Ukraine’s Knights of Liberty

I haven’t written much about the renewed unrest in Ukraine over the past few months, largely because of the bystander effect: the fact that our current president has committed himself to making America a bystander to world events. In conflicts like the one in Ukraine, the implicit Obama Doctrine is: “Let me know who wins.” This is particularly true since, in the 2012 presidential debates, he specifically blew off concern about Russia as an irrelevant leftover of the Cold War.

So there’s not much point in writing about what President Obama should do to shape events in the world, since we know he isn’t going to do anything.

All we can do is offer our moral support for the good guys overseas and watch events unfold.

In Ukraine, it looked like there wasn’t going to be much of a story because the renewed protests against the country’s pro-Kremlin regime seemed locked in a stalemate, trending toward a tragic ending in which the regime would push the protesters out of Kiev’s central square and impose an outright dictatorship, while the rest of the world pretty much did nothing.

Over the past few days—literally days, starting on February 19—all of that has changed. If we’re bystanders, well, the revolution in Ukraine has been well worth watching. It’s a story too good to miss, so let me give a detailed overview of what has happened there before drawing the wider lessons.

The Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, in the center of Kiev was the site of the Orange Revolution in 2004, when protesters overturned a crudely rigged election and forced Russian puppet Vyktor Yanukovich out of office. That’s where the “independence” in Independence Square comes in. In 1991, Ukraine declared its independence when the Soviet Union fell apart. As Vladimir Putin has attempted to rebuild Russian power, Ukraine has struggled to keep from falling under Russian domination again.

There is, of course, a longer history here, and I’ve been surprised at how few press reports have referred to Holodomor, the Ukrainian holocaust in which Stalin starved the country into submission. You can understand why a lot of Ukrainians look at the prospect of Russian domination and think: never again.

But after the Orange Revolution, the pro-liberty, Western-oriented opposition was badly fragmented and fought among themselves, eventually allowing Yanukovich to come back to power—and to renew his attempt to turn Ukraine into a Russian-sponsored dictatorship.

Under the liberals, Ukraine had been pursing greater integration with the European Union, partly as a way of seeking economic opportunity to its West, and largely as a counterbalance to Russian influence. But in November, Yanukovich killed a new trade deal with the EU in favor of greater integration with the Eurasian Union, a dictators’ club of Central Asian autocracies headed by Russia and Vladimir Putin. Protesters flooded into the streets to demand the reversal of this decision.

This was not just about money and Ukraine’s economic future, nor was it about the ethnic and linguistic differences between the country’s Ukrainian-speaking West and its Russian-speaking East. The ethnic and linguistic differences between Russians and Ukrainians would, of course, be nearly impossible for outsiders to distinguish, and they are merely markers for more fundamental issues. The conflict over the European treaty was really a fight over the country’s choice of political models. On the one hand, Ukraine could join a union of countries with representative government, political freedom, and comparatively free and dynamic economies. Or it could join a group of corrupt regimes ruled by strongmen at home and dominated by an even bigger strongman in Moscow.

The mass street protests were Ukrainians’ way of saying: we want to be one of these countries, not one of those countries. So they gathered in the same square as the Orange Revolution, but they renamed it Euromaidan, which became the name for the whole opposition movement.

To get a flavor of the popular unrest, check out an article in The Daily Beast that seems to have started as a profile of a Kiev-based software developer and was taken over by his running commentary on why young liberals were taking to the streets.

“When Yanukovych was elected we thought ‘Oh well, another not good president. But four years will pass and we’ll choose another one,’ Stepanskiy remembers. “But when the wealth of his family began to increase 700 percent or something, we realized that the level of corruption is unbelievable.” “We are like sheep—and he is a wolf. We have money that he must own. So we’re just moneybags sitting there.”

Stepanskiy captures the infuriating simplicity of Yanukovych’s tactics with a story: “Just imagine I have a gas station. And one day a man came to me and he say: ‘You know, great gas station, but we think you’re not paying taxes.’ I would say: ‘No I’m paying, I promise.’ Then he would say, ‘No, you’re not. Sell us your gas station for half the price or you will be in jail.’ I would have no choice. It would be gone.”

Faced with protests over his withdrawal from the European treaty, Yanukovich seemed to waver, but then he spurned the protesters when he was offered a package of subsidies and loans from Russia. In effect, the issue became whether Vladimir Putin could buy Ukraine—with all of its inhabitants and other furnishings—for $15 billion. It was so brazen that a Russian political operative even tweeted, “Maidan installation sold for 15 billion—most expensive art object ever.” Yanukovich then turned his attention to the task of suppressing the protests and breaking the opposition.

