At Stake In Ukraine's Drama is the Future of Putin, Russia and Europe
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Beyond the burning barricades and the corpses in the streets, here are five big things that are at stake in Ukraine's insurrectionary drama. They mean that what happens in Ukraine will affect not just the Ukrainians, but also Russia, Europe and our sense of what makes a revolution.
1. The future of Ukraine as an independent state-nation
Intense violence inside a state, still falling short of civil war, can go two sharply different ways. It can tear the state apart, as in Syria and former Yugoslavia, or, if people join hands to retreat from the brink, it can weld a state-nation together – as in South Africa. (A state-nation is one in which a shared civic national identity is created by the state, rather than a single ethnic national identity being embodied in it.)
One reason that recent months in Ukraine have been so chaotic is that Ukraine, despite being an independent country for more than two decades, is neither a properly functioning state nor a fully formed nation. President Viktor Yanukovych is a thug, but he is also an ineffective thug. Effective, disciplined security forces would not be shooting demonstrators dead almost at random one minute, but abandoning the same streets to them the next. Similarly, Ukraine's administration, parliament and economy are nothing like those of a normal European state. They are infiltrated and manipulated to an extraordinary degree by oligarchs, camarillas and the president's family, aka the Family.
This is what many Ukrainians are so angry about, and what some have now given their lives to change. But if yesterday's proposed deal – for a coalition government, constitutional reform to give parliament back more powers, and a presidential election before the end of the year – can be made to stick, then these bloody days could yet go down in history as a decisive chapter on the path to independent state-nationhood. If not, further disintegration looms.
2. The future of Russia as a state-nation – or an empire
With Ukraine, Russia is still an empire; without Ukraine, Russia itself has a chance to become a state-nation. The future of Ukraine is more central to Russia's national identity than that of Scotland is to England's. Centuries ago, people who lived in the territory that is now Ukraine were the original Russians. In this century, the people who call themselves Ukrainians will shape the future of what is now Russia.
3. The future of Vladimir Putin
An independent Russian journalist has observed that the most important event in Russian politics during the last decade happened not in Russia but in Ukraine. It was the Orange Revolution of 2004. So, with considerable skill, Putin's "political technologists" developed techniques to counter such developments. When the Kremlin trumped the EU's rule-rich but cash-poor association offer to Ukraine with a cool $15bn, one well-known Russian political technologist, Marat Gelman, tweeted: 'Maidan installation sold for 15 billion – most expensive art object ever.' (The Maidan is Kiev's Independence Square.)
But it didn't quite go according to plan. So last Monday Russia released another tranche of the $15bn, and on Tuesday Yanukovych's militia started using live ammunition against increasingly desperate and sometimes violent protesters. The fact that Putin was prepared to risk international blowback during his treasured Sochi Olympics shows how vital Ukraine is to him. Now he has retreated tactically, faced with the facts on the ground – but have no illusions that he will stop intervening.
4. The future of Europe as a strategic power
Just as Ukraine is not simply split between east and west, so the geopolitical issue here is not whether Ukraine joins Europe or Russia. It is whether Ukraine becomes increasingly integrated into the political and economic community of Europe, as well as having a very close relationship with Russia. It is also whether the EU will stand up for basic European values on its own front doorstep, as it failed to do in Bosnia.