Visitors photograph a stuffed lion at Mezhyhira, the estate of Ukraine's deposed President Yanukovych. Putin fears similar exposure. © Breandan Hoffman/Getty Images

The real fight in Ukraine

It’s not about economics or grand strategy—Russia wants to snuff out democracy on its doorstep
June 17, 2015
Prospect has been following the situation in Ukraine closely since November 2013, when then-President  Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union. That decision ignited the “Maidan” protest movement. In this article, Chrystia Freeland explores the divergent paths taken by Ukraine and Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. While Russia under Vladimir Putin has become a kleptocracy, Ukraine’s new leaders are defining their national identity as inherently democratic. By picking a fight with Ukraine, she argues, Putin is testing its people’s readiness to follow them.


On 24th March last year, I was in my Toronto kitchen preparing school lunches for my kids when I learned from my Twitter feed that I had been put on the Kremlin’s list of westerners who were banned from Russia. This was part of Russia’s retaliation for the sanctions the United States and its allies had slapped on Vladimir Putin’s associates after his military intervention in Ukraine.

Four days earlier, nine people from the US had been similarly blacklisted, including John Boehner, the speaker of the House of Representatives, Harry Reid, then the majority leader of the Senate, and three other senators: John McCain, a long-time critic of Putin, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Dan Coats of Indiana, a former US Ambassador to Germany. “While I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to go on vacation with my family in Siberia this summer,” Coats wisecracked, “I am honoured to be on this list.”

I, however, was genuinely sad to be barred from Russia. I think of myself as a Russophile. I speak the language and studied the nation’s literature and history in college. I loved living in Moscow in the mid-1990s as Bureau Chief for the Financial Times and have made a point of returning regularly over the subsequent 15 years.

My maternal grandparents fled western Ukraine after Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin signed their non-aggression pact in 1939. They never dared to go back, but they stayed in close touch with their brothers and sisters and their families, who remained behind. For the rest of my grandparents’ lives, they saw themselves as political exiles with a responsibility to keep alive the idea of an independent Ukraine, which had last existed, briefly, during and after the chaos of the 1917 Russian Revolution. That dream persisted into the next generation, and in some cases the generation after that. My late mother moved back to her parents’ homeland in the 1990s when Ukraine and Russia, along with the 13 other former Soviet republics, became independent states.

The crisis that burst into the news a year and a half ago has often been explained as Putin’s exploitation of divisions between the mainly Russian-speaking majority of Ukrainians in the eastern and southern regions of the country, and the mainly Ukrainian-speaking majority in the west and centre. Russian is roughly as different from Ukrainian as Spanish is from Italian.

While the linguistic factor is real, it is often oversimplified: Russian-speakers are by no means all pro-Putin or secessionist; Russian and Ukrainian-speakers are geographically commingled; and virtually everyone in Ukraine has at least a passive understanding of both languages. To make matters more complicated, Russian is the first language of many ethnic Ukrainians, who are 78 per cent of the population (but even that category is blurry, because many people in Ukraine have both Ukrainian and Russian roots). President Petro Poroshenko is an example—he always understood Ukrainian, but learned to speak it only in 1996 after being elected to parliament; and Russian remains the domestic language of the Poroshenko family. The best literary account of the Maidan uprising to date was written in Russian: Ukraine Diaries, by Andrey Kurkov, the Russian-born, ethnic Russian novelist, who lives in Kiev.

In this last respect, my own family is, once again, quite typical. My maternal grandmother, born into a family of Orthodox clerics in central Ukraine, grew up speaking Russian and Ukrainian. Ukrainian was the main language of the family refuge she eventually found in Canada, but she and my grandfather spoke Ukrainian and Russian as well as Polish interchangeably and with equal fluency. When they told stories, it was natural for them to quote each character in his or her original language.

In short, being a Russian-speaker in Ukraine does not automatically imply a yearning for subordination to the Kremlin any more than speaking English in Ireland or Scotland means support for a political union with England. As Kurkov writes in his book: “I am a Russian myself, after all, an ethnically Russian citizen of Ukraine. But I am not ‘a Russian,’ because I have nothing in common with Russia and its politics. I do not have Russian citizenship and I do not want it.”

