KIEV, Ukraine — Sometimes the simplest question speaks the biggest truth. I was meeting with some Maidan activists here in Kiev last week, and we were talking about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s insistence that Ukraine was part of Russia’s traditional “sphere of influence” and “buffer zone” with the West, and, therefore, America and the European Union need to keep their hands off. At one point, one of the activists, the popular Ukrainian journalist, Vitali Sych, erupted: “Did anyone ask us whether we wanted to be part of his buffer zone?”
Sych’s question cut right to the core of what is unfolding here. Quite simply, a majority of Ukrainians got mad as hell at the game imposed on them — serving as bit players in Putin’s sphere of influence, so Russia could continue to feel like a great power, and also being forced to tolerate a breathtakingly corrupt pro-Russian regime in Kiev. After a bottom-up revolution in the Maidan, Kiev’s central square, which cost 100-plus lives — “the Heavenly Hundred” as they are referred to here — Ukrainians are asserting their own sphere of influence, a desire to be part of the EU.
But, in doing so, they’re posing a deep philosophical and political challenge to Putin’s Russia — as well as to the EU and America. How so?
If Putin loses, and Ukraine breaks free and joins the EU, it would threaten the very core identity of the Russia that Putin has built and wants to expand — a traditional Russia, where the state dominates the individual and where the glory of Mother Russia comes from the territory it holds, the oil and gas it extracts, the neighbors it dominates, the number of missiles it owns and the geopolitical role it plays in the world — not from empowering its people and nourishing their talents.
If Putin wins and prevents Ukraine from holding a free and fair election on May 25, his malign influence over his neighbors would only grow. And you would see more of what you saw last week when Joe Kaeser, the chief executive of Siemens, the German engineering giant, went to Moscow to slobber over Putin and reassure him that all their deals would proceed — despite what Kaeser called “politically difficult times.” (That’s German for Putin’s blocking Ukrainians from EU membership that Germans already enjoy.)
You can’t walk the cobblestone streets of the St. Sophia Square in Kiev, or tour the magnificent 11th-century onion-domed church of the same name, without learning just how much Russia and Ukraine have influenced each other over the centuries — and today will be no different. The first unified “Rus” state was born in Kiev, when “St. Vladimir the Great, the Grand Prince of Kiev,” unified all the tribes and territories in the region into an entity called by historians “Kievan Rus.” St. Vladimir also made Orthodox Christianity the official religion.
Now fast-forward 1,000-plus years, and you have another “Vladimir the Great” — Putin — massing troops on Ukraine’s border to re-establish Russia’s influence here. Putin recently hinted that it might be time for him to reclaim “Novorossiya” or New Russia, which is how a region of southeastern Ukraine was referred to by the czars in the 19th century, when it was part of Russia.
So when Putin says New Russia, he really means Old Russia — a Russia that used to dominate Ukraine. And he wants to prevent a New Ukraine from arising that again influences today’s Russia with new ideas, only this time liberal ones.
“This has become an existential fight for everybody,” explained Pavlo Sheremeta, Ukraine’s new economy minister, who added that his liberal Russian friends are calling him, saying: “Please hang on. Don’t betray us.” Don’t let Putin crush the model that Ukraine is trying to build, otherwise Russia will never change.
“Long term, Russia’s success depends on how it competes in the 21st century, and you don’t just compete with oil and tanks and by bullying someone else,” Sheremeta added. That may make you feel strong “at the moment, but it is just a drug. Ukraine’s eventual success can be another proof that democracy, rule of law and human rights are the best recipe for sustainable development — and not the drug (Putin) is giving to his people.”
Nataliya Popovych, a businesswoman and civil society activist here, said Ukrainians have learned from their Orange Revolution in 2004, when they got rid of an old order but just turned everything over to a new group of corrupt politicians. This time the Maidan revolution has spawned a web of civil society groups that are acting as watchdogs on every minister and working to guarantee fair presidential elections.
But it won’t be easy. Ukraine is a complicated place. Its legacy of corruption, venal elites and police brutality mean there are plenty of domestic foes to the Maidan revolutionaries. But Putin’s interventions just make the struggle for a more decent, EU-anchored future here that much more difficult.
“The Heavenly Hundred died here for human rights and European values,” Popovych told me. But for these to get consolidated into a new politics in Ukraine, the fledgling new state “has to survive” and that will require the EU and America to help protect it. “We would love this to be all about us,” she said. “But it is a civilizational battle going on. We just happen to be at the center of it.”