Although the immediate cause for the people’s uprising against Viktor Yanukovych’s reign was his rejection of a trade agreement with the European Union, the ultimate responsibility for the Ukrainian crisis lies with Vladimir Putin, the revanchist president of the Russian Federation. Now that the Ukrainian people put an end to Putin’s pyrrhic victory over the European Union, the anachronistic character of his attempts at the restoration of the bygone imperial glory of the Soviet Union is becoming all too apparent.
For present-day Russia is not the Soviet Union, and Putin is not Stalin, or even the latter’s successors. The symbol of hope and change of the late 1990s is a disappointment in his second presidential reincarnation. His annual state of the nation address last December was a litany of domestic problems that cannot be solved by increasing repression and over-centralization. His foreign policy of rogue militarism only radicalizes Russia’s neighbors and invites resentment, and even hostility, from the rest of the world. Thus, instead of his promise of “building a new Russia”, Putin is destroying the present and the future of his people, in order to resurrect the past.
Yet, the Soviet Union is permanently dead both historically and politically. Therefore, any attempt by Putin to bring it back to life condemns him to lead a schizophrenic political existence: one for the outside world, before which he pretends to be a guarantor for world peace; and a totally different one at home, where he presents himself as a ruthless autocrat, capable of the most monstrous atrocities. The result is a tactician, and not a statesman, who is guided exclusively by his personal passions of hatred and revenge and not by the fundamental interests of his country. Absolute power puts him in a position in which he thinks and speaks and acts in total disrespect and defiance of facts and reality. His belief in his greatness and infallibility provides him with the confused notion that he can change even unassailable facts and reality by skillfully manipulating the patriotic feelings of every Russian inside, as well as outside, of his country.
The aftermath of the Soviet Union’s sudden demise endowed Ukraine with the miracle of independence and the curse of political and economic catastrophe. Politically, democracy did not become a functioning and effective reality. Elections, tainted with fraud, intimidation and corruption, made a mockery of universal suffrage and the right of opposition. Lack of robust institutions with legally guaranteed checks and balances prevented the emergence of rules-based democracy. With the consecutive elections of Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma, two prominent communists of the Politburo and the Central Committee of the, by then defunct, Ukrainian Communist Party, respectively, the much-hailed transformation of the country remained a myth. Economically, Ukrainians were hit hard by a recession that was more severe than the post-Soviet economic decline in the other newly independent states of the former Soviet Union. In the 1990s, the country lost 60% of its GDP. Inflation rose to five digit numbers. Violent corruption destroyed domestic and international trust in the basic honesty of the economic system.
The resulting Orange Revolution that brought Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko to power was an unmitigated disaster. Under the pretext of fundamental transformation, they proceeded to annihilate each other, in order to establish their own version of autocracy. Adding insult to injury, both concealed their real intentions behind a devastating lie: the maintenance of the fiction of a functioning parliamentary democracy that, in turn, created a political vacuum quickly filled by local and Russian oligarchs under the control of Vladimir Putin. Predictably, Yushshenko’s presidency collapsed and Tymoshenko was jailed for corruption.
The return of the previously disgraced Viktor Yanukovych to power cemented Putin’s hold over Ukraine. Using the former as a puppet, Putin devised a deliberate plan of centralized dependence on Russia that froze every segment of Ukrainian society in a vicious circle of political, economic and ethnic divisions. Half-hearted efforts by the European Union to bring Ukraine closer to the West resulted only in drawing Putin’s devilish circle tighter. For Ukraine, there was no escape from the quagmire. Hopelessly divided, governed by a quasi-legitimate government, and cursed with an atrociously corrupt economy, this untenable situation could only have been resolved by a catastrophe.
Contrary to the ubiquitously infectious euphoria in most of Ukraine and the West, the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych did not solve any of the important problems of the country. Ukraine will need long-term financial assistance as well as help with nation-building. The Ukrainians who protested in Maidan drove out a homegrown autocrat only to be threatened by a more formidable one next door. For Putin sees his Russia as an opposing, albeit destructive, alternative to the West. His is a nihilistic vision of the “Third Rome” Russia that reached the end of its political, ideological, economic and cultural opportunities. Thus, he is not interested in reforming Russia, or in becoming a partner of the West in securing and maintaining the integrity of the universal principles upon which the stability and the peace of the world should be founded. His only objective is to uphold and expand the autocracy at any cost.
For these reasons, the West must take an uncompromising stand toward the lies and illegal actions of Russia. Russia must be forced, if needed militarily, to respect its international obligations. Otherwise, the West will become an accomplice in Putin’s game that may gradually poison Russia’s neighbors and the world beyond.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Dr. Miklos K. Radvanyi is the Vice President of Frontiers of Freedom.