That said, it’s true that people on both sides of the political divide have tried to declare their allegiances through the vehicle of language. Immediately after the overthrow and self-exile of Ukraine’s former President, Viktor Yanukovych, radical nationalists in parliament passed a law making Ukrainian the sole national language—a self-destructive political gesture and a gratuitous insult to a large chunk of the population.

However, the contentious language bill was never signed into law by the acting President. Many civic-minded citizens also resisted such polarising moves. As though to make amends for parliament’s action, within 72 hours the people of Lviv, the capital of the Ukrainian-speaking west, held a Russian-speaking day, in which the whole city made a symbolic point of shifting to the country’s other language. Less than two weeks after the language measure was enacted it was rescinded, though not before Putin had the chance to make considerable hay out of it.

The blurring of linguistic and ethnic identities reflects the geographic and historic ties between Ukraine and Russia. But that affinity has also bred, among many in Russia, a deep-seated antipathy to the very idea of a truly independent and sovereign Ukrainian state. Russians see Ukraine as the cradle of their civilisation. Even the name came from there: the vast empire of the czars evolved from Kyivan Rus, a loose federation of Slavic tribes in the Middle Ages.

The ties that bind are also contemporary and personal. Two Soviet leaders—Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev—not only spent their early years in Ukraine but spoke Russian with a distinct Ukrainian accent. This historic connectedness is one reason why their post-Soviet successor, Putin, has been able to build such wide popular support in Russia for championing—and, as he is now trying to do, recreating—“Novorossiya” (New Russia) in Ukraine.
"Subterfuge is, arguably, Putin’s single most dramatic resort to the old Soviet tactic of the 'Big Lie.'"
In selling his revanchist policy to the Russian public, Putin has depicted Ukrainians who cherish their independence and want to join Europe and embrace the western democratic values it represents as, at best, pawns or dupes of Nato—or, at worst, neo-Nazis. As a result, many Russians have themselves been tempted to view Washington, London and Berlin as puppet-masters attempting to destroy Russia.

This subterfuge is, arguably, Putin’s single most dramatic resort to the old Soviet tactic of the “Big Lie.” Through his virtual monopoly of the Russian media, Putin has airbrushed away the truth of what happened a quarter of a century ago: the dissolution of the USSR was the result not of western manipulation but of the failings of the Soviet state, combined with the initiatives of Soviet reformist leaders who had widespread backing from their citizens. Moreover, far from conspiring to tear the USSR apart, western leaders in the late 1980s and early nineties used their influence to try to keep it together.

It all started with Mikhail Gorbachev, who, when he came to power in 1985, was determined to revitalise a sclerotic economy and political system with perestroika (literally, rebuilding), glasnost (openness), and a degree of democratisation. These policies, Gorbachev believed, would save the USSR. Instead, they triggered a chain reaction that led to its collapse. By softening the iron fist style of governing that traditionally accrued to his job, Gorbachev empowered other reformers—notably his protégé-turned-rival Boris Yeltsin—who wanted not to rebuild the USSR but to dismantle it.

Their actions radiated from Moscow to the capitals of the other Soviet republics—most dramatically to Kiev, where Ukrainian democratic reformers and dissidents seized the chance to advance their own agenda of political liberalisation and Ukrainian statehood. Now, Putin, in his rewriting of history, would have the world believe that the US was cheering and covertly supporting secessionism. On the contrary, President George HW Bush was concerned that the break-up of the Soviet Union would be dangerously destabilising. On 1st August 1991, he delivered a speech to the Ukrainian parliament exhorting his audience to give Gorbachev a chance at keeping a reforming Soviet Union together: “Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.”

Nearly four months later, Gorbachev made a televised plea to the Ukrainian people not to secede. He invoked his maternal grandmother who (like mine) was Ukrainian; he rhapsodised about his happy childhood in the Kuban in southern Russia, where the local dialect is closer to Ukrainian than to Russian. He quoted—in passable Ukrainian—a verse from Taras Shevchenko, a serf freed in the 19th century who became Ukraine’s national poet. Gorbachev was fighting back tears as he spoke.

