Who lost Ukraine? This is the question many Western policymakers are asking following recent dramatic events in the former Soviet republic. The country’s pro-Kremlin leader, President Viktor Yanukovych, is on the verge of permanently consigning Ukraine to Russia’s sphere of influence. This would be a major victory for Russian strongman Vladimir Putin — maybe his most dangerous achievement so far. If Ukraine falls under Moscow’s orbit, then Mr. Putin will be close to attaining his central geopolitical goal: restoring a great Russian empire. Hence, what hangs in the balance is not just the fate of Ukraine, but Eastern Europe as well.
Hundreds of thousands of flag-waving protesters have poured onto the streets of Ukraine’s capital, Kiev. A statue of Vladimir Lenin was toppled. Police forces have raided the headquarters of opposition parties. Anti-Yanukovych media outlets have been harassed. The spark that lit the fuse of Ukrainian nationalism was the Kremlin’s internal meddling. For nearly a year, Mr. Yanukovych had promised that he would sign a trade pact with the European Union. The deal, however, was more than simply about free trade. It signified Ukraine’s desire to join the West and fulfill its civilizational destiny.
This is why Russia objected. Behind the scenes, the Kremlin exerted tremendous pressure. Mr. Yanukovych was compelled to not sign the treaty. Moscow offered emergency loans for Ukraine’s sickly economy, as well as cheap natural gas. It also offered something more personally lucrative: bribes. Mr. Yanukovych is Mr. Putin’s poodle. Corrupt, venal and sycophantic, he both fears and admires the Russian dictator. Mr. Putin made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: Take the money — and the Kremlin’s terms — or suffer the fate of former President Viktor Yushchenko, who was poisoned (and his face badly disfigured) for standing up to Moscow’s imperial designs. Mr. Yanukovych is afraid of being poisoned. He has surrounded himself with an entourage of food tasters, especially when traveling abroad.
The Kremlin’s thuggish tactics have worked. Mr. Yanukovych is now planning to have Kiev join Mr. Putin’s pet project: reviving the former Soviet empire through the creation of a Eurasian customs union comprising Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Moldova. In other words, Mr. Yanukovych betrayed his own country. He wants Ukraine to become a vassal of Russia — as it was for centuries under czarist rule.
When students protested Mr. Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU trade pact, he called in the riot police. On television, millions of Ukrainians saw the horrible pictures of students being savagely beaten. Many were then imprisoned on trumped-up charges. The state-sanctioned violence sparked national outrage, triggering the mass protests that threaten to overthrow the Yanukovych regime. The scenes are eerily reminiscent of the 2004 “Orange Revolution,” when pro-democracy Ukrainian patriots succeeded in overturning a rigged presidential vote. At the time, it was Mr. Yanukovych — again doing Mr. Putin’s bidding — who sought to steal the election. It’s time Ukrainians realized their leader bows not to them but to Moscow.
At a conference on Ukraine in Ottawa, Canada, several years ago, I warned the Ukrainian students in the audience that Mr. Putin would never let Kiev go. Some laughed, claiming I was a virulent Russophobe. The joke is now on them. The reason is simple: The Russian dictator is a murderous former KGB thug, who openly longs for the return of the Soviet Union. He thinks the USSR’s disintegration was one of the greatest “tragedies” of the 20th century. Think about that: He is nostalgic for a monstrous totalitarian regime responsible for the deaths of more than 40 million — including the genocidal terror famine known as “the Harvest of Sorrow,” which claimed between 7 million and 10 million Ukrainian lives. Ukraine was the cradle of anti-communist resistance within the former Soviet Union.
This is why Soviet leaders, such as Josef Stalin, sought to smash any semblance of Ukrainian nationhood. Stalin waged a war against the Ukrainian peasantry in the hopes of breaking Ukraine’s backbone. He failed, but this explains Mr. Putin’s obsession with subjugating Kiev. He has never forgiven Ukraine for its fierce opposition to Soviet domination.
Mr. Putin despises Ukrainian nationalism. At a 2008 NATO meeting, the Russian strongman told then-President George W. Bush, “Ukraine is not a real country.” Rather, Mr. Putin said, it was a “gift” from Moscow. He publicly refers to Ukraine as “Little Russia.”
Yet, his bellicose revanchism masks a deep fear. If Ukraine were to escape Moscow’s grip and become part of the European community, it would pose a mortal threat to Mr. Putin’s rule. Ukraine is a large, Orthodox, Slavic country that neighbors Russia. A democratic and prosperous Ukraine — anchored in Western institutions and based on the rule of law — would reveal to the Russian people that a viable alternative to a mafia state exists. Ukraine’s example would spill over, forcing Russians to confront Mr. Putin’s authoritarian kleptocracy.
The protests in Kiev are more than just about the future of the Yanukovych regime. It is about fulfilling the dreams and hopes of the Orange Revolution. It is a battle for Ukraine’s heart and soul. Ukrainians now face a stark choice: Continue sliding toward the Kremlin’s moral darkness and political abyss or stand tall as a member of the European community of nations. Embrace the old hammer and sickle or the blue and yellow. Patriots should rise up. They have nothing to lose but their chains.
Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a radio host on WRKO AM-680 in Boston.