No, Alexander Motyl, Putin Hasn’t ‘Lost’ Ukraine

I think only someone truly delusional could believe that Putin has “lost Ukraine” (and one must wonder, what does that phrase even mean?). Alexander J. Motyl, resident pro-Ukrainian Russophobic columnist at World Affairs Journal, is one such delusional person. That’s why I couldn’t resist responding to his latest article, “How Putin Lost Ukraine.” Without further ado.. let’s bring it on!

Putin at his inauguration in 2012, obviously thinking, "Bow to my might, weak Ukraine!" Source.
Putin at his inauguration in 2012, obviously thinking, “Bow to my might, weak Ukraine!” Source.

Half a year ago, in the fall of 2013, Ukraine was well on the way to becoming an authoritarian vassal state of Russia. Now, thanks to Russia’s neo-fascist dictator, Vladimir Putin, Ukraine is well on the way to becoming a democracy and a full-fledged member of the international community.

If by “authoritarian vassal state” you mean “close partner of Russia due to historical and cultural ties,” well, I guess you’re right, Mr. Motyl. Likewise, if by “full-fledged member of the international community” you mean “bankrupt country that leeches off US and IMF aid and is gleefully killing its own citizens in the eastern part,” then, right again!

How did Putin snatch a humiliating defeat from the jaws of surefire victory? How could he have walked into a strategic trap of his own making? In a word, how did he lose Ukraine?

Who says he’s lost Ukraine? In politics, changes can happen very quickly. Sure, in the long run, Putin may “lose” Ukraine (whatever that means), or he may not. There’s no way to tell right now.

And make no mistake about it: it was Putin, and no one else, who lost Ukraine. He had it. He could easily have kept it. But now he’ll never have it again. And he has no one to blame but himself.

Never have it again? Come on, you and I cannot know that. In fifty years, the Russian Empire may rise again and take over all of Eastern Europe. You never know. (Not saying I necessarily endorse such a scenario, just that it’s impossible to predict what the world will be like in the future.)

Putin has never understood Ukraine. For him, as for all too many Russians, it’s a historical mistake: a part of Russia that’s been swayed from the path of righteousness by a few dastardly fascist imperialist cigar-chomping bourgeois nationalists in cahoots with the CIA. If you treat a bona fide country with a bona fide people with a bona fide identity as your dirty backyard, don’t be surprised if you slip in the mud and fall on your face.

If you want to get technical about it, Ukraine has historically been a part of other massive countries: first the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, then the Russian Empire, and of course the Soviet Union. Ukrainian language and culture are extremely similar to their Russian counterparts—and I’m not saying that as an insult. It’s just a fact: the two countries are next-door neighbors, so it makes sense that they have evolved and developed together over the centuries.

As for Putin’s figurative fall in the mud, the financial markets don’t see it that way. The Russian stock market has recovered impressively since the Crimea invasion. If that’s what Motyl calls a slip in the mud, I’d love to see what he calls a success.

Gratuitous photo of Viktor Yanukovych. Source.
Gratuitous photo of Viktor Yanukovych. Source.

Putin’s first major slip was during the 2004 Orange Revolution, when, stupidly, he backed Viktor Yanukovych. That disaster taught Putin nothing, and, nine years later, he made the same mistake during the Euro Revolution. How could a supposedly smart leader back the same loser—not once, but twice? How could that same supposedly smart leader still insist that the loser remains Ukraine’s legitimate president—even after a fair and free election gave a huge mandate to Petro Poroshenko? The sad thing is that, after 15 years in power, Putin still doesn’t “get” Ukraine.

Wait, wait, wait… Yes, Putin backed Yanukovych in 2004. It was the smart thing to do, considering Yanukovych’s pro-Russian proclivities. The man has strong ties to Russia and was always willing to work with Russia (unlike Orange Revolutionary winner Yushchenko, under whose reign Russia recalled its ambassador). What Motyl neglects to mention is that Yanukovych won the 2010 presidential elections. Obviously that means Yanukovych is a total loser, right? (Apparently in Motyl’s world, winning a presidential election that international observers called free and fair is something only losers do. That makes a strange amount of sense when you consider that he supported the Orange Revolution, which was an illegal usurpation of power.) Of course, Motyl would never consider Yushchenko a loser, even though he left office with low approval ratings and barely received any of the vote in 2010.

As for Yanukovych remaining Ukraine’s legitimate president, Putin is right about that because Yanukovych was never legally impeached according to the Constitution of Ukraine (the prior link is to an extensive post I wrote on this matter).

Putin’s most egregious blunder was to coerce Yanukovych into rejecting the Association Agreement with the European Union last fall. That strategic error led to the demonstrations in Kyiv, Yanukovych’s downfall, the emergence of a pro-Western, democratic Ukraine, and Russia’s transformation into a rogue state and sponsor of terrorism. That’s bad enough. Worse, Putin’s move was premised on his belief that the agreement would remove Ukraine from Russia’s sphere of influence. Sure, it would have provided Ukraine with a foothold in Europe, and, yes, it would have diminished Ukraine’s international isolation in the long run, but a Yanukovych-misruled Ukraine would have remained firmly ensconced in Russia’s backyard for a long time to come.

Poor Yanukovych. Everyone treats him like he’s some robot invented by Putin and his evil KGB minions in a secret lab in the heart of Russia who only does Putin’s bidding. Believe it or not, he’s an individual capable of independent thought, and he exercised this independence when he rejected the Association Agreement (which is just plain bad economics—why would anyone voluntarily associate themselves with the economic failure that is the European Union?).

