My recent posts have bounced back and forth between comments on political uprisings and concerns about weakness in the world economy.
The two are related–around the world we have seen aging populations and slowing economic growth in rich countries, leaving governments with fewer resources for social spending, while private wealth has blossomed among the plutocrats and kleptocrats, who both depend on world markets and privileged access to those markets.
Where kleptocrats have flourished, protests have spread. When the response to those protests has been clumsy and heavy handed the protests have spiraled upwards. And where governments have been unable to bring disciplined, overwhelming repression to bear — either because their own elites and armed forces would not support such actions or because they felt constrained by ties to foreign democratic regimes — the leaders eventually fled or were captured and their governments overturned.
The latest, most striking, and most dangerous such sequence has just unfolded in the Ukraine. It is a classic example of a “central collapse” type of revolution — so classic, in fact, that I can claim to have written the script before the event. Here are two paragraphs from Chapter 3 of my new book Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction, published last month by Oxford University Press:
“In cases of central collapse, the regime has already weakened greatly, usually far more than is evident. The government may be nearly bankrupt; it has been losing legitimacy with business, administrative, and military elites for some time; and popular groups have been mounting local protests, strikes, or rural revolts in recent years. Such revolutions may start with peasant revolts or uprisings in rural areas, with urban demonstrations, or with an elite challenge to state authority. They may be precipitated by a short-term economic downturn or price spike, a military defeat, a manipulated election, or new and resented actions by the government. Whatever the initial impetus, it is swiftly followed by a major demonstration in the capital city.
The government tries to disperse the demonstration, but encounters surprising difficulty in doing so; initial efforts by the government are followed by expanding demonstrations. Police forces are unable to cope with the urban disorders, and the government faces a situation where the military has to be called in. Yet the military refuses to act decisively to clear the streets; key units may stand aside while others may even defect and go over to the opposition. The inaction of the military acts as a signal to the ruler, elites and the population that the regime is defenseless. Crowds surge and take over the capital; similar mass demonstrations spread to other cities and the countryside. All of this generally unfolds over a few weeks or at most a few months. The ruler may then flee or be captured, while elites supported by crowds or the military take over government buildings and set up a provisional government.”
I have italicized a few phrases that particularly applied in the case of Ukraine, but the basic flow of events should by now be quite familiar!
So the obvious question is — what happens next? The answer is conditional, for the outcome of revolutions is forged in the actions and reactions of revolutionary leaders, not in the original causes of the conflict. Here, the actions of revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries, and foreign actors combine to generate a range of possibilities.
In the Ukraine, the revolutionaries who took power in Kiev following the flight of President Yanukovich made serious errors. They should have first assured all Ukrainians, especially the Russian-speaking residents of the south and east, that the new government would vigorously protect the rights and standing of Ukrainian citizens everywhere. Second, they should have assured Russia that its military and naval base agreements would be respected, and that the new regime wished to negotiate economic and political agreements with BOTH the EU and Russia, to be a friend to both. That would have at least taken away any provocations and provided an entry to beginning three-party (Ukraine, Russia, EU) talks to protect Ukrainian sovereignty.
Instead the new government in Kiev — with a large number of extremist Ukrainian nationalists from the west given prominent ministerial portfolios — struck down the law protecting the use of the Russian language as a second official language in the country. They failed to take any actions to anticipate the inevitable actions of Russia to protect its crucial naval base at Sevastopol (Russia’s only warm-water naval outlet to the Mediterranean and Atlantic ocean). Perhaps too stunned by the bankruptcy and theft they discovered when they finally uncovered the books in Ukraine’s treasury to take such actions, they simply hoped that they could vigorously assert Ukrainian nationalism and wait for Europe or NATO to step in and guarantee their sovereignty.
Yet instead they reaped what was very likely in any event — an aggressive response by Russian President Vladimir Putin to secure Russia’s naval and military bases in the Crimea, by in effect taking control of the entire peninsula. The new government in Kiev is now also facing huge debts, a cut-off of gas supplies from Russia and increasing opposition from wary Russian-speakers throughout the country.
What history tells us will follow, given the increasingly radical nationalist character of the revolutionary leaders in Kiev, is a financial crisis, more aggressive nationalism from the new regime, and more vigorous opposition from the eastern and southern regions, possibly supported by Russian promotion of efforts to overturn or break away from the new regime. It is possible that the Ukrainian military will be mobilized to try to keep control of the eastern provinces (Crimea is a lost cause), and that civil war will break out.