In January, Yanukovich’s faction in parliament shoved through what became known as the “dictatorship laws,” giving the president vast powers to suppress freedom of speech and assembly. But “dictatorship law” is an oxymoron: dictatorship is unlimited power, which is the absence of law. Thus, many of the regime’s acts of oppression were committed entirely without any pretense of law. In December, a pro-opposition journalist was run off the road and savagely beaten, among many other such incidents. Read the whole report to get an idea of the regime’s brutal lawlessness.

All of this hardened the resolve of the opposition. Let’s go back to that mild-mannered software developer: “Stepanskiy recalls a chilling conversation with a 40-year-old protestor from a remote village in Western Ukraine. ‘He said that every one of his friends in Maidan realizes that they probably cannot see their wives or kids again. They are ready to die for their freedom.'”

Before it was over, dozens of them would.

The climax came last Thursday. Yanukovich had observed a kind of Olympic truce to avoid embarrassing his Russian sponsor during the winter games just a few miles across the Black Sea in Sochi. But then he made a fatal decision to crack down on the protesters and sweep them out of the Maidan once and for all.

The operation was thwarted by the desperate courage of a core group of protesters. Here is the scene, based on what we know so far.

Versions differ on what happened around dawn Feb. 20, but riot police and possibly snipers appear to have begun to fire shots at the remnants of the stubborn opposition, still numbering in the thousands and hiding behind barricades they had set aflame to protect themselves.

At this point, a gap opened in the opposition barricades, and out poured “young men in ski masks,” who sprinted a hundred yards across the square toward the police lines against a hail of fire. As they ran, many were mowed down—perhaps two dozen. But many of them also reached the startled police lines, broke through, and viciously attacked.

In the subsequent minutes and hours, the opposition re-occupied government buildings, captured dozens of police, and recaptured the whole of the square. But in doing so, the day became among the bloodiest in former Soviet history—in all, some 70 opposition and police died….

The New York Times‘ Andrew Kramer interviewed a classical violinist named Dmitry Iliuk, who was among the youths who turned the tide. “He was wearing a red ski helmet and ski goggles, and carrying a baseball bat attached to a cord looped around his wrist, lest it be knocked out of his hands,” Kramer wrote. “‘There was just one idea in my head: “Run forward,”‘ Iliuk said. He went on, ‘All around me, people were wounded because the police had nothing left to do but shoot, and they shot.'”

See a picture of the blazing barricades here, as well as some charmingly incongruous moments such as a protester playing a blue-and-yellow piano against a backdrop of riot police.

But the most arresting images are those of street fighters dressed up in armor and shields painted with crude coats of arms.


Others opted for more modern armor adopted from hockey gear. Some used their painted shields in a classical testudo formation, and some even built a catapult.

One observer summed it up: “Ukraine Is a Medieval War Zone from the Dystopian Future.”

Yet there is an undeniable romanticism to all of this. These guys aren’t just freedom fighters, they’re knights of liberty.

The desperate charge that reclaimed the Maidan was the turning point, prompting a wider wave of resistance. In one incident, Lidia Pankiv, a reporter for Inter, Ukraine’s largest TV network, appeared on one of its live talk shows for the specific purpose of denouncing the regime and its shills in the media.

I hate Zakharchenko, Klyuev, Lukash, Medvedchuk, Azarov. I hate Yanukovych and all those who carry out their criminal orders. I came here today only because I found out that this is a live broadcast. I want to say that I also despise Inter because for three months it deceived viewers and spread enmity among citizens of this country. And now you are calling for peace and unity. Yes, you have the right to try to clear your conscience, but I think you should run this program on your knees. I’ve brought these photos here for you, so that you see my dead friends in your dreams and understand that you also took part in that. And now, I’m sorry, I don’t have time. I’m going to Maidan. Glory to Ukraine.

In a meeting with a delegation of Western foreign ministers, Yanukovich was pressured into signing an agreement with terms that allowed him to stay in office for a while, but which were generally favorable to the opposition. But it was too late, because a key event had already changed conditions on the ground.

This is all a first rough draft of history, but here is the story as reported by the New York Times.

Andrei Levus, deputy head of the Maidan “self-defense” forces, the umbrella organization of militant activists fighting the government, knew he had reinforcements on the way. Protesters in Lviv had overrun an Interior Ministry garrison and were en route to Kiev with the captured military weapons.

“I’m reluctant to talk about this because we are protesters and not illegal armed groups,” Mr. Levus said. “But the square was about to look different. There would be more people, and they would not have had empty hands.”…

Using a member of Parliament as an intermediary, Mr. Levus opened a line of communication with a deputy interior minister, whom he declined to name.

“Our people are ideologically motivated, and on the contrary, they were demoralized,” Mr. Levus said. “They did not want this fight. And he understood that our people were ready to run against gunfire.”

