Mistakes of the Ukrainian Revolution

The present crisis in Ukraine has laid bare the very essence of Ukrainian politics, signs of which have been apparent since 1992: the country is politically divided, the political programme of Western Ukraine has not been accepted by the country‘s Eastern part and vice versa.

It‘s not only Ukraine that has been profoundly changed by the events that took place in that country between the start of the protests on 21 November 2013 and Russia’s military intervention of 27 February 2014. Europe has been plunged into a new cold war, while Ukraine has ceased to exist within the borders it has had over the past 22 years. This article aims to try and answer the question whether within those three months a political solution could have been found which would a) have made a transformation of the political system in Ukraine possible, b) not have jeopardized the country’s territorial integrity and c) have prevented Russia’s military aggression. This is not crying over spilt milk. Rather, it is an attempt to learn from the mistakes made by the key actors within and outside Ukraine. Unfortunately, it is impossible to turn back the clock and correct these mistakes. Nevertheless, it is vital that we learn from them because the Ukrainian crisis has set the agenda for a new cold war. At least in its early phase.

An Incomplete Revolution

The present crisis in Ukraine has laid bare the very essence of Ukrainian politics, signs of which have been apparent since 1992: the country is politically divided, the political programme of Western Ukraine has not been accepted by the country’s Eastern part and vice versa. In spite of two revolutions (the Orange and the current, Maidan revolution), western and eastern Ukrainians have failed to merge into a single nation. They haven’t been able to accomplish this on their own over the past 22 years and are only beginning to turn into a political nation now, in the face of Russia’s aggression. So far, this unity has lasted a few weeks, and it is hard to tell if this will be enough. The Maidan succeeded only partially because it failed to win over the country’s East and South.

The geographic and political impact of Ukraine’s revolution was decided in the course of five days, from 25 to 29 January 2014. The revolution, which began as a spontaneous protest on 21 November 2013, culminated on 25 January 2014 when protesters in nine regions of Western Ukraine (Chernivtsy, Khmelnitsky, Ivano-Frankivsk, Lviv, Lutsk, Rivne, Ternopil, Vynnitsya and Zhitomir) and five regions of Eastern Ukraine (Cherkassy, Dnipropetrovsk, Poltava, Sumy and Zaporizzha) occupied government buildings and took control of state administration agencies. Mass protests also took place in Chernigov, Kherson, Kyiv and Transcarpathia although attempts at occupying government buildings in these locations failed. The revolution has swept across most of the country’s regions, including the capital, spreading to 18 out of the country’s 27 administrative units (24 regions, two cities with special status – Kyiv and Sevastopol – and the Crimean Autonomous Republic). After reaching its apex on 25 January the revolution ground to a halt.

On 26 January the former government successfully retaliated in four regions (Cherkassy, Dnepropetrovsk, Sumy and Zaporizzha) and has regained control over all of the country’s regions except for Kyiv’s Euromaidan, Poltava, and nine regions in the West. In those regions under government control, protests were brutally crushed and the protesters as well as their families and sympathizers have become the targets of harsh persecution. Without declaring a state of emergency the Yanukovych’s government introduced counterrevolutionary terror methods in areas under its control. The revolution ground to a halt because it was not able to win over the country’s east. This remains the case, even though on 22 February the revolution prevailed in Kyiv, with the protesters taking over government buildings and forming a new revolutionary government on 23 February. The only difference between the situation on 23 February and that on 26 January is that Kyiv is now controlled by the Maidan, whereas until then it had been under Yanukovich’s control.

During the critical days of the revolution (from 25 to 27 January) the Ukrainian Research & Branding Group carried out a representative opinion poll among the inhabitants of Kyiv, Sevastopol, Simferopol and 23 urban centres across Ukraine’s regions. Asked whether they support Kyiv’s Euromaidan, 44 percent of respondents responded in the affirmative while 51 percent said they did not. Whereas in Western Ukraine 86 percent of respondents expressed their support for Kyiv’s Euromaidan, 81 percent eastern Ukrainians said it did not have their support. Ukraine is basically split into two separate political worlds. It seemed that 22 years of independence have brought Ukraine’s two parts closer together. Unfortunately, the current crisis has demonstrated that this is not the case.

