Our view of Russia needs to take into consideration how Russia views us.

MATTHEW ROJANSKY, Director, Kennan Institute, Wilson Center


By the fall of 2013, Ukrainians had really had enough with corruption. They were fed up a quarter century after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The cherry on top was [President Viktor] Yanukovych’s unreal corruption, so they were primed for protest. The reason that this protest movement ended up being called “Euromaidan” – maidan just means “square” in the Ukrainian language – is that Ukraine was supposed to sign an association agreement with the European Union. [An association agreement] is really a very minor sort of bureaucratic tool; it’s just a very typically EU bureaucratic way of approaching diplomacy. But it became deeply symbolic for Ukrainians.

The idea was that by attaching themselves, even through these limited bureaucratic instruments to Europe, they could have some future. There was a light at the end of the tunnel. They would not be trapped in endless post-Soviet twilight, and they could at some point aspire to living the way that normal people did in Germany, even in Poland, in the Baltic States – places that some of them had been to and certainly seen on television. They had an idea that’s how normal people live.

What Yanukovych did at the end of November 2013 was that he announced to the Ukrainian people [that he was] not signing this agreement. Instead [he] was going to accept a big bailout loan from Vladimir Putin in Russia and establish a relationship with the Russian-led union called the Customs Union or the Eurasian Union. This was what drove people out to the street in vast numbers. So you had European flags, you had Ukrainian flags, the blue and yellow, and then you had these historic Ukrainian nationalist flags, the red and the black. What you didn’t have in the early phase of this protest was political party flags, because in the early part of this protest in the fall of 2013, it was not political. Ordinary Ukrainian citizens had turned out into the streets because they were mad about corruption and they wanted the agreement with the EU signed, but they wouldn’t allow the opposition political parties to co-opt the protest movement. It was really a true kind of mass movement in favor of signing the European association agreement.

Things began to change rather quickly. On the night of November 30, two years ago, Yanukovych, or someone high up in the Ukrainian government, ordered his special riot police called Berkut, which means “eagle,” to come out into the street and beat up some of the young people who were staying late into the night in front of official government buildings. This is a part of the world where if there is one thing that is sacred, it is youth; it’s the idea of protecting our children, providing some kind of decent future for our children. Having done this, the government began a steady loss of legitimacy and a decline into complete dysfunction that terminated in the complete fall of Yanukovych and the end of the state. So people turned out in massive numbers following this episode of the beating, even though no one in fact was killed.

There was this massive burst of social network activity. This truly was a social network-facilitated, if not driven, revolution. This was late fall, winter in Eastern Europe; it was very cold. Where could you get warm clothing? Where could you get some hot soup? Where could you get medical attention? How could you connect with the international media? All of this stuff was being coordinated on Facebook. At the same time, people were acknowledging in surveys that they were going out into the streets; they were joining the Maidan protests because they were hearing about it via social networks.

Those of us in the Silicon Valley, San Francisco universe, we’re sort of technology evangelists and we think technology is an unmitigated good. [But] it can be used by both sides. This is a message you might have received on your iPhone if you were a protestor out in the Maidan a couple of years ago in Ukraine: “Dear Subscriber, you have been registered as a participant in a mass demonstration.” That’s a little bit disturbing given that the authorities know who you are and know exactly where you are.

What changed things to bring it to a head? Starting in the middle of the second half of February, someone gave an order – and to this day we still don’t know who; there are a lot of conspiracy theories on this making the rounds – someone gave an order to government forces and others, as yet unknown, to begin shooting at protestors. They were using high-powered sniper weapons. This drew a reaction from the protestors – they started to hurl Molotov cocktails. They started to deploy people with guns and [there was] an all-out shooting war for several days on the streets of Kiev. More than a hundred people were killed.

At the critical moment, around the 21st or 22nd of February, the European Union intervened. They sent a group of senior diplomats. The Russians sent a senior former official as an observer and they brokered a compromise between Yanukovych, who at this point was literally fighting for his life, and the opposition leaders, who had now been brought into the protest as the kind of formal negotiating representatives.

It seemed that there was a deal.

But it only seemed like that for a couple of hours, because we quickly found out that Yanokovich for the last several days had been loading up freight trucks with all the valuables from his palace and planned to escape the city. He, in fact, did that. He disappeared from Ukraine right around the 21st of February, and Ukraine ceased to have a functional government. That was the moment at which this protest, which went from being non-political to political to violently political, finally became a real revolution and it was the end of the ancien régime in Ukraine.

[The] most important [thing] about the MH17 downing was that it transformed and galvanized public opinion in Western Europe. Until that time, Western Europe had thought, yes this had all began with EU association and the Maidan, but it was one of those Soviet things. In actual fact, when you had hundreds of people, who were either Dutch or German or British citizens or had connections to those countries, who were killed as a consequence of this war, suddenly Europe kind of snapped awake, Germany in particular. This was the beginning of very serious sanctions coming from the EU and very serious diplomatic involvement from Anglo-America, Germany, and others.