That was 30th November 1991. The next day, 92 per cent of Ukrainians who participated in a national referendum voted for independence. A majority in every region of the country including Crimea (where 56 per cent voted to separate) supported breaking away. Two weeks later, Ukraine’s President, Leonid Kravchuk, met Yeltsin, who by then was the elected President of the Russian Federation. The two of them, along with the President of Belarus, signed an accord that formally dissolved the Soviet Union.

Having broken up the Soviet Union, Moscow and Kiev both faced three immediate and novel challenges: how to establish genuine statehood and independence for their brand new countries; create effective democracies with checks and balances and the rule of law; and make the transition from the communist command economy to capitalism. Accomplishing all three tasks at once was essential, but it proved impossible.

Post-Soviet Russia’s wrong turn came in the form of the Faustian bargain its first group of leaders—the Yeltsin team of economists known as the young reformers—was willing to strike in order to achieve their overriding priority: wrenching Russia from central planning to a market economy. They accomplished a lot, laying the foundations for Russia’s economic rebound in the new century. But along the way they struck deals—most stunningly of all, the vast handover of state assets to the oligarchs in exchange for their political support—which eventually transformed Russia into a kleptocracy and discredited the very idea of democracy with the Russian people.

Ukraine’s path to failure started with the 1991 compromise between democratic reformers and the Ukrainian communist establishment. That tactical alliance proved to be both brilliant and doomed. Its value was immediate—Ukraine became, as long as Russia acquiesced, a sovereign state. The cost was revealed only gradually, but it was staggeringly high.

Even though the pact between Ukrainian reformers and the Communist Party left the nomenklatura, as the Soviet leadership class was known, essentially intact, it turned out to be remarkably—and mercifully—inept at authoritarian governance. The Ukrainian Communist Party and the KGB, with their formal ties to Moscow severed, were unprepared to act effectively on their own. Instead of closing ranks to rule the country, the power elites broke into competing clans associated with the major cities and regions. The result was a newborn country that was accidentally pluralistic, allowing democracy to spring up through the cracks in the regime’s control. Proof of that came in 1994 when Kravchuk lost his reelection campaign. The very fact that he could be voted out of office was an early but important milestone for a fledgling democracy. It is one that Russia, with its more deeply rooted absolutist political system, has yet to reach.

What followed was not exactly encouraging, however. Kravchuk’s successor, Leonid Kuchma, began to turn back the clock, harassing the opposition and the media. After serving the maximum two five-year terms allowed by the constitution, Kuchma was able to rig the 2004 election in favour of his dauphin, Yanukovych, who was Prime Minister.

But Kuchma and Yanukovych overestimated their power to manipulate the electorate—and they underestimated civil society. In what became known as the Orange Revolution, Ukrainians camped out in the Maidan—the central square in Kiev—and demanded a new election. They got it.

Yanukovych’s opponent and polar opposite was Viktor Yushchenko, a highly respected economist and former head of the central bank. He was the champion of Ukrainian democracy. Largely for that reason, he was hated and feared by many in Russia, notably in Putin’s inner circle. Yushchenko was poisoned on the eve of the ballot. The attempt on his life left him seriously ill and permanently scarred, yet he triumphed in the election. However, Yushchenko then did such a poor job in office that Yanukovych, who had failed to become President by cheating in 2004, ended up being elected fair and square in 2010.

Over the next four years of Yanukovych’s rule, the Ukrainian state became more corrupt and authoritarian than it had been even in the last years of Kuchma’s presidency. Nonetheless, the legacy of the 1991 compromise between the democrats and the apparatchiks lived on through the success of at least two of its main goals: peace and survival. When, two years ago, Ukraine celebrated its 22nd anniversary as an independent state, the longest period in modern history, it had—for all its troubles—at least avoided violent separatism within its own borders, not to mention a war with Russia.

