Five things West can learn from Ukraine crisis

ukrainesolidarnoscAfter 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. …

russia ukraine2. A new kind of global protest           

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.


putinPutin 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.”

Putin planned to replace Russia’s democracy with kleptocracy ‘from the get-go’

President Vladimir Putin has signed a law banning public demonstrations at night, tightening controls over dissent after more than a decade in charge of Russia, Bloomberg reports:

Legislation on public protests has been modified to outlaw events starting before 7 a.m. or ending after 10 p.m., except for some memorial and cultural events, according to a government statement. Russian law already prohibits unauthorized protests.

The growing curbs on the right to dissent are one reason why former oligarch-turned-dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky (right) has re-launched Open Russia, an NGO promoting civil society.

KHODOKOVSKYUnlike many oligarchs, Khodorkovsky made the mistake of putting his head above the parapet and challenging the Kremlin, AP reports.

“Putin came to view me as someone who was gaining more influence than he was prepared to grant anyone who was not fully devoted to him,” he says. “He knew I had ambitions to become prime minister and that I’d had positive discussions with members of the pro-Kremlin party to encourage constitutional reform in favor of turning Russia into a parliamentary democracy.”

“He saw me as a threat because he had chosen the path to authoritarianism. That’s why he personally disliked me.”

At a meeting in the Kremlin in 2003, Khodorkovsky confronted Putin over corruption among state officials. Putin retorted by reminding him of the dubious ways in which Yukos had gained its assets and mentioned problems Khodorkovsky’s company had had with the tax authorities.

“I thought then that he hadn’t yet made up his mind about whether to go for a more open and transparent form of government or for authoritarian rule,” he says.

“Turns out that when I brought up the issue of state corruption, he’d already chosen to become more authoritarian. He’d basically made a deal with the state bureaucracy; you can steal as much as you want as long as you are loyal to me. So he took my words as … an attack on him.”

putins-kleptocracyKhodorkovsky’s suspicions are confirmed by a new book, “Putin’s Kleptocracy – Who Owns Russia?” in which Karen Dawisha argues (above) that analysts are wrong to “approach the Putin era as a democracy in the process of failing,” Epoch Times reports:

That assumes that the autocracy that Russia has become is the result of historical accidents or and bureaucratic incompetence. Not so, she said. It is not by chance that we have the current system. She argues that Putin and his clique sought from the beginning to establish an authoritarian regime in Russia. They were not motivated to build a democracy “that would inevitably force them to surrender power at some point,” she states.

“Within weeks of Putin’s coming to power, the Kremlin began to take away the basic individual freedoms guaranteed under the 1993 Russian Constitution.” She cites a document “never before published outside Russia,” which details plans laid out in late 1999 and early 2000 to reshape the government to deny “citizens the rights of a free press, assembly, and speech.”

Regime fragility

The recent arrest of oligarch Vladimir Yevtushenkov “is an indication of the fragility at the heart of Russia’s highly personalized system of power,” says one analyst.

“Western sanctions are having a rapid impact because they are reinforcing broader economic weaknesses that the current Russian system is unable to counter. It cannot reconcile its survival instincts with the need for long overdue structural reforms, argues John Lough, an associate fellow with Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia program.

As a result, Putin’s social contract over the past 15 years, which delivered improved living standards in return for popular acceptance of limitations on civic freedoms, has been turned on its head, he writes for the Moscow Times:

To compensate, Putin can now only offer the population a defiant reassertion of Russia’s influence in Ukraine but at the price of much harsher restrictions on civil society and confrontation with the West.

In these circumstances, it is logical for Putin to fear dissent among the business elite and the formation of interest groups that could unite to challenge his course in Ukraine. By showing that a loyal figure such as Yevtushenkov is not invulnerable, Russia’s business leaders have been put on notice that the slightest sign of protest could lead straight to a prison cell.

“Putin created a typical, corrupt, over-centralized, inefficient police state,” Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister turned Kremlin opponent, tells the Christian Science Monitor. “It’s based on the export of raw materials, and that’s an economic dead end. As for the political system, there is no mechanism to change power without revolution. That is the real danger facing us.”

Explaining Putin’s fear of protests

putinTwenty-five years ago this week tumultuous scenes were unfolding in the East German city of Dresden: inside the central station, tens of thousands of people clashed violently with police, army and Stasi forces, precipitating the peaceful fall of the Berlin Wall a month later.

And the chances are high that a 36-year-old KGB officer named Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin would have followed the chaos with his own eyes, notes Mary Elise Sarotte, visiting professor of government and history at Harvard University.

The Dresden disaster must have had an enormous impact on him – and understanding that may help us to understand his actions today, she writes for the Guardian:

Political scientists such as Alexander George have long theorised that world leaders function according to an internal “operational code” acquired during younger, formative years, which they then rely on to guide them years later when in power.

The events of 4-5 October 1989 may very well have helped to shape Putin’s operational code. His swift and aggressive responses both to the popular uprising in Kiev earlier this year and to the earlier demonstrations in Moscow suggest that they did. He saw the crowds seize control – and is not, to put it mildly, comfortable with that precedent.