Eastern Ukraine differs from its western counterpart not only by being more firmly rooted in the political mentality of homo sovieticus: it also boasts an active civil society of smaller proportions, shows more tolerance of formal and informal authority, as well as being more affluent than Western Ukraine. Eastern Ukrainians generally feel a greater need of social security and are politically more opportunistic than Western Ukrainians. They have proved this by responding rather half-heartedly to both the Maidan and Russia. If, however, the Russians had assumed that the half-hearted attitude on the part of eastern Ukrainians reflects active support for Russia, they were mistaken. After 23 February the eastern Ukrainians did not go out into the streets in large numbers to protest against the Maidan government. Ironically, it was this attitude that changed the plan of Russia’s aggression and as a result on 27 February the Russian army invaded Crimea rather than Kharkiv, Lugansk and Donetsk. Lacking political support in the country’s east, the Russians first had to rouse eastern Ukrainians from their political lethargy. The protests in Eastern Ukraine started only on 1 March, with support from Russia and the so-called “Putin tourists.” In the period from 1 through 16 March, in spite of inflammatory warmongering hysteria unleashed by the Russian media, the number of people participating in pro-Russian protests in any of the cities of Eastern Ukraine ever exceeded 10,000, the hard core of which was formed by “Putin tourists.” Even without foreign tourists, the January and February Euromaidans in the much smaller cities of Eastern Ukraine boasted larger numbers of participants.

Unprepared Leaders

The leaders of the three opposition parties (Bat’kivshchyna’s Arseny Yatsenyuk, UDAR’s Vitaly Klitschko and Svoboda’s Oleh Tyahnibok) also share responsibility for the revolution not having succeeded in Eastern Ukraine. On 19 January they ceased to be the sole leaders of the revolution. By failing to respond promptly to Yanukovych’s moves and to set the strategic agenda for the protests they allowed the ultranationalist Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) and other radical organisations to become the face of the revolution. Having begun life as a spontaneous civic protest against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the association agreement with the EU, Ukraine’s revolution began to lose once ultranationalists, who oppose closer ties with the EU as a matter of principle, became its driving force. This has been a real boon for Yanukovych’s, and later Putin’s, attempt to turn public opinion in the east against the revolution. In January and February, in the east and south the fear of a return of Western „Bandera gangs“ overrode the fear of Yanukovych and his regime. Right Sector has bailed out Yanukovych and helped him legitimize counterrevolutionary terror in the East. After Yanukovych, Putin and Russia’s propaganda have used the services of Right Sector to legitimize military aggression.

Even after 26 January, when Yanukovych succeeded in striking back in four eastern regions, the three opposition party leaders failed to come up with a plan for resolving the crisis. They demonstrated absolute helplessness by their response to the protests’ first big success: the resignation of Azarov’s government on 28 January. Klitschko stated that UDAR would not join a new government, while Yatsenyuk declared that he would accept responsibility for the government only if the opposition was fully in charge. But what use was it for the opposition to be fully in charge of a government that was still under Yanukovych’s presidential system, with the state coffers pillaged? If the protesters’ strategic goal was to put an end to Yanukovych’s regime this could have happened either in the wake of a successful revolution—which, however, was unlikely after the events of 26–29 January—or in the wake of an early presidential election. However, after the fall of Azarov’s government none of the three opposition leaders voiced the demand to install a technocratic coalition government, which would lead to an early presidential election in the country. In the crucial days of January the opposition leaders displayed an astounding degree of political paralysis.

The Biggest Mistakes Made by Yanukovych, Maidan and Putin

Both before and during the crisis, there has always been only one political solution for Ukraine: the formation of a coalition goverment representing the political interests of both parts of the country. Since the protests began, Yanukovych wasted on several occasions the chance to find a political solution to the crisis that would have enabled him to stay in Ukrainian politics while, at the same time, preventing Russia’s military intervention. He had his last chance on 28 January and during the first weeks of the Sochi Olympics.