According to Putin’s propaganda, the original faultline lay within Ukraine itself, in the form of ethnic tension, and only later did the conflict take on a geopolitical dimension and disrupt relations with Russia. A more objective and accurate account is that the escalating crisis of the last year and a half erupted in two stages: first, when Yanukovych reneged on a promised trade deal with Europe, part of a general turning away from the west, which set off a massive demonstration of people power; and then when, with Moscow’s support, he unleashed bloody force on the demonstrators.

Sitting on my uncle Bohdan’s couch in central Kiev, 10 days after Yanukovych’s flight from Ukraine on 21st February 2014, I began to grasp what was at stake. Bohdan is my mother’s brother, an agronomist who was born in and grew up in Canada, but moved to Kiev during the 1990s, around the same time my mother did. He married a bilingual Ukrainian and, after two decades living there, is comfortable in both Ukrainian and Russian.
“Russians do not surrender!”
When I arrived at Bohdan’s high-ceilinged, postwar apartment on 4th March, he and his wife, Tanya, like so many Kievites, were glued to television coverage of the political tumult that followed Yanukovych’s departure. In the past two weeks alone, the citizens of the capital had suffered the bloodiest conflict on their streets since the Second World War. They had also watched their reviled President, Yanukovych, flee to Russia; a provisional government take charge; Russian troops assert control over part of their country; and Putin insist on his right to take further military action. Ukrainians were simultaneously celebrating their eviction of Yanukovych, mourning the victims of the slaughter on the Maidan, horrified by the invasion of Crimea, and fearful of the possibility of a long, grinding war fanned and often directly waged by their giant neighbour to the north.

During my evenings on my uncle’s couch, I watched a number of extraordinarily dramatic events playing out on the TV screen, including many acts of heroism. Some dramatised the complexity of the ethnic and linguistic entanglements that Putin was exploiting cynically to his own advantage. In those first days of March, for example, Maksym Emelyanenko, captain of the corvette Ternopil in the Ukrainian navy, was ordered by the commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet to hand over control of his vessel. Captain Emelyanenko answered: “Russians do not surrender!” The surprised Russian vice-admiral asked the Ukrainian seaman what he meant. Captain Emelyanenko replied that, although he was ethnically Russian (his Ukrainian last name notwithstanding), he had given his oath of loyalty to the Ukrainian state and he would not betray it.

My aunt Tanya, who’d grown up in Ukraine, recalled that the slogan “Russians do not surrender” (“Russkiye ne sdayutsa”) was a famous battle cry of the Red Army during the Second World War, in which Ukraine, of all the Soviet republics, bore the second highest number of casualties in absolute numbers and suffered an even greater loss than Russia in proportional terms. She found Captain Emelyanenko’s valour to be both poignant and a stinging rebuke to the Kremlin leader who was now unleashing war on the Soviet fatherland’s own children.

My uncle and aunt, along with many Ukrainians, hoped that passive resistance would prevail as it had in the Maidan demonstrators’ stand-off with Yanukovych. But, as the covert occupation of Crimea, ordered by Putin and spearheaded by “little green men” (as the Russian soldiers without insignia who took over the peninsula were called), inched toward outright annexation, it quickly became apparent that peaceful tactics would not succeed. That said, I could sense, even in those early days, that Putin’s use of overwhelming force to crush Ukrainian resistance was undermining his ultimate goal, which was to bring Ukraine back under Russian sway.

The day after I arrived in Kiev, I met Yegor Sobolev, a 37-year-old activist, over cappuccinos at a café on the Khreshchatyk, Kiev’s central boulevard. An ethnic Russian who was born and raised in Russia, Sobolev was one of a group of young, politically-engaged Ukrainians who were the backbone of the Maidan movement that had begun back in November 2013. He was a confidant of Mustafa Nayyem, a Muslim refugee from Afghanistan who was celebrated for launching the protests through a call to action on Facebook.
"The air in the capital was thick with smoke from bonfires, reeking with the stench of burning tyres"
Sobolev and Nayyem are both former journalists who had tried to uncover the skullduggery of the Yanukovych regime, and then had been motivated to political action by their revulsion at Yanukovych’s brutality. (Both men would be elected to parliament several months later, as advocates of democratic and economic reform.) “For many years, a big social problem was the passivity of people in the building of the nation,” Sobolev told me. “Yanukovych forced us, not just during the Maidan but before, to get angry and finally to fight, even with weapons. People have learned that the country is them.” I heard similar sentiments wherever I went in Kiev that week.

