February 25, 2014

ANDREW WOODS: The Lessons Of Kiev.

The seismic shift in Ukraine was achieved by its people, not outside forces, and not its politicians. There was no conspiracy, no mob violence let alone “pogroms”, and no march of eastern Ukraine against the west and center of the country in defense of Yanukovych. Of course there were fears and divisions, and the future is uncertain, but the central, momentous fact was this: the refusal of the Ukrainians to accept that their rulers have the right to compel them to obedience, and the lesson that, on the contrary, Ukraine’s rulers must govern in the interests of the people, as their servants not their masters.

It will be some considerable time before the implications of this decisive change sink in. The notion that the war Yanukovych waged on his own people was the product of a geopolitical struggle between Russia and the West, with Ukraine as the victim, had, and probably still has, deep roots. It fitted a major plank of those arguing in the United States for a strategic reset in relations between Washington and Moscow. This is an argument that took—sometimes explicitly—the Russian claim to a particular national interest in Ukraine as having a higher value than the hopes and wishes of the people of Ukraine themselves. It fitted with those in EU countries who continued to believe that disputing Russian ambitions to restore its hegemony in the former Soviet space, and Ukraine above all, would scupper the superior objective of gradually persuading the Kremlin that Russia’s true interests lay in realizing shared European destiny and values. The strongly articulated Russian assertions that Ukraine was the object of Western subversion, a geopolitical prize to be seized by fair means or foul at the expense of a disinterested Russia and at the risk of chaos in Europe, played into a Cold War set of attitudes.

It was telling that, while there was anger within the European Union at the way that Russian pressure and inducements achieved Yanukovych’s volte-face on the Association Agreement this past November, the general assumption was that Ukraine’s European option had been shut down. That assumption failed to account for two factors within Ukraine itself: first, that Ukrainians themselves understood that Yanukovych’s November choice implied that he was moving towards the Russian model of centralized authoritarian governance and accepting the dominance of Moscow; and second, Yanukovych’s brutal incompetence in an increasingly desperate attempt to shore up his rule.

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