On 28 January Mykola Azarov’s government resigned and on the same day the Parliament revoked the counterrevolutionary legislation adopted on 16 January. 29 January was the last time when Yanukovych acted rationally in Ukrainian politics; after that all his actions were entirely irrational. On that day he forced the hand of the parliamentary faction of the Party of Regions. During the closed session of the party that he attended he threatened to have the MPs buried in tar if they voted with the opposition and to disband parliament should they defy him, and told them they would lose immunity and all of them would end up in prison. A group of 78 Party of Regions deputies with close links to the country’s oligarchs (Rinat Akhmetov, Dmytro Firtash and Serhy Tihipko) was ready to support the opposition draft bill granting an amnesty to those detained during the protests. Together with the three opposition parties (Bat’kivshchyna, UDAR and Svoboda) this would have given the opposition a majority of 246 MPs (a simple majority of 226 votes is required in the Ukrainian parliament), which could have formed the basis of a coalition government.

It was Russia’s assistance that helped Yanukovych whip up the unity and the obedience of the PR parliamentary faction. On the same day, 29 January, Russia’s customs agency imposed restrictions on the imports of products made by companies owned by those oligarchs whose MPs had shown signs of disobedience in parliament. Russia has provided the European Union with a perfect example of targeted and well-timed trade sanctions. The Ukrainian oligarchs and their MPs backed down. As a result, parliament adopted the government’s amnesty law, which amounted to an ultimatum to the opposition. This law was unacceptable to the opposition. The fight rebounded into the street, which, however—to quote Yury Lutsenko, a former Minister of the Interior in Yulia Tymoshenko’s government—„has already done all it could.“ During the Sochi Olympics there were two ways in which the dispute could have been brought back to the floor of the Parliament: the first would have required Yanukovych to take a political decision to form a coalition government and agree with the opposition on a date for early elections. The second option would have required Ukraine’s oligarchs to instruct their MPs to side with the opposition and come to terms with not being able to export their goods to Russia for some time. However, neither of these options was chosen. This was Yanukovych’s penultimate mistake in Ukrainian politics. The last one was his decision to use force against the Maidan on 18 February.

The Maidan side committed the same mistake. In the night of 21 to 22 February, following the successful battle with the Berkut and the loss of some 100 human lives, the protesters managed to occupy government buildings in Kyiv and gain complete control over the capital. We should be under no illusions about the way they managed that, but the fact remains that from 22 February the country’s legitimately elected parliament, with the participation of MPs representing the Party of Regions, began to adopt laws by qualified majority. Unfortunately, between 23 and 26 February Maidan formed a government that did not include representatives of the Party of Regions. This happened in spite of the fact that the Ukrainian revolution succeeded only in one half of the country. To transform the revolutionary victory in Western Ukraine and Kyiv into a politically stable government for the entire country, it would have had to share power with that half of the country which had not joined the revolution. A war with Russia could have been prevented only by a political deal with an entity representing the interests of Eastern Ukraine. Although Yanukovych fled to Russia, it was in Maidan’s own interest to offer representatives of his Party of Regions a share in the interim government. Even after Yanukovych’s fall the party still had a 120-strong faction in Parliament (down from the original 205 deputies) so there was no shortage of people with whom a deal could have been made. Unfortunately, this did not happen. That was when Russia stepped in to correct Maidan’s political mistake.

The Russian aggression that began on 27 February has helped to create at least a partial coalition between the Maidan government and Ukrainian oligarchs from the country’s East. Following Russia’s invasion of Crimea and in the early days of the Russian-instigated protests in Eastern Ukraine, the country‘s oligarchs—the same ones who had made Yanukovych president— pledged their allegiance to the Maidan. On 2 March Igor Kolomoysky was appointed governor of the Dnipropetrovsk Region and Serhyi Taruta became governor of the Donetsk Region. The outside threat has helped to resolve the key systemic problem of Ukrainian politics of the past 22 years—the inability of political elites of Western and Eastern Ukraine to share power. Ironically enough, without Russia‘s intervention the Maidan government would not survive even until the early presidential election on 25 May. If the Russians wanted to divide Ukraine they should have done nothing. Using force against Ukraine was the greatest and costliest mistake of Putin’s life. Without spending a kopeck he could have achieved what he can’t achieve by the use of force.