The air in the capital was thick with smoke from bonfires, reeking with the stench of burning tyres. The once-elegant Khreshchatyk was a grimy tent city, the avenue itself denuded of its cobblestones after protesters had pulled them up to throw at the armoured special forces who were firing tear gas and live bullets at them. A steady stream of Kievites, many of them stylish matrons in long fur coats and high-heeled leather boots, made their way to Institytska, the steep street leading up from the Maidan. Their mission was to lay bouquets on the two-story-high mountain of flowers in tribute to the victims of police and snipers, known as the “Heavenly Hundred” (it sounds less mawkish in Ukrainian).

But Kiev also felt invigorated and united. “Yanukovych freed Ukraine, and Putin is uniting it,” Sobolev told me. “Ukraine is functioning not through its government but through the self-organisation of its people and their sense of human decency.”

I found myself thinking back to 1991, when Ukrainian democrats I interviewed felt they had to choose between democracy and sovereignty. Now, in the wake of the Maidan and in the midst of the Russian land grab, Ukrainians had come to see that both are critical and that they are mutually reinforcing.

By early March of last year, as it became clear that Ukraine was fighting not just for its political soul but for national survival, support for the agenda of the pro-Maidan provisional government and the sense of solidarity under pressure started to flow south and east—into the very regions that Putin, not to mention simplistic international media coverage, had characterised as pro-Russian.

A comprehensive poll conducted in April by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, one of the country’s most respected polling firms, found, for instance, that in those regions of Ukraine 76.8 per cent of respondents opposed the seizure of government buildings by separatist protesters; only 11.7 per cent supported it. Nearly 70 per cent were opposed to the unification of their region of Ukraine with Russia; only 15.4 percent were in favour. An overwhelming 87.7 per cent said that Ukraine should make its own decisions about internal affairs, such as constitutional structure and official language, without any involvement from outside powers, specifically Russia. (Interestingly, 71.5 per cent said the rights of Russian language speakers were not under any threat in Ukraine.) It is worth emphasising that these strong views are the opinions of people in the lands Putin has claimed as “Novorossiya,” the largely Russian-speaking southern and eastern regions of Ukraine.

“People in Odessa, Mykolaev, Donetsk, and Dnipropetrovsk [cities with large Russian-speaking populations] are coming out to defend their country,” Sobolev said. “They have never liked the western Ukrainian, Galician point of view. But they are showing themselves to be equally patriotic. They are defending their country from foreign aggression. Fantastical things are happening.”

Before I left Kiev in March, I took a final walk along the Khreshchatyk. Two hand-written signs, taped to the walls of buildings, stood out. “Russian people, we love you,” one said, in Russian. “Putin, Ukraine will be your grave,” another, written in Ukrainian, warned.

I saw the transformation Sobolev had told me about first-hand 10 weeks later, when I returned to Ukraine for the presidential election. I spent a day in Dnipropetrovsk, a city just 180 miles from the Russian border, whose citizens are largely Russian-speaking and whose industry was vital to the Soviet Union. Leonid Brezhnev was born and educated in the region, and it remained his lifelong political powerbase.

But on election day, Dnipropetrovsk was wreathed in symbols of Ukrainian statehood. Apartment buildings were draped in blue and yellow, the colours of the national flag; every second car sported the same colours; many election officials wore shirts worked with traditional Ukrainian embroidery. Dnipropetrovsk had resisted the little green men—the Governor had offered a $10,000 bounty for any captured Russian soldier—and was scornful of the “Soviet” mentality of neighbouring Donetsk, which was suffering from a so-called hybrid war (waged by Russian-backed locals armed with Russian equipment and artillery and supported by undercover Russian officers, advisors and soldiers who were, according to the Russian government, “volunteering while on holiday”).