The police knew they were about to face protesters who were equally well armed and more numerous, so they decided to get the hell out of Dodge. While Yankovich was in his presidential compound negotiating the terms of his surrender with the European foreign ministers, his police goons outside were busy negotiating with the protesters to ensure safe passage for their retreat. Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski describes the surreal scene.

“It was astonishing,” said Mr. Sikorski, who, while leaving the presidential building, watched in dismay as police officers jumped into buses and drove off. “That was not part of the deal. Astonishing.”

Yanukovich boarded a plane for the pro-Russian Eastern city of Kharkiv, still apparently believing that he would be able to return to Kiev. He won’t, unless he’s willing to come back as a prisoner and stand trial for his crimes. From Kharkiv, Yanukovich has made some noises about separatism for the Eastern provinces and has refused to recognize the legitimacy of the new government. Meanwhile, his own legitimacy has taken a few more blows.

When the police bugged out, protesters overran Yanukovich’s presidential compound and were astonished at the vast personal wealth he had amassed and the millions he had spent on his own luxuries. See a collection of photos here—you won’t be able to read a word, but the images speak for themselves—and a video here. Notice the lines of ordinary Ukrainians filing through the compound to gape at this extraordinary collection of loot. Meanwhile, protesters found a large number of documents that had been dumped in a lake in the compound, which were fished out by divers and are now being dried and posted online. They detail the millions spent on custom woodwork and lavish furnishings, as well as at least one line item frankly marked as a $4,000 “bribe.” Then remember that this is a country with a per-capita GDP of about $4,000 that was seeking billion in bailouts from Russia—while its kleptomaniacal president lived like a king.

It’s not clear what will happen next. The country is already close to a de facto partition between its pro-opposition West, where provincial governments had already taken over central government functions, and its pro-Russian East. See this map of the 2004 election results, which neatly superimposes with this map of the country’s ethnic and linguistic divisions. But a threat of secession by the Eastern provinces is likely to be a bluff. Alexander Motyl explains why the East has little incentive to split.

Personally, I have no doubt that Ukraine without its Southeast would be much stronger, more stable, and more prosperous than Ukraine with its Southeast. The Southeast’s rust-belt economy needs either to be shut down entirely or to be refitted at the cost of trillions of dollars of non-existent investments. Moreover, the statistics plainly show that Kiev subsidizes the Donbas, and not vice versa. The Southeast also has a low birth rate, a high death rate, low life expectancy, high energy consumption, and high AIDS and crime rates. Last but not least, the Southeast is home to the ruling Party of Regions and the Communist Party. Remove the Southeast and Ukraine’s treasury experiences an immediate boon; its demographics, energy consumption, and health improve; and its politics automatically become more democratic and less corrupt.

Although lopping off the Donbas would benefit the rest of Ukraine, Yanukovich’s mafia regime desperately needs Ukraine to be whole. If Luhansk and Donetsk were to split away, their rust-belt economy would collapse without Kiev’s financial support and the Regionnaires, trapped in their polluted bailiwick, would have nothing to steal. And what would Yanukovych’s multibillionaire pal, Rinat Akhmetov, do without easy access to Ukraine’s resources? A similar logic holds for Putin. What would he do with a rotten slice of Ukraine—a kind of mega Transnistria? Subsidize its dead-end economy? Spend valuable time and resources on jailing the corrupt Regionnaires and the troglodyte Communists?

On the other hand, Vladimir Putin is in a tough spot, since a successful revolution in Ukraine sets a political precedent that endangers his own rule.

Timothy Garton Ash, who made his name covering the fall of Communism in the late 1980s, nicely summarizes the biggest global implication of Ukraine’s new revolution.

I have argued that, in our time, 1989 has supplanted 1789 as the default model of revolution: rather than progressive radicalisation, violence, and the guillotine, we look for peaceful mass protest followed by negotiated transition. That model has taken a battering of late, not only in Ukraine but also in the violent fall that followed the Arab spring. If this fragile deal holds, however, and the fury on the streets can be contained, Europe might again show that we can occasionally learn from history.

Indeed, this seems a lot like a second 1989, particularly in the images of Ukrainians taking sledgehammers to a monument to KGB officers and toppling dozens of statues of Lenin across the country. (Yes, there were still statues of Lenin in Ukraine.)

But in 1989, Russia itself was in a state of retreat and ideological disarray. This time around, Russia seems to be regenerating a new ideology of dictatorship. It is unnerving how the Russian rhetoric on Ukraine mirrors the old Soviet rhetoric, including reflexively denouncing any opposition as “fascist.” Anne Applebaum describes this smear in a useful glossary of the Orwellian double-speak used by the Russians.