The disintegration of the Party of Regions following Viktor Yanukovych’s flight from Kyiv was only a temporary phenomenon. It wouldn’t have taken Ukrainian oligarchs much time to consolidate the political interests of Ukraine’s East and South, albeit directing them against the Maidan government in Kyiv. The country would have faced another phase of a protracted political crisis with an unclear outcome. Russia’s intervention has, in a way, saved the Ukrainian revolution by forcing the Maidan government and Ukraine’s oligarchs to share power. What appears to be just an emergency solution at a time of external threat must now become the cornerstone of Ukrainian politics in the new Ukraine. Unfortunately, this won’t help restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity, at least not in the foreseeable future. The primary responsibility for violating the territorial integrity of Ukraine rests with Russia, which has opted for military aggression. However, the secondary responsibility lies with the short-sighted policies on the part of both Yanukovych and the political leaders brought to power by the Maidan.

The European Union’s Mistake

The EU also bears responsibility for the developments in Ukraine. It its hardly worth mentioning now that the association agreement with Ukraine could have been signed at any point after it was initialled on 19 July 2012. There was no need to wait until the November 2013 Vilnius summit. And even before the agreement was initialled in July 2012, Yulia Tymoshenko had asked, in a letter addressed to the EU leaders, that her imprisonment not be used to delay the signing of the association agreement with Ukraine. Why was her request not heeded until November 2013? It is equally fruitless to point out that the EU has, to put it mildly, underestimated the importance of financial aid for the implementation of the association agreement with Ukraine. Whereas before the Vilnius summit the EU had offered Ukraine several hundred million euros, after the summit the proposed bailout was raised to 3.5 billion euros and the figure currently in play is 11 billion euros. And this will not be the final amount. The price of our policy vis a vis Ukraine will cost the tax payers in EU countries much more. Particularly in the context of a cold war. If you don’t pay in time you pay several times over.

However, the key question that needs to be answered in terms of the EU’s future foreign policy is this: could the EU have intervened in the Ukrainian events, forcing Yanukovych and the opposition to come to an agreement, thus preventing Yanukovych’s attempt to use force on 18 February and also preventing Russia’s military intervention from 27 February onwards? The example of the diplomatic mission by the Weimar threesome, the foreign ministers Laurent Fabius, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Radosław Sikorski on 20 and 21 February, has demonstrated that it could have done so. Unfortunately, the three EU country ministers came too late, after nearly 100 people had died on the streets of Kyiv between 18 and 20 February. If their mission had taken place before 18 February and if they had succeeded then in securing the deal they brokered on 21 February, Ukraine may have remained intact and a cold war may not have broken out. But because their mission came too late and the 21 February deal lasted less than 24 hours. This in spite of the fact that from 29 January it was quite obvious that 1) the revolution had ground to halt and that it failed to catch on in Eastern and Southern Ukraine; 2) the opposition had no idea what kind of government it wanted after the resignation of Azarov’s government; 3) Yanukovych had managed to block a political resolution in parliament; and 4) Russia was pushing Yanukovych to use force.

Between 29 January and 18 February the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton and Commissioner Štefan Füle made several visits to Kyiv. However, their EU mandate did not allow them to mediate talks between Yanukovych and the opposition, only to facilitate talks between the two sides. Before 18 February neither the High Representative nor Commissioner Füle had an EU Council mandate to threaten Yanukovych with sanctions and to say to the Maidan what Minister Sikorski told the opposition leaders – unfortunately, post festum: „If you don’t reach a deal all of you will die.“ EU foreign ministers in the Council of the European Union believed that the two parties would reach an agreement after all.

The second time the EU could—and should— have intervened was between 23 and 26 February, while a Maidan government was being formed. The EU should have at least tried to prevent the Maidan from repeating Yanukovych’s mistake and stopped it from forming a government that did not represent the political interest of Ukraine’s east and south. This did not happen. The price is the violation of Ukrainian territorial integrity and a new cold war with Russia. Mistakes have to be paid for.

Alexander Duleba

Alexander Duleba is the Director of Research at the Slovak Foreign Policy Association (SFPA) in Bratislava.

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

Current issue - 04/2019

The Powerless Are Tired: 1989–2019

This issue provides not only a retrospective look at the last 30 years but also reflects current challenges for the Visegrad group. That found its purpose in the dismantling of liberal democracy, unfortunately for all its citizens. Read the brand new Aspen Review.

Download PDF