This political shift provoked another twist of Ukraine’s linguistic kaleidoscope. Now that civil society’s common enemy was Yanukovych and the Kremlin political values he represented, speaking Ukrainian in public came to symbolise the fight for democracy, notably including in the east. For his part, Sobolev told me he had overcome his “psychological barrier” to speaking Ukrainian by reading For Whom the Bell Tolls in Ukrainian translation out loud to himself.

Ukrainians today are proud of the democratic episodes in their country’s history, and in Kiev you are likely to hear the country described as culturally inclined toward democracy. In late November, President Poroshenko celebrated the formation of a new government following October parliamentary elections with a tweet that made this point to his 237,700 followers: “The main difference between Ukraine and Russia isn’t only linguistic, it lies in our differing political cultures and attitudes to freedom and democracy.”

It is an entirely good thing that Ukraine’s new leaders are defining their national identity as inherently democratic and freedom-loving. But there have been times when Russia might have laid claim to such an identity, too. To take just one example: on 19th August 19 1991, when Boris Yeltsin climbed on top of a tank in Moscow in front of the White House to defy a hardline coup and assert that “the democratic process in the country is acquiring an increasingly broad sweep and an irreversible character, the peoples of Russia are becoming masters of their destiny.”

A quarter century later, no one would make that assertion in Moscow. But it is the sort of thing said every day in Kiev. And that is why Putin is determined to subdue Ukraine. He doesn’t need Ukraine for economic gain—indeed, his aggression has come at a great, and mounting, economic cost. He doesn’t need Ukraine for strategic reasons—Putin today is master of Crimea, but Russia is more isolated, less respected, and surrounded by more suspicious neighbours than was the proud host of the Sochi Olympics just a year ago. He doesn’t even need the immediate popularity bump leaders always get at the beginning of a foreign war, especially one promised to be short and victorious. What he does need is to show that a democratic Ukraine living under the rule of law can’t work.

As Mikhail Kasyanov, who served as Putin’s Prime Minister and once shared a sauna with his boss before joining the political opposition, told me in November: “We are similar people. As soon as Russians understand that Ukrainians can be free, why shouldn’t we be, too? That is why Mr Putin hates what is happening so much, and doesn’t want Ukraine to escape his grip.”

Leonid Bershidsky, a distinguished Russian journalist who was so appalled by what happened in his country in 2014 that he left, thinks that for Putin, 22nd February 2014 was the tipping point. That was the day the police melted away from Mezhyhirya, Yanukovych’s grotesquely palatial estate outside Kiev, and the public flooded in. They discovered a lavish complex including grand, manicured parks, a zoo and a restaurant shaped like a pirate ship. Inside the main residence, a solid gold loaf of rye bread—a tribute to Yanukovych from a petitioner—was found. That absurd sculpture quickly became the symbol of Yanukovych’s criminal excess. (You can follow it on Twitter at the Russian-language parody account @zolotoybaton.) That was the moment, Bershidsky believes, when Putin “submitted to paranoia” and decided it was essential to crush the new Ukraine. After all, he and his cronies have palaces, too.

Bershidsky is right. There were many bloodier and more dramatic episodes over the past year. But the opening of the gates of Mezhyhirya gets to the essence of what is at stake. The uprising in Ukraine and the fight between Ukraine and Russia is about many things—Ukraine’s consolidation as a nation, a wounded Russia’s rising nationalism, the uncertainty of a world in which the Cold War is over. At its heart, however, the conflicts within Ukraine, and the fight Putin has picked with it, are about post-Soviet kleptocracy, and where and whether there is a popular will to resist it.

Last September, I drove out to Mezhyhirya. It had become a much-visited public park. The grassy shoulders of the surrounding country roads were crowded with parked cars. A few couples were having their wedding pictures taken beside the ornate fountains. Two entrepreneurs were renting bicycles at the entrance to make it easier to tour the vast grounds. Others were doing a brisk business selling toilet paper and doormats with Yanukovych’s image on them. Even more popular were the ones depicting Putin.

This is an edited version of a longer article first published by the Brookings Institution