Ukraine Shows the West it has yet to win the Cold War
With the growth of China and India the world is currently undergoing an unprecedented shift in economic power from West to East. As a corollary, a similar yet less visible shift is occurring geopolitically. In the last decade this latter shift accelerated as Vladimir Putin, Russia’s autocratic President, pivoted from Western integration to Eastern expansion.
The problem with this pivot was that it came at an ideological cost. Rather than open Russia to democracy, Putin began to rebuild an autocratic empire. In fact, Russia’s move away from democracy has been so severe that the former National Security Advisor of the United States likened Putin to Hitler.
The analogy is quite striking. Compare, for example, Putin’s persecution of homosexuals ahead of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics with Hitler’s persecution of the Jewish minority during the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Or, consider that both rose to power mostly through democratic means and then brutally began to consolidate power by outlawing all competing political parties, all non-nationalized media, and then controlling the judiciary. Or, contrast how both grew their territorial holdings with land grabs justified by ethnic and nationalistic means (Hitler with Czechoslovakia in 1938 and Putin with Georgia in 2008). Somewhat ironically, Hitler was named Time’s Man of the Year in 1938 and Putin was Forbes’ Most Powerful Man in 2013.
As Putin’s power increases and the world settles into new spheres of influence, the West must act to ensure that Russia will not be in a position to dictate terms. Putin recently showed the world how powerful he has become by flexing his muscle in Syria, while simultaneously shaming the United States through a New York Times Op-Ed (on September 11th of all days).
The current revolution in Ukraine may determine the extent to which Russia may challenge U.S. and European influence for the next generation. It is not a coincidence that the United States first publicly recognized the multipolar world in a 2009 speech by Joe Biden in Ukraine.
Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe in land mass (behind only Russia) and the seventh largest in population (about on par with Spain). It has ample natural resources, a highly educated, diligent workforce, and an advantageous geographical position.
The significance of Ukraine to most Europeans is due to energy, or more precisely gas. The EU imports about 20% of its gas from Russia on pipelines that flow through Ukraine. Ukraine also depends on Russia for about 30% of its gas supply. Russia is able to wield substantial influence over Ukraine via its control of Ukrainian gas supplies. This influence was most visible in 2010 when during a gas dispute the Russian President was able to extract a lease extension for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet on Ukrainian territory until 2042.
Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is the crown jewel of Russia’s Navy. It provides Russia with naval power over the Mediterranean and Indian Oceans. It also gives Russia a platform from which to launch offensive naval maneuvers. Losing this fleet would be a major setback for Russia’s influence around the world and particularly over the Middle East.
Beyond the Black Sea Fleet, Russia’s military also depends on Ukraine. For example, many of the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICMBS) that form the key of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces were manufactured in Ukraine. These ICBMS and other military technologies require spare parts and maintenance that only Ukrainians can provide.
Most significantly, however, Ukraine is a symbol of democratic progress in Eastern Europe. As long as Ukraine is free and democratic, the parties in Russia that oppose Putin can point to their neighbors in the West and say: “if Ukraine can have freedom, then so can Russia.” The idea that peaceful democratic revolutions may succeed could be the best possible way to curb Putin’s influence.
The Association Agreement
The Association Agreement represented an expansion of democracy and stability in Europe that first began in 2004. At that time, although Ukraine was an independent country, the old power structures of the Soviet Union still existed. Just as Putin was able to suppress opposition parties in Russia, the current Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych was consolidating power in Ukraine by falsifying elections.
But in November of 2004, about nine years ago, a stunning thing happened. In what was dubbed the “Orange Revolution,” hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians peacefully poured out into the streets demanding new free and fair elections. The protests were so powerful that new elections were held and Mr. Yanukovych was voted out of office.
A lesson that Ukrainians soon learned after the Orange Revolution was that asking for free and fair elections was not enough. Although the opposition had won the Presidency, the old power structures still remained in place and Mr. Yanukovych remained influential in Parliament. In 2008 Ukraine was hard hit by the financial crisis and the Ukrainians blamed the incumbent President. As a consequence Ukrainians narrowly voted Mr. Yanukovych back into power in 2010 in contested elections.
Mr. Yanukovych won because he presented himself as a different man who would listen to the people. He would work to integrate Ukrainians with the European Union as many Ukrainians wanted. Mr. Yanukovych’s first flight was not to Russia, but to Brussels, and in 2010 negotiations on the Association Agreement began.
But old habits die hard. Soon after being elected, Mr. Yanukovych once again began to consolidate power. Journalists began to suddenly disappear. He jailed the opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko in what the European Court of Human Rights labeled “Selective Justice.”
The release of Ms. Tymoshenko was one of the conditions of entering into the Association Agreement (full text here). Further, among other things, the agreement called for reforming Ukraine’s judiciary, modernizing Ukraine’s economy to meet EU standards, and creating an EU-Ukraine free trade area. Ukraine’s entry into the agreement came after four years of intense negotiations and was supposed to be a validation of the EU’s eastern policy. But everyone underestimated Putin.
On November 9th just over two weeks before Mr. Yanukovych was to sign the Association Agreement, he flew to Russia to meet with Putin. Putin had already started to undermine the Association Agreement. He had imposed a trade boycott on Ukraine in August and threatened to take further action if the agreement was signed. He was able to offer lower gas prices and to write off debts Ukraine owes Russia. He also allegedly offered his support to Mr. Yanukovych to rig the 2015 Presidential elections.
In the last minute, Mr. Yanukovych demanded that the EU provide Ukraine with approximately $160 Billion in support. This is the cost that Mr. Yanukovych estimated that Ukraine would have to bear due to Putin’s retaliatory measures. When the EU declined, Mr. Yanukovych walked away from the EU and towards Putin.
In conclusion, the protests you see in Ukraine today aren’t only about the Association Agreement. They are about freeing Ukraine from the old Soviet power structures, including Putin’s unjust influence. The protests seem different than the protests of the Orange Revolution because the people recognize that free and fair elections are not enough, the old power structures must change. The protesters are fighting tyranny and people’s freedom hangs in the balance. To the U.S. and Europe, the protests symbolize that the Cold War has not yet fully been won.
To quote Ronald Regan: “I urge you to beware the temptation of pride… to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire… and thereby [to] remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.” The front line of the struggle is being fought in the streets of Ukraine today – and Ukrainians need your support.
–Mark Semotiuk is a Fordham University Law Student currently studying European Union Law in Paris at Pantheon-Assas (Paris II). Mr. Semotiuk has been an international election observer in Ukraine on multiple occasions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.