Don’t Let Putin Grab Ukraine

By Timothy Snyder
February 3, 2014

As Russian leaders, diplomats and commentators ponder the division of Ukraine, we must begin to ask what this would actually mean.

If the present crisis ends with the fragmentation of the Ukrainian state, the result will be disastrous for all concerned, including Russia. The risk is that, in conditions of chaos and in the absence of a decisive Western stance, Russia could follow the logic of its current commitments to a very dangerous conclusion.

Unlike Europe and the United States, Russia has a clear stance on Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s hope for the future is his Eurasian Union, to be established next January as a rival to the European Union. Belarusian and Kazakh strongmen are game to join his dictators’ club. But since the idea has little popular support anywhere, Eurasian integration can take place only in conditions of Russian domination and local dictatorship. For Mr. Putin, the Eurasian Union would be meaningless without Ukraine. Eurasian ideology is the brainchild of Alexander Dugin, who has never disguised his admiration of fascism. His website publishes Russian strategists who claim that Ukraine is not a sovereign state.

The current crisis in Ukraine began because of Russian foreign policy. The Ukrainian government, led by Viktor Yanukovych, seemed poised to sign a popular association agreement with the European Union. Mr. Putin jumped in quickly with cash and low gas prices for Mr. Yanukovych, who then abruptly changed course, refusing to sign it. Because Mr. Yanukovych’s family has amassed unbelievable wealth during his presidency, he might also have been concerned about the possibility that the European Union would bring the rule of law. This would not be a risk in the Eurasian Union.

Since late November, millions of Ukrainians have campaigned for a pro-European course, only to find themselves branded extremists, foreign agents and criminals. With the Russian money came the Russian model of rule. Yanukovych had the Parliament illegally “pass” legislation that made Ukraine a dictatorship on Jan. 16.

The new laws were imitations of Russian ones. But Ukraine is not Russia. Too many Ukrainians have tasted too much freedom for too long. The people resisted this sudden attempt at tyranny. Mr. Yanukovych lost control over local institutions of power, and last week made gestures toward the opposition by accepting the resignation of an unpopular prime minister and reversing some dictatorial laws. But grotesque repression continues under a ministry of internal affairs with close ties to Russia, and the military’s leadership is making noises about “stability.”

If Russia does intervene again, the next stage might be an internal coup, where pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians take power, perhaps retaining Mr. Yanukovych as a figurehead. The Ukrainian politicians responsible for the violence depend on Russian intervention for their political survival. If Russia supports an internal coup in Ukraine, resistance will only increase.

For the time being, the Olympic Games at Sochi might constrain Russian policy, since Mr. Putin has little interest in looking like an imperialist aggressor while playing host to the world. Before and during the Games, it would be worthwhile watching for three signs of escalation: If Russian propaganda insists that the Ukrainian opposition are Nazis and anti-Semites (such manipulative exploitation of the memory of World War II is already underway); if terrorist attacks in Russia during the Olympic Games are blamed on Ukrainian nationalists; and, finally, if Russian forces ostensibly in southwestern Russia to secure the Games are assembled not to the east of Sochi but to the west — along the Ukrainian border.

Russia could engineer a coup in Ukraine out of sheer nervousness and lack of better ideas, in the vague hope that the Eurasian dream can somehow be rescued for Mr. Putin. But if and when the Russian puppets fail, Mr. Putin would face a choice between armed intervention and loss of face. The use of Russian arms in Ukraine would probably lead to massive bloodshed, but not to a favorable outcome for Moscow. Even if Russia could win a quick war, which is unlikely, underground resistance would continue.

The European Union and the present Ukrainian leadership must strike a deal — and quickly. The remaining dictatorship laws must be repealed and a full amnesty granted to opposition activists. International organizations such as Doctors Without Borders should be given a list of those arrested and allowed to visit the wounded. Parliamentary democracy should be restored on the model of the 2004 Ukrainian Constitution, and new presidential and parliamentary elections must be held. The way out of the crisis is a return to Ukrainian democracy. Mr. Yanukovych was elected, but has since illegally changed the system in ways that undermine its legitimacy.

With a fresh start and new elections, Ukrainians could decide for themselves whether they prefer Europe or Eurasia. From its side, the European Union could renew talks over an association agreement, and offer some immediate loans. If democracy is restored in Ukraine, the Ukrainian economy would no doubt be hurt by the end of Russian loans and by Russian trade boycotts. But European countries can buy whatever products Russia boycotts and, in the long run, trade with Europe is more important than trade with Russia.

This is a test for the European Union. The Ukrainian leaders who organize violence and keep close ties with Russia are already in Europe — with their diplomatic passports, bank accounts, front companies, residences and lobbyists. The real question is whether oligarchy or inclusion is the future of Europe.

If the European Union does not act and there is a Russian-backed internal coup in Ukraine, the likely consequences are military disaster for Russia and political crisis in the European Union. If European diplomats can broker a solution, Russian diplomats and pundits will protest that Ukrainian democracy is nothing but Western meddling. But in their hearts, most Russians, if perhaps not quite all, will be relieved.

Timothy Snyder is a professor of history at Yale and a fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences. He is the author of “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.”