How Russia Lost Ukraine

No one can say who will win Ukraine's presidential election later this month. But one thing is sure: Russia won't waste time declaring itself the victor.

Ever since the 2004 Orange Revolution brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets of Kiev to overturn the rigged result of Ukraine's last presidential vote, Russia has been itching for a rematch. For Vladimir Putin, seeing his man ousted in favor of a pro-democracy coalition that promised to take Ukraine into NATO and the EU was the "single worst strategic setback" of his presidency, according to Putin biographer Andrei Kolesnikov. Russia has spent the intervening five years ensuring that no such revolution can take place at home and that the Orange coalition in Ukraine would fail. These efforts, such as energy cutoffs and stoking separatism among Ukraine's 20 percent Russian minority, worked devastatingly well—especially combined with the greed and shortsightedness of Ukrainian politicians. Viktor Yushchenko, the Ukrainian president and Orange leader, now limps along with single-digit approval ratings, while Viktor Yanukovych, the Moscow-backed candidate ousted in 2004, leads the polls.

But while a Yanukovych victory might look like a huge win for Moscow, there's far less to it than meets the eye. In many respects, he is no longer Moscow's man. And Ukraine has changed so profoundly that no one could turn it back into Russia's vassal if they wanted to. Orange methods of "Ukrainization," such as banning Russian on national television and in university entrance exams, have effectively created a distinct new national consciousness. And intimate experience with people power has given ordinary Ukrainians a sense that they have a right to participate directly in politics—even if they've lately used that right mostly to blast Orange politicians. The real winner of the upcoming vote, then, is likely to be neither Russia nor the United States—but Ukraine itself.

The sea change in Ukrainian attitudes can be felt across the political spectrum. Yanukovych's closest challenger is Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. One of the original leaders of the Orange Revolution, she quickly fell out with Yushchenko. Yet her supporters are quick to emphasize her anti-Russian credentials. "The Orange Revolution pulled the last nails out of the edifice of Soviet authoritarianism in our country," says Sergei Teryokhin, a former economy minister and a legislator in Tymoshenko's bloc. Even the head of Yanukovych's party in Parliament, Mikhail Chechetov, now echoes such talk. "The democratization process we have gone through is irreversible," he says.

The most objective indicator of what Yanukovych will do if elected is his brief record as prime minister last year. He did attempt several Russia-friendly moves, such as suggesting an economic-cooperation zone and making it easier for Russian companies to acquire chunks of Ukraine's heavy industry. But there were also countervailing signs. Yanukovych never challenged some of the most controversial Orange innovations, such as the ban on Russian on TV. And none of his pro-Moscow measures actually made it into law. Now, even if he wins, his party will still control a minority share in Ukraine's Parliament, the Rada, all but ensuring more compromises.

Moscow has no one to blame for this but itself. Russia has tried hard to recover its lost influence over its former empire, using tough-guy tactics ranging from outright invasion (in Georgia) to running summer camps aimed at stirring up ethnic Russian consciousness in the Ukrainian province of Crimea. But Moscow's fight for respect has probably alienated more people than it's won over. Georgia, for example, remains implacably anti-Russian, and Moscow's relations with its formerly close ally Belarus have deteriorated so far that Minsk recently threatened to cut off electricity to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Turkmenistan last year broke Russia's monopoly on Central Asian gas supplies by opening a direct pipeline to China, and Kazakhstan recently opened a similar oil pipeline.

As for Ukraine, it remains deeply divided over key issues such as support for Georgia and evicting the Russian Black Sea Fleet from the Crimean port of Sevastopol. Some polls show that good will toward Russia has actually risen. But the number of Ukrainians considering themselves "European" has also risen, to nearly two thirds of the population, and the numbers of those pining for the good old Soviet days have fallen to 12 percent.

This doesn't mean that the coming election will be a shining victory for democracy. A recent survey by the Washington-based Pew Research Center concluded that Ukrainians were among the most bitter citizens of ex-communist countries. Just 30 percent said they approve of the change to democracy, and only 36 percent voiced approval of the move to capitalism.

Nor does Russia's loss of influence here mean a clear victory for the United States. The real lesson of the past five years is that anyone trying to rule the country from outside its political center will quickly run into trouble. Leaning too far to the east—the Russian-speaking and sympathizing Donetsk Basin—doesn't work, as Yanukovych proved. But neither does leaning too far to the West, as Yushchenko has proved.

Ukrainians want a balanced approach. While ordinary Ukrainians profess to feeling more Western, support for NATO membership, despite Yushchenko's enthusiastic advocacy, has never topped 30 percent. Yushchenko also demonstrated the costs of confronting Russia too forcefully: the successive "gas wars" under his tenure, which left Ukraine and swaths of Europe bereft of heat in midwinter, showed how dangerous Moscow can be. Ukraine's best chance of prosperity and security lies in entente with both sides.

In this sense, while Yushchenko is likely to be crushed in the upcoming vote, his Orange Revolution has succeeded in one way: by recalibrating the values of Ukrainians. "We have brought up the whole generation on EU values,"says Teryokhin. "Even people of my age have changed." The frustration Ukrainians express toward capitalism, democracy, and most politicians may actually be a positive indicator of heightened expectations. Today, many of Ukraine's standard-of-living indicators are as dismal as Russia's. Yet according to polls, nearly two thirds of Russians are content with their lot, while Ukrainians clearly hope for something better. Add to that the fact that more than 60 percent of Ukrainians hope one day to join Europe and no longer look to Russia for support and protection. That's not a bad legacy for a failed revolution.

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