It should be noted that there are quasi-fascist “nationalist groups” as part of the Ukrainians opposition, and that they have furnished some of the fanatical supporters who kept the protests alive in the face of police assaults. On the other hand, if I were Ukrainian, I suppose I might be a “nationalist” insofar as I would want my country to maintain its independence from Russia. More to the point, the nationalists are a small faction within the opposition, and the whole point of the protests is to seek greater integration with the liberal democracies of Western Europe. They call it Euromaidan, after all, and you don’t promote fascist nationalism by waving the flag of the European Union.

In the wider picture, this is all a case of psychological projection. The Russian regime is screaming about “fascism” in Ukraine to cover up its own turn toward fascism. The most important article written in the past few weeks is Timothy Snyder’s overview of the rise of “National Bolshevism,” an obscene integration of Communism and Fascism (which, as Jonah Goldberg points out, were never really opposites). Here is how Snyder describes this new ideology.

The protests in the Maidan, we are told again and again by Russian propaganda and by the Kremlin’s friends in Ukraine, mean the return of National Socialism to Europe….

The strange thing about the claim from Moscow is the political ideology of those who make it. The Eurasian Union is the enemy of the European Union, not just in strategy but in ideology….

The Eurasian ideology draws an entirely different lesson from the twentieth century. Founded around 2001 by the Russian political scientist Aleksandr Dugin, it proposes the realization of National Bolshevism. Rather than rejecting totalitarian ideologies, Eurasianism calls upon politicians of the twenty-first century to draw what is useful from both fascism and Stalinism. Dugin’s major work, The Foundations of Geopolitics, published in 1997, follows closely the ideas of Carl Schmitt, the leading Nazi political theorist. Eurasianism is not only the ideological source of the Eurasian Union, it is also the creed of a number of people in the Putin administration, and the moving force of a rather active far-right Russian youth movement. For years Dugin has openly supported the division and colonization of Ukraine.

The point man for Eurasian and Ukrainian policy in the Kremlin is Sergei Glazyev, an economist who like Dugin tends to combine radical nationalism with nostalgia for Bolshevism. He was a member of the Communist Party and a Communist deputy in the Russian parliament before cofounding a far-right party called Rodina, or Motherland. In 2005 some of its deputies signed a petition to the Russian prosecutor general asking that all Jewish organizations be banned from Russia.

In this context, the most terrifying item in Applebaum’s glossary of Russian propaganda is “fraternal assistance.”

This is a Soviet expression, once used to justify the Soviet invasions of Prague in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979. “Fraternal assistance” was intended to prevent Soviet puppet states from being overthrown, whether violently or peacefully. In December, Russian President Vladimir Putin called Ukraine a “fraternal” country, hinting that he sees it as a puppet state. This week, a senior Russian parliamentarian declared that he and his colleagues are “prepared to give all the necessary assistance should the fraternal Ukrainian people ask for it.” This may well be the cue for pro-Russian organizations inside Ukraine to ask for intervention.

Since Yanukovich’s fall, the Russian government has been questioning the legitimacy of the new Ukrainian government and making noises about the need to intervene to protect Ukraine’s ethnic Russians—Russia’s version of annexing the Sudetenland.

Some observers assure us that Russia won’t intervene in Ukraine, and various American officials have warned off the Russians. Meanwhile, our ambassador to the UN is sending out incomprehensible tweets that one commenter aptly describes as “liberal claptrap word salad.” As the guy who brokered the Syrian chemical weapons deal that is already falling apart, Vladimir Putin knows very well what President Obama’s “red lines” mean.

Perhaps the European Union will help support Ukraine, or perhaps the Ukrainians will have to keep on providing for their own defense—along with their Eastern European friends, who have an equally strong interest in keeping Russia at bay. Which brings me back to an idea Jack Wakeland and I proposed in 2008 during the crisis in Georgia: the formation of a Warsaw Pact against Russia.

An independent alliance between Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Georgia, and Ukraine—an inverse Warsaw Pact—would be a tremendous asset to liberty. With Poland at its base (protected by its NATO membership and the US nuclear umbrella), this alliance could be a strong deterrent to Russia’s renewed military expansionism.

Just Ukraine and Poland—which has been a substantial backer of Ukraine’s opposition—could be a powerful partnership. The combined population of Poland and Ukraine is about 80 million, enough to be an effective counterbalance against Russia’s 140 million. And Poland has an excellent record of post-Soviet economic and political reform, which could serve as a model for Ukraine and help it to build its strength, stability, and vitality.

These are the two largest nations on the borderlands between Western liberty and Russia’s “Eurasian” empire. We need them to be able to stand firm against a revived totalitarian ideology of “National Bolshevism”—and the extraordinary courage of Ukraine’s knights of liberty have given them that opportunity.

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