Our Dangerous Mistake in Ukraine

What's happened in the last few weeks may look like a revolution — but it's really a cycle.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Vasily Shaposhnikov / Kommersant Photo / Getty Images

Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko addresses anti-government protesters on Independence Square on February 22, 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine.

From the outside, it looks like another fast post-Soviet revolution: In just one week, Ukraine has leapt from the precipice of civil war to an all-out victory for the political opposition. While President Viktor Yanukovych and other leaders of the toppled regime attempted to flee the country last weekend, Yulia Timoschenko, the most prominent member of the opposition, was released from jail and immediately vaulted to front-runner status in the presidential election scheduled for late spring. The tone of the demonstrations in Kiev changed from violence to celebration.

(MOREWhat You Should Know About Ukraine)

Appearances, though, can be misleading. It may look a lot like a revolution and a victory for democracy, which is how many pundits, policymakers and kibitzers in the west are describing it. But that view is a triumph of hope over rigorous analysis. If the last 15 years of post-Soviet politics have taught us anything, it is that the term revolution is often misused, and that the excitement of the moment can obscure more difficult realities and challenges.

Almost a decade ago, a similar euphoria, buoyed by Western-endorsed labels of democratic revolution and irreversible change, engulfed Kiev in the form of the Orange Revolution. Reportedly rigged presidential election results prompted the uprising — and accompanying protests successfully pressured the government to annul the winning candidate’s victory. Western backed Victor Yushchenko won the rematch against Viktor Yanukovych. But in only a few years, victories of the Orange Revolution began to fade. Yuschenko was unable to truly unify the country or deliver on the democratic and economic hopes of the Ukrainian people and beginning in 2008 the global economic downturn eviscerated the economy. Yanukovych — rejected in 2004 — won the 2010 presidential election.

(MORENo, Russia Will Not Intervene in Ukraine)

We shouldn’t have been surprised then — and we shouldn’t be surprised today if, in a few years, another set of protests, or simply an election, ousts a hypothetical President Timoschenko. That’s because we can’t view Ukraine through the lens of revolution — one after another either heralding a new era of democracy, or dismantling its foundations. Instead, we must question the lessons learned from the Orange Revolution, specifically the idea that those events represented a clear break from the past and an unambiguous movement towards democracy. This is particularly important because we’re hearing that same message today — and it’s guiding us towards the wrong policy decisions.

To start, the term “democratic revolution” isn’t quite right to describe either the events of 2004 or 2014. In both of these cases, the colorful and exciting events can be more accurately understood as democratic breakthroughs. In other words, what has happened in Ukraine over the last three months makes democracy there possible, but it is not democracy.

(MOREWhat the West Doesn’t Understand About Ukraine’s Politics)

Conflating democratic breakthroughs with full-fledged democracy is a mistake Washington has made in many other countries, including Georgia in 2003, Egypt in 2011, and Kyrgyzstan in 2005. In each case this has led to policies that underestimate the institutional forces pulling the country away from democracy and assume the leaders of the breakthroughs possess democratic traits and intentions.  In most cases, these assumptions were illusory. It is easy to see the United States making the same error in Ukraine again — mistaking the ouster of Yanukovych as a resolution to the nation’s liberal West vs. Russia-aligned East divisions, underestimating the residual strength of Yanukovych’s political base, and overlooking the democratic deficits in the new leadership. In a very real way, making these types of mistakes is the default setting of the American government.

It is possible that recent events in Ukraine will lead to a real revolution. But thinking in terms of political cycles rather than dramatic upheavals will allow us to craft more clearheaded policies on Ukraine going forward. Over the last 15 years, Ukraine has vacillated between authoritarianism and democracy, never fully become one or the other. Its leaders have represented different ideological — and geographic — allegiances. Today, Ukraine is likely moving towards a period where, for a finite time, the more liberal and Western-oriented parties will govern the country. But that is the latest, not the last, iteration of Ukraine’s cyclical politics.

(MOREU.S. Promises $1 Billion in Loan Guarantees to Ukraine)

Ukraine’s future stability — and its statehood — depends on its ability to break out of this cycle. Constantly moving between different geopolitical orientations and perhaps even regime types strains the already weak national cohesion and deepens existing regional and ideological cleavages. Washington and the European Union can only help in this process if they recognize the pull of cycles of power in Ukraine. If, however, they greet each ascendancy of the more liberal faction as a revolution and ignore the power of continuity in Ukraine, the West will continue to misread Ukraine and fail to address the deeper problems of the country in consolidating democratic breakthroughs.

The West would also be mistaken to think of Ukraine as a zero-sum Cold War chess game where it can win and Russia can lose. Barring dramatic changes at the leadership and grassroots level, there is no outcome possible that doesn’t take into account Russia’s legitimate interests, as well as the views of the millions of Ukrainians who do not view Russia as a threat and geopolitical bogeyman. There is a reason Yanukovych, for all his ample flaws, was elected president in 2010.

The challenge for the new Ukrainian leadership is not to strike a decisive victory for the West and democracy and somehow defeat Russia, but rather to build a new consensus in the country that doesn’t treat half the population as absolute winners and the other half as absolute losers. Ukraine has to move beyond the cycles of alternating victories for forces from western and eastern Ukraine, ephemeral wins that have stymied the political development of the nation in the past decade.

Building such a consensus will be very difficult, but it will be impossible if Ukraine’s western friends continue to speak triumphantly of revolution and a win for democracy.

Lincoln Mitchell is a scholar and consultant working on political development and the former Soviet Union. His most recent book is The Color Revolutions (Penn Press, 2008). He is also a frequent blogger on The Huffington Post, where he writes primarily about domestic U.S. politics and baseball. Follow him on Twitter (@LincolnMitchell) and read more of his work at http://www.lincolnmitchell.com. This article first appeared in the Weekly Wonk.