The protesters present intellectual challenge to Russia's idea of regional domination.
You have to hand it to the Ukrainians. They sure know how to stage a revolution.
In November of 2004, popular outrage over the dubious victory of pro-Kremlin candidate Viktor Yanukovych in presidential elections blatantly manipulated by Moscow brought hundreds of thousands into the streets in what came to be known as the "Orange Revolution." The protesters succeeded beyond their wildest dreams; over the course of two months, the original results of the vote were annulled and a new election held. In it, popular, Western-leaning candidate Viktor Yushchenko handily defeated Yanukovych in what was widely seen as a referendum for a new national direction — one free of Russian influence.
Unfortunately, years of political back-sliding and domestic corruption followed, allowing Yanukovych to capture the presidency and the old, pro-Moscow status quo to regain traction in Kiev. But now, Ukrainians are in the streets once again.
Earlier this year, Ukraine had been on track to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union this fall, thereby further cementing its pro-Western trajectory. But massive pressure from Moscow — in the form of political strong-arming and threats of a trade war — forced the Yanukovych government to think twice. At the EU's Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius in late November, Ukraine's president refused to ratify the agreement, suggesting instead an alternative tripartite arrangement that would include Russia as well (something European leaders have rejected). The move was seen in Kiev as a setback for independence and a strategic victory for the Kremlin. Mass protests erupted as a result.
Then, to add insult to injury, Yanukovych met behind closed doors with Russian President Vladimir Putin in early December in the Russian Black Sea town of Sochi. The minutes of the meeting were not made public, but speculation ran rampant that Ukraine's president had given up the ghost and acquiesced to joining Russia's vaunted neo-Soviet economic project, known as the Eurasian Union. That only served to add fuel to the fire and for days now hundreds of thousands of protesters have turned out in Ukraine's capital to vent their anger at the Yanukovych government's perceived political capitulation to Moscow.
Nominally, the protests taking place in Ukraine today are about economic choices and the ill-advised decision of Yanukovych to hitch his country's fiscal star to the Russian Federation. In reality, however, they are about much more. Ukraine's new revolutionaries are fighting for nothing less than their country's independence — a commodity which Russia covets and which has gradually been eroded by tUkrainian leaders' efforts to appease an increasingly imperial, expansionist Moscow.
Yanukovych himself faces some stark political choices. After years of misrule and venal politics and with his government in the throes of a full-blown crisis of legitimacy, Ukraine's president has to decide whether to fight or to flee. Heartening signs suggest that he isn't looking for a fight. Yanukovych has now met with former political rivals to discuss power-sharing options in an effort to defuse the protests. Coming days will show whether such a compromise is even possible.
The biggest loser in all this, however, could wind up being Moscow. For years, under the guidance of Putin, the Kremlin has pursued a "re-Sovietization" agenda aimed at rolling back the sovereignty of the fragile former republics of the USSR and erecting a post-modern empire of political and economic influence. It has succeeded in doing so largely unopposed, until now. Ukraine's new revolutionaries have made it abundantly clear that they believe Ukraine's destiny is to be both free and pro-Western — and that they are ready to fight for this future. In the process, they have presented the first serious intellectual challenge in a long time to Russia's vision of regional domination.
That makes their message worth heeding and their cause worth supporting.
Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council and author of Implosion: The End of Russia and What It Means for America.
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