And how can we know that Ukraine is so pro-Western and democratic right now? A ton of what’s happened in the past seven months is similar to what happened in 2004 with the Orange Revolution. Yet post-Orange Revolution Ukraine apparently isn’t democratic because… Yanukovych was elected in 2010. It’s truly a “Clockwork Orange” Revolution.

After all, with the Association Agreement as his main claim to fame, Yanukovych would have probably been reelected in 2015; the penetration of Kyiv’s government by agents of the Kremlin would have remained high or gotten higher; and the presence of Russian propaganda, business, and other forms of “soft power” would have only grown. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s military would have continued to decay, Ukraine’s foreign policy would have remained unremittingly pro-Russian, and a large segment of the Ukrainian population would have stayed ambivalent about Ukraine’s independence. The Europeans, meanwhile, and Germany in particular, would have remained indifferent to Ukraine. What’s not to like from the Kremlin’s point of view? A smart Russian president would have encouraged Yanukovych to sign the agreement with Brussels.

I agree with the idea of European indifference towards Ukraine, but I do think the Association Agreement would have economically damaged Ukraine. Yanukovych did the country a (temporary) favor by not signing it.

Alas, when it comes to Ukraine, Putin’s IQ takes a nosedive. Having sparked the Euro Revolution, having destroyed his pal Yanukovych, having embarked on the idiotic Crimean adventure, and having supported terrorism in the Donbas, Putin has forced Ukraine to become independent, democratic, and pro-Western. He’s forced it to develop an army and security apparatus. He’s forced the population to take sides and discover its Ukrainian identity—and pride. He’s forced the government to streamline the state apparatus. He’s forced elites to embrace democracy. And he’s forcing them to embark on radical economic reform and administrative decentralization. Faced with Putin’s aggression, Ukraine has no choice but to embody all the qualities—democracy, rule of law, tolerance, a functioning market economy—that Putin systematically destroys.

It’s too early to call Russia’s acquisition of the Crimea idiotic. It’s going to be expensive, of course, but high oil prices and high European gas prices are a boon to Russia and will probably enable the country to afford it.

Ukraine isn’t exactly a normal country right now, though. Half of the country—the industrial east—is embroiled in a bitter civil war. The east is not pro-Western and did not vote for Poroshenko, the current president. I also see very little evidence of any Ukrainian pride or identity in the east (or any of this alleged economic reform from the government). If anything, the easterners are very, very pro-Russia.

Worse still for Putin, his imperialism is driving Ukrainian elites to seek refuge in Western security institutions. Half a year ago, the elite and popular consensus in Ukraine was distinctly anti-NATO. The West, meanwhile, was suffering from “Ukraine fatigue” and had little interest in Ukraine as a strategic partner. Now, everything’s changed. Ukraine is the darling of the West, and Ukrainian public opinion on NATO is shifting.

Are there any opinion polls for how the public feels about NATO? (I don’t care how the elites feel. The elites are not the regular people and no country should join NATO without a democratic referendum on the matter.)

Amazingly, Putin appears to think that, by supporting terrorism in eastern Ukraine, he can compel Ukraine to back away from the West. The effect, as any schoolboy confronted by a bully could have told him, is just the opposite. Faced with a hostile Russia, Ukraine has no choice but to turn westward. And, thanks to Putin’s treachery and mendacity, a democratic Ukraine will never again be the close, and fawning, partner of Russia that it was until a few months ago. Since Putin cannot be trusted, whatever deal Kyiv eventually signs with Moscow will at best establish a condition of formally peaceful relations between hostile neighbors (“cold peace”) or informally belligerent relations between hostile neighbors (“cold war”). Warily peaceful relations following a “de-annexation” of Crimea and recognition of Kyiv (“hot peace”) will be impossible as long as Putin remains in power.

Again, never say never. The Ukrainian people may kick Poroshenko out in five years and elect another Party of Regions (Yanukovych’s former political party and the major pro-Russian party in Ukraine) candidate. It’s possible—after all, that scenario happened in 2010 after six years of Yushchenko’s misrule.

For the time being, most Russians are still too bedazzled by Putin’s Tarzan yells to realize that he’s lost Ukraine irrevocably—and may be in the process of losing Russia. When they wake up to the reality of his “harebrained” blunders, Putin will discover that his sky-high ratings are as ephemeral as his swings on the vine are a pathetic pose.

Putin has approval ratings that other world leaders can only dream of. It’s interesting, isn’t it: everyone keeps saying the people will turn against Putin (the latest such incident was with the December 2011 protests), but somehow, they just… don’t. It must be so disappointing, waiting for a revolution that hasn’t come.

Putin's approval ratings. Source.
Putin’s approval ratings. Source.

Ukraine, right now, is a failed state. There’s a war raging in the east. The country is wreck right now. And this isn’t the fault of Putin or Yanukovych or the Party of Regions or Putin’s dog or whoever else the west enjoys blaming. It’s the fault of a bunch of protestors who enacted a violent coup against a sitting president—and who are now forcing the entire country to suffer the consequences for their rash, illegal actions.

One thought on “No, Alexander Motyl, Putin Hasn’t ‘Lost’ Ukraine

  1. The truth is that Yanukovich rejected the association agreement not because he was pro-Russian, in fact more often than not he wasn’t, but because that agreement would mean total ruin to Ukraine’s already crippled economy. A sort of a final shot just to make sure the victim is dead. Taking that into account and a very strange idea that a functioning democracy can somehow grow out of hatred the prospects of Ukraine seem to be rather gloomy.
    Paradoxically it may turn out that, however cruel it may appear, it’s exactly what Ukraine needs. Probably it should drain the cup of sorrow to the dregs in order to get rid of illusions.

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