After a popular uprising in February, protestors in Ukraine were full of optimism that the nation could improve on its last attempt to change its dysfunctional post-Soviet system, the so-called Orange Revolution in 2004, writes Andrew Wilson, Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
In my latest book Ukraine Crisis: What it Means for the West, I make no qualms in blaming Russia for the crisis, but the exact nature of the Russian regime and its modus operandi is still not widely understood. There can be few people left in the world who do not know that Russia is corrupt, but there is much less knowledge of its ability to corrupt others.
There’s also been potentially catastrophic damage to the West’s influence and credibility. All of these things will keep policy-makers and analysts busy for a long while, but here are five lessons to keep in mind from Ukraine’s crisis, he writes for Quartz:
1. Patriotism both enemy and friend
Ukrainians themselves like to talk about the “Ukrainian idea.” … Serhii Plokhy’s excellent new book The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union is a useful reminder that Ukraine gained independence without any real social revolution, and after only about a quarter had backed the anti-Soviet movement “Rukh” in various elections in 1990-91. Ever since 1991 society has remained neo-Soviet and sharply divided on existential and foreign policy issues….
The Maidan and the war in the east are new foundation myths (a war Ukraine was winning before Russia got away with sending in so many conventional troops in late August). But is it not yet clear whether this is a short-term effect and whether the new patriotism will make Ukrainians more prepared to accept the pain of long-delayed reform. Ukraine may be building a new nation, but it is not building a proper state. …
The Ukrainian protests were a hybrid of forms, but were part of the recent global cycle of protest from the Arab Spring to Occupy to Hong Kong. They therefore provide useful lessons for protestors and autocrats across the globe. For protestors, the Ukrainians made a good attempt to solve the now-familiar paradoxes of “leaderless protest”—social media can assemble a crowd, but they can’t direct it. As Ivan Krastev’s book Democracy Disrupted: The Politics of Global Protest makes clear, many modern protestors do not seek representation; they stand outside and do not trust traditional politics…… Maidan veterans largely condemn the political process from outside; only a few are standing in the elections. Rather more of the old guard are doing so, relatively unchallenged.
3. Old-fashioned protest supreme
Technology was important at the start of the protests, but not at the end. Social media and SMS helped assemble the initial crowds. They helped protestors dodge the police and the regime’s hired thugs. But ultimately the protestors reverted to “classic” or “vintage” revolution, throwing cobblestones and Molotov cocktails. …. Compared to Moscow’s tech-savvy but dilettante Bolotnoya protestors in 2011-12, the tipping factor in Kiev was on old-fashioned willingness to fight and die for the cause.
4. Keep brutality off-screen
Lessons for autocrats. The Yanukovych regime tried to avoid international condemnation in three ways. First by inventing a narrative to discredit the protestors; and the line that they were all fascists was bought too easily by too many in the West. Second by using proxies, particularly the notorious regime thugs, the so-called titushki. Third by shifting violence “off-screen.” This was arguably working in early January. It was only when the regime lost patience and moved people down with sniper fire that it fell.
…. The Hong Kong authorities just backed off from the mistake of over-using local versions of titushki thugs before the world’s TV cameras, as they sensed the protests were winding down anyway.
5. “Coarse power” the new soft power
Russia fought dirty, but still operates within the paradigms of so-called “political technology.” Russia has invested huge amounts in soft power to rival the West in recent years, but academics have long thought soft power was not the right term. I found the right term in, of all places, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina—grubaya sila, meaning “coarse power.” Tolstoy was talking about society’s power to repress the individual, but it describes the Kremlin’s modus operandi well—it’s idea of soft power is really covert power, buying support behind the scenes, and using non-violent forms of coercion. Just as so-called “hybrid war” or “information war” (two other Russian favorites) are still war by other means.
But the façade is still important. Russia loves to clone and copy—to steal Western terminology on international law or human rights, and to present its operations as morally equivalent to ours. It therefore copied the Maidan with its own bastard version—”public meetings” that elected “leaders” that nobody had heard of in Crimea and the Donbas. ….The Kremlin is highly-skilled at spinning narratives; its opponents need to avoid such open goals in the future. The West needs to be clear what it is dealing well—not a duplicitous power, but a system built on duplicity.
“After the Orange Revolution in 2004 it was actually the Kremlin that learnt the lessons best,” Wilson contends. “To the extent that it thought it was immune from any similar protest wave.”
Putin embraces strongly authoritarian values and, much like Stalin, believes in cynical power politics and spheres of influence, notes Jeffrey Gedmin, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, senior advisor at Blue Star Strategies, and co-director of the Transatlantic Renewal Project:
That’s why he invaded Georgia, cyber attacked Estonia, threatens Moldova, pressures Bosnia, Macedonia, and Montenegro, and has gone to war in Ukraine. Moscow is drawing red lines today. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said recently that his country is determined “to build a system of equal and shared security in Europe.” Translation: you in the West have your half, we’re taking ours. Warns Lavrov: any further extension of NATO will be seen by the Kremlin as a “provocation.”
“So much for free and sovereign nations deciding their own alliances,” he writes for the Weekly Standard. “So much for the vision of ‘Europe, Whole and Free.’ Deriving legitimacy from consent is not exactly a Putin thing.”
Letting Putin off the hook?
In the meantime, the Kremlin hopes that its “de-escalation” will induce the European Union and United States to lift the economic sanctions they stepped up last month, the Washington Post observes:
To her credit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a crucial voice in any such decision, said last week that the union was “very far away [from] consideration to take back sanctions.” However, neither E.U. leaders nor the Obama administration have spelled out what conditions Moscow must meet to win a respite.
That opens the door to letting Mr. Putin off the hook before he takes steps that are essential to preserving what remains of Ukraine’s sovereignty.
Putin holds good tactical cards, but his medium and longer-term prospects are poor, argues Sir Andrew Wood, an associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House and British ambassador to Russia from 1995 to 2000 – See more at:
“Moscow has not turned out to be the partner that many in the West had hoped for,” he writes. “If that is not yet obvious to decision makers in the EU or the United States the risk is that they will be forced to learn it again. The ceasefire in Ukraine is a lull, not an opening for a secure future.”