Can anything be done to stop this sequence? Yes, perhaps. But it would require the nationalists in Kiev and the Europeans treating this event as a new chapter in the Cold War to draw back. The government in Kiev would have to state that it recognizes the valid interests of Russia in maintaining its naval and military base agreements and operations in Ukraine, and the valid rights of all Ukrainians to choose their government. The new regime would have to agree not only to new national elections as soon as possible to choose a new government, but to referendums on autonomy or secession for any regions that requested them. The EU would have to agree to these elections, and try to win at least the right of international observers to oversee their free and fair administration.
The EU would have to stop seeing events in terms of a “victory” or “loss” for themselves or Putin; rather the only goal should be to avert conflict by giving all Ukrainians a free choice over their future, including those that lean toward Russia.
So let us assume that these elections can be carried out, and that Crimea votes to join the Russian Federation and much of Eastern and Southern Ukraine vote for greater autonomy. Would that be a victory for Putin?
Hardly. What does Putin win by using force to pull the Ukraine (or as much of it as possible) more tightly into the Russian orbit? First, it is almost certain that Russia will not be able to place a puppet ruler in power in Kiev. Resentment at Russia’s coercive actions will have only more angered and radicalized the population of the west and north, requiring any new Ukrainian government to be even more wary, or risk another uprising or an attempt by western Ukraine to break away. It is also unlikely that a new Ukrainian regime would commit itself to turn away from Europe and join Russia’s planned Eurasian trade pact. The damage done to Russia’s image as the beneficial “big brother” of Ukraine by Russia’s swift sending of tanks and troops into Crimea — so reminiscent of Soviet actions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia — will not easily be undone. Even if such actions win favor among the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine, they have repelled the Ukrainian nationalists even more.
Let us grant that Ukraine is crucial to Russia’s security interests, and that it would be valid and reasonable for a referendum to detach the Crimea and join it to Russia (claims of Crimea being an integral part of Ukraine are historically weak). Let us even grant that Putin’s actions to this point, if a bit overzealous, are a reasonable reflection of the strategic importance of Crimea to Russia and of the oversteps of the nationalist revolutionary regime in Kiev. What more can Putin do to advance Russian interests? If Russia acts even more boldly, sending troops into Ukraine proper, it will be taking over a bankrupt, divided, and radicalized country that will be under a constant threat of uprising against Russian domination and a huge financial drag on an already weakening Russian economy.
So the most likely alternative to a spiral into civil war (which is still possible) would be for Russia to limit its armed incursions to the Crimea, and to advocate for early elections and regional referendums. It would then hope to gain control of Crimea and see a new regime in Kiev that was at least not actively hostile to Russia, but seeking to continue the balancing between Europe and Russia that has characterized Ukraine since its independence.
Still, one of the main lessons of history regarding revolutions is that they shift the international balance of power by changing the character of regimes. Together, the Ukrainian revolutions of 2004 and 2014 show that Russia will not be able to keep Ukraine bound to it like a Siamese twin forever. Ukraine keeps making efforts to break free, and sooner or later will do so. There is nothing that Russia can do to match the allure of moving closer to a free and prosperous region of 600 million Europeans with an economy of $16 trillion. Some day, Ukraine will be fully part of Europe.
Perhaps shortly thereafter, Russia too will see the wisdom of fully joining the European family, rather than staying on the outside as a rival and courting confrontation. For myself, as an admirer of both Russia’s contribution to European culture and Europe’s dedication to democracy, I hope that day comes sooner rather than later.
But in the meantime, it is urgent for all parties to cease thinking of Ukraine as a chess piece to be taken by Russia or by Europe. The only way to avert a further revolutionary spiral into greater violence is to put the interests of Ukrainians first, and do all that is possible to protect their safety. The sooner Russia is assured that its vital interests will not be threatened, and the sooner that elections to determine the future of Ukraine and its regions will be held, the sooner the threat of civil war will recede. On the other hand, absolute defenses of the total sovereignty of the Ukraine will likely provoke greater intrusions, polarization, and conflict.
It is well to remember that most of victims of the guillotine in the French Revolution were not aristocrats taken to the Place de Concorde in Paris, but rebels in the south and west of France who challenged the authority of the new revolutionary regime. A similar regional split and conflict could yet generate casualties that would make the number of martyrs in the Maidan in the last two months seem small. We must hope that leaders draw back from polarization, extremism, and inflaming of regional differences; the main lesson of history regarding revolutions is that these (not the Russians) are the forces that must be resisted.