terrified that Ukraine will exorcise its old Soviet ghosts, the same ones that form the basis of his own reign. He should be. Ukraine will win, maybe with a piece or two torn back into submission, but it will win. It must.
The main fault line is not language, but the division between the beneficiaries of the old system, and the majority who want change. In this clear battle it is, for example, no wonder that many unreformed cops in Donetsk sympathize with Russia. Is this sympathy legitimate Russian nationalism, yearning to rejoin the motherland? No, it is just the oppressor’s fear when his boot might be lifted from the people’s neck.
The last thing Putin wants is a stable, prosperous, democratic, peaceful, Europe-oriented, Russian-speaking Ukraine. Mr. Putin, and the system he represents, cannot tolerate the prospect of Ukraine finally going clean. This is not about ethnicity or nationalism. This is Putin’s corruption-addict Russia, acting out shamelessly to undermine the recovery of Ukraine, its closest fellow corruption addict. The recovery Ukraine is attempting is the one Russia desperately needs for itself.
Ukraine’s freedom focus is not on America’s once-shining light. Instead it is on the EU, whose dull, good governance medicine is what Ukraine needs. This medicine threatens Putin, not because of any inherent Russian national security interests or the Russian national character. It threatens him because of the flawed nature of his endless rule. For example, while government procurement reform may sound innocuous enough, if Russia had EU style procurement rules, Putin could never have funneled billions to his buddies for his narcissistic Sochi extravaganza. Multiply this kind of change by a 900 page EU association agreement draft, and you have Ukraine striving towards a fundamental change in direction, one utterly at odds with autocratic, corrupt rule. This fight is over basic principles, not nationality or ethnicity. Ukraine deserves the West’s full support.
Mr. Putin cannot let Ukraine become a real country, ruled by reasonable laws, with a fair judiciary and bound together with other real countries in a functional and transparent economic system. He cannot tolerate a free, fair Ukraine – speaking Russian – right next door. He cannot let his “little brother” grow up and go its own way. One can only hope that, eventually, Russians will no longer imbibe the militarist nationalism that now has Mr. Putin riding high. One can only hope that more Russians, too, will take to the streets, and that their future courageous protests can earn Russians better lives – lives like those Ukrainians should soon enjoy.
Ukrainians have paid for change in blood in Maidan. Mr. Putin wants to make them pay more dearly. Like every addict, trying to break the cycle, Ukraine is undergoing an exorcism, fighting for its soul. It has tasted more freedom than Putin ever permitted in Russia, and wants more. Mr. Putin’s easy success in stealing Crimea has emboldened him. He won’t stop, until he is stopped.
That won’t happen until Russia pays for her dictator’s behavior, and pays dearly. In this struggle against a ruler that Kiev cabbies recognize as a thug of historic proportions, the West needs to act tough, not just talk tough. It is a tragic shame that the US wasted so much fighting shadows in our war on terror, that now – when the threat is clear – we retreat into clucking disapproval. Europe should be proud of itself for inspiring Ukraine to act so bravely. It should be less proud of its weak defence of Ukraine. Russia’s aggression merits much stronger sanctions.
We will all lose if we let Putin squash Ukraine, as we offer slow money and lots of strings, but no quick action. If the West refuses to incur the costs of real sanctions, or of military support if needed – because London is fearful of losing the oligarchs’ money, Berlin is fearful of losing Russian gas or Washington is just fearful and isolationist – we will collude in letting Ukraine’s great historical pivot point slide into a nightmare. We will let the Soviet ghosts win. If the final tally reads ‘Stalin’s heir: One, Democracy: Zero’, we will all have more reasons to fear.