Ukraine is the former Soviet Republic that was most closely connected to Russia — ethnically, historically, linguistically and culturally — before the 1991 Soviet breakup that spun off 15 newly independent countries, Ukraine among them. The massive protests that have been underway since late last year were triggered by Ukrainian President Yanukovich’s failure to sign an agreement that could have started the country down the path to eventual membership in the 28-member European Union.
The demonstrations signal a popular desire to loosen historic ties to Russia in favor of integration with Europe; opinion polls show 44 percent of the public supports seeking EU membership, with 36 percent against and 20 percent undecided. Favorable opinion is particularly high among younger people (58 percent) and in western Ukraine (74 percent).
The Ukranian government now says it has implemented “almost all” of the opposition’s demands, but protesters are keeping up the pressure.
The main reason behind the government’s turn away from Europe is Russian economic and political pressure. Russian President Putin regards Ukrainian subservience as the linchpin of a tight Russian “sphere of influence” among states that once comprised the Soviet Union; he accuses the European Union and the West generally of trying to “capture” Ukraine.
Ukraine came to this juncture after repeated failures to modernize economically or liberalize politically since gaining independence in 1991. Early policies allowed a handful of individuals, mostly former Communist apparatchiks, to benefit; today close to half the country’s GDP is controlled by about 50 individuals.
We have in Ukraine another example of how social media is shattering barriers and revolutionizing international discourse.
Current President Yanukovich, elected in 2010 and closely allied with Moscow, has been unable to pull Ukraine out of the hole deepened by the global financial crisis of 2008, and he has pursued repressive political policies that include jailing former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko on trumped-up charges.
So what is the deeper meaning of all this and what does it tell us about geopolitical trends at this juncture? Here are five things to think about:
1. Collapse of an empire
First, this is just the latest example, amid many others in today’s world, of how long it takes for the dust to settle after the collapse of an empire, which is what the Soviet Union really was. Elsewhere we continue to feel the aftershocks from long-gone empires in events like the sectarian war in Syria, the chaos more broadly in the Arab world and — at the end of the last century — in the Balkan wars. All of these reflect the frailty of border arrangements made by surviving powers when the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires imploded at the end of WWI.
So expect the reverberations of Soviet collapse, a mere two decades behind us, to continue for some time yet.
2. Social media revolution
Second, we have in Ukraine another example of how social media is shattering barriers and revolutionizing international discourse. Millions of smartphones and other devices now show the average person the gaps between their lives and governance and what happens elsewhere in the world. Someone may be reading this right now on the streets of Kiev.
3. Culture is not political destiny
Third, the European Union’s reach into Ukraine and the welcoming response of its people pose multiple dangers for the system that Putin is trying to maintain in Russia. On one level, Ukraine’s gravitation to the West would be the death knell for Russian hopes of maintaining a dominant role among the constituent parts of the former Soviet Union, something Russian leaders have sought since the Union’s breakup, most recently in the form of a proposed customs union.
The EU is now turning to a number of countries that were once Soviet republics. Ukraine clearly is the most important…
On a deeper level, a Ukrainian drift westward, especially if accompanied by the political reform that is the European Union’s trademark requirement for aspiring members, would show the Russian public that a society closely mirroring theirs does not have to accept the authoritarian policies that have become the norm in Russia. The Ukrainian example would be all the more powerful because most Russians see Kiev as the historical birthplace of Slavic culture. I have heard Russians say simply: Ukraine is ours.
4. A new frontier for the E.U.
Fourth, Ukraine represents a new frontier for the European Union, which, despite its recent financial problems, is history’s most successful experiment in pooling sovereignty and spreading political liberalization. It has done much to consolidate such trends by drawing in former Soviet satellite countries such as Poland, Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria.
The EU is now turning to a number of countries that were once Soviet republics. Ukraine clearly is the most important of these on measures such as population size (48 million), cultural affinity and, trade volume — much of the Russian natural gas essential to Europe comes through Ukrainian pipelines as will, increasingly, supplies Europe needs from energy-rich Central Asia.
5. U.S. allies and economic ties
Fifth, all of this matters greatly to the United States. The more of Europe that shares Western practices in everything from politics to trade, the more likely Washington is to find foreign policy allies and advantageous economic relationships. At the same time, Washington must temper its enthusiasm so as not to further antagonize Russia at a moment when Moscow’s cooperation is essential to help resolve the Syrian war and various disputes with Iran.
Regardless of how the immediate conflicts in Ukraine end, the likelihood is that the pressures for reform will not go away. The protests there are forging new and more effective opposition leaders and, short of brutal repression, we can expect to see them moving to the forefront as the next presidential election approaches in 2015.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director and acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who retired in 2004. During his 30-year career, he served as deputy director for intelligence and founded the Sherman Kent School for Intelligence Analysis. He is now a senior fellow and distinguished practitioner-in-residence at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.