So what is it that Mr. Putin wants in Ukraine? Why is he doing this? There are a number of reasons. I like to start with domestic politics, because domestic politics for Mr. Putin is about survival. Nothing could illustrate that fact better than what happened [recently] when a major leader of the opposition was murdered in front of the Kremlin. It isn’t to say that Putin did it. It isn’t to say that Putin’s next. The reality is politics in Russia is not a game. It’s life and death. And Mr. Putin realizes the precedent that has been set in Ukraine, which is that ordinary people can pour out into the street, they can remove a duly elected, albeit authoritarian-leaning, leader like Victor Yanukovych. If as a result of that their lives get better and they are welcomed with open arms into the European Union and NATO and they are more prosperous and they are more secure, there will be a very simple message to the Russian people: Why not us? These people are in our family, they’re cousins after all. Why shouldn’t we try the same thing? It is vitally important for Putin’s survival that he not allow this precedent to be set.

Second, in Russia, Putin is not just a president. He is not just a former prime minister. He is not just a German-speaking Judo champion. He is a czar. As a czar, there is the big father, which is God, and the little father, which is the czar, and then there’s everyone else. He is a divine figure. His reputation, his image, is all premised on the idea that he is never wrong. His interpretation of what has happened in Ukraine is very distinctive. He has described from the beginning a Western – specifically CIA – financed and organized nationalist coup, in which the West has been in clear alliance with neo-Nazi fascists in Ukraine in order to bring down a pro-Russian government and then to commit acts of ethnic cleansing, genocide, just as in World War II, against the Russian people. That is the Putin narrative. [It] is bought-into and supported by a great number of Russians. Now are there facts in it? Yes, there are. That’s the problem. It’s a relatively easy story to tell because you have Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the Svoboda Party, doing his Nazi salute and shaking hands with John McCain. So there is a sort of pretense of evidence here.

Of course, there’s been Western involvement in this. Of course, the West chose sides. Any notion that we were neutral to what happened in Ukraine is complete bunk. The West was obviously on the side of the protestors, obviously wanted to see Yanokovich go and obviously didn’t care that much when it turned violent. So it’s very easy for Putin to make this case, and there are in fact some fascists in the new Ukrainian government; there are certainly some in the Parliament; it’s not a fact that you can conceal. But is it the overwhelming majority? Is that what happened? No, of course not.

Prior to the crisis in Ukraine, the Russian economy had not been doing well and Mr. Putin’s popularity had gone from its high of 80 percent down to the sixties. Since the Ukraine crisis, since the annexation of Crimea, the beginning of war in Ukraine and all of this propaganda of how Russians are under assault and there’s genocide against Russians, his popularity has shot way up and it remains in the eighties today. He knew that that would work, because in 2008 the exact same strategy worked when Russia went to war against Georgia; nationalism sells. That’s how wars work.

Now, amazingly, this is also working despite the continued decline of the Russian economy. As the Russian economy tanks thanks to falling oil prices and Western sanctions and a general lack of reform for 25 years, nonetheless Putin’s popularity is going up. Putin spends his time with the same two or three thousand people all the time in different mixtures. It’s his top loyal lieutenants, his retainers, the oligarchs, etc. He keeps hearing the same thing. So I don’t know what he knows, but it’s certainly not what he would’ve known back in the days when he was an intelligence operative for the KGB and facts really mattered. He is now a czar, and he is isolated and he is all-powerful.

Now, third on the list [of Putin’s motivations], geopolitics is important. There’s a positive side to it, as Putin sees it, and a negative side to it. The positive side is Putin’s vision. Not of recreating the Soviet Union; he’s not a communist. He’s not Soviet. He’s not socialist – none of that stuff. He’s a corporatist. He’s about enriching himself and protecting his power. But his vision is Russia and its historic sphere back together. Ukraine, most important – its 50 million people to Russia’s 145 million – would be a vast increase and improvement on the Russian economy. It’s the relative weight vis-à-vis China, vis-à-vis the EU, vis-à-vis the United States could be increased and therefore their bargaining position would be better.

His message to other post-Soviet leaders has not been entirely insane. His message is: Think of how seriously you are taken in the rest of the world. Not very seriously. You guys are basket cases. You guys are backwards. You guys are wanted only for your natural resources. Come join with us. We can once again be a significant geopolitical block and we can negotiate better terms for what is ultimately the inevitable economic globalization and integration that will happen, but let’s do it on our terms. It’s not an insane message. So when people talk about the Eurasian Union, the customs union, that’s actually what’s going on. 

Now there is a negative side to that message. Here I think of Putin as Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings movies. He throws down his staff and says, “You shall not pass!” to the demon, but in this case, the demon is NATO. Since the 1990s ,NATO has been expanding gradually closer and closer and closer to Russia’s borders. There was a time when you could think maybe Russia would become a member of NATO or maybe we would just get rid of NATO altogether. Those thoughts are obviously long past. It’s very clear we are locked in a mutually shared destructive relationship, just as we were in the Cold War, where nuclear weapons are aimed at each other and armies are stationed against each other. Russia’s position is, Look, you can expand to Poland, you can even expand to the Baltic States, but Ukraine is the last straw. We will not let NATO come to Ukraine.