Putin’s Russia: a ‘case study in legalized kleptocracy’


putinBuilt and run by some of the president’s closest friends and colleagues from his early days in St. Petersburg, Bank Rossiya is emblematic of the way Vladimir Putin’s brand of crony capitalism has turned loyalists into billionaires whose influence over strategic sectors of the economy has in turn helped him maintain his iron-fisted grip on power, the New York Times reports in a must-read analysis:

If the modern Russian state is Kremlin Inc., Mr. Putin is its chief executive officer, rewarding his friends with control of state-owned companies and doling out lucrative government contracts in deals that provoke accusations of corruption but have the veneer of legality under the Putin system….. Not many people yet understood that in the middle of Russia’s prosperity, the men in the tight circle close to Mr. Putin were becoming fabulously wealthy, and increasingly powerful, in what critics now consider a case study in legalized kleptocracy.

“He has given and he has taken away,” said Mikhail M. Kasyanov, who served as prime minister during Mr. Putin’s first term. “They depend on him, and he depends on them.”

The recent arrest of Vladimir Yevtushenkov has rattled oligarchs who thought close ties to the Kremlin would keep them safe, the FT’s Courtney Weaver writes:

Every oligarch is asking “who might be next?” says the head of a Moscow public relations company whose clients include members of Russia’s Forbes list. “You can find so many skeletons in anyone’s closet. No one understands what the new rules of play are.”

“It’s taken for granted that this is the policy and it’s not to be discussed,” says the aide. “There is a consensus that politics is much more important than the economy. No one is thinking about what [the arrest] is going to do to people’s willingness to invest here.”

Who Owns Russia?

Former Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar Karen Dawisha will present her new book “Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?” with Elizabeth A. Wood joining her as a discussant. The book traces Putin’s sudden rise to power and examines the network of individuals who rose to power and riches along with him. Dawisha’s provocative new study further addresses the nature of Putin’s “power vertical” and the endemic corruption that plagues his system.


Matthew Rojansky Director, Kennan Institute


Karen Dawisha Former Public Policy Scholar, Wilson Center; Walter E. Havighurst Professor and Director, Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies, Miami University 


Elizabeth A. Wood Professor of Russian and Soviet History, MIT  


Putin ‘scared witless by the idea of people power’

russia ukraineThe NATO summit meeting last week in Wales was dominated by Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. The rift with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was an extraordinary contrast to the last NATO summit in Britain, in 1990, Steven Erlanger writes for the New York Times:

A year after the Berlin Wall fell, NATO issued the London Declaration, asserting that “Europe has entered a new, promising era.” Eastern Europe is liberating itself, the declaration said. “The Soviet Union has embarked on the long journey toward a free society. The walls that once confined people and ideas are collapsing,” and those people “are choosing a Europe whole and free.”

 “I could weep for the hopes that we had in the early 1990s,” said Ian Bond, a former British diplomat in Russia, now at the Center for European Reform. “The walls that divided us were collapsing, and Putin is building them up again.”

Rather than moving toward democracy and individual liberties, Mr. Bond said, the Russian government obsesses about public uprisings like those in Ukraine in 2004 and this year.

“Putin wants to show that you can’t have a real democracy in a former Soviet state,” Mr. Bond said. “He’s scared witless by the idea of people power.”

Today, many in Moscow remain convinced that regime change is Washington’s ultimate objective. They view Western support for the revolution in Ukraine—allegedly engineered by Western spies and NGOs—as but an intermediate step toward similar actions against Putin’s government in Russia, according to Eugene Rumer, a senior associate and the director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Russia and Eurasia Program:

If none other than former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski—who is widely respected in Russia as a leading American foreign policy thinker but has also been known as a major hawk since the Cold War—has declared that supporting Ukraine is key to promoting change in Putin’s Russia, then clearly Russia is the next target for Western-engineered subversion. Western sanctions are interpreted in Moscow not simply as an instrument designed to change Russian policy in Ukraine, but as something far more sinister—to weaken Russia, to undermine its government, to instigate a popular uprising, to overthrow the Putin government, to install a puppet regime in Russia.

“In July, Putin told his security council that Russia’s foreign enemies are trying constantly to undermine Russia under the guise of democracy promotion,” Rumer writes for POLITICO. “Such ‘color revolutions,’ he said, will not work in Russia—though he probably has his doubts.”

But James Sherr, author of “Hard Diplomacy and Soft Coercion: Russia’s Influence Abroad,” believes that Mr. Putin was heading toward rupture regardless, Erlanger adds for the Times:

“Putin has had clear strategic objectives, even fixations, from the start, but he has pursued them by tactical improvisation,” Mr. Sherr said.

Mr. Putin is not just aiming to restore Russian primacy in the former Soviet Union, he said. “One of his fixations is Ukraine,” whose independence Mr. Putin regards as a crime.

At the same time, Mr. Sherr said, “we in the West had a very specific, hopeful, illusory idea about the end of the Soviet Union and the kind of Russia we’d be dealing with.” But even by 1994, Russian democrats were being called “romantics,” if not yet traitors. “I think Putin or something like Putin was almost preordained from this whole period of romanticism and illusions,” Mr. Sherr said. “That was fueled by the equally naïve projection of a Western liberal model of economic and political change on Russia.”