Once more, Ukraine’s dreams of freedom are crushed by Moscow
I have fond memories of covering Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004, despite having to stand in sub-zero temperatures for hours on end. For those of us in Kiev’s Independence Square, there was a palpable sense that history was being made.
The star of the show back then was Viktor Yushchenko, the populist pro-Western Ukrainian politician known as the Bill Clinton of the former Soviet bloc, on account of his charisma and dashing good looks. Until, that is, he suffered terrible facial injuries after being poisoned – probably on the Kremlin’s orders – with a substance that caused him horrific disfiguration.
The poison, which very nearly killed him, was later identified as “Agent Orange”, the dioxin used by the Americans in Vietnam – perhaps a macabre joke on the part of the FSB hoods who planted it. Thanks to the swift intervention of a team of Austrian specialists, Mr Yushchenko survived, and in December 2004 I was present in the Maidan (as Independence Square is known locally) when he made a defiant speech, his face pockmarked from the dioxin, before a 400,000-strong crowd.
Mr Yushchenko’s message was simple. After years of corrupt, Stalinist government, he was determined to lead Ukraine towards a democratic, Western-style future based on the rule of law and freedom of expression.
Noble sentiments – and for a while, many in the West, especially within the Bush administration, believed that this former Soviet republic really could be fully integrated into the European fold. Kiev was actively encouraged to apply for membership of institutions such as Nato and the EU.
But even in those heady days, after Mr Yushchenko had become president, the dark rumblings emanating from Moscow suggested the Kremlin was in no mood to tolerate Western interference in its own back yard. As Mr Yushchencko explained when I interviewed him shortly after that memorable rally, he was under no illusions about the lengths to which supporters of Viktor Yanukovych, the main pro-Moscow opposition leader, would go to prevent him from implementing his agenda. “These people will stop at nothing to stay in power,” he said. “They are prepared to cause bloodshed, they are prepared to start a civil war. They care nothing for Ukraine; all they care about is themselves.”
And so, less than a decade later, it has proved. Mr Yanukovych is now president – and you only have to look at the bloody demonstrations taking place in the Maidan to see just how determined Mr Yanukovich and his Russian backers are to keep Ukraine from becoming a Western trophy.
The root of the latest violence stems from Mr Yanukovych’s decision last November to renege on a deal agreed to forge closer ties with the EU, after years of painstaking negotiations, which many pro-Western Ukrainians regarded (correctly) as a prelude to full or at least associate membership. Mr Yanukovych’s U-turn was warmly received by his Kremlin backers, who promptly rewarded his pronouncement by agreeing to buy nearly £10 billion of Ukrainian government bonds and slashing the price of natural gas.
During the Communist era, Ukraine was the Soviet Union’s second most powerful republic both economically and politically, and the commercial ties between Moscow and Kiev remain as strong today as they were then. Yet it is not just the concern that a Ukrainian tilt towards the West could damage Russia’s economic prospects that is driving the Kremlin’s ruthless campaign to prevent the country falling into the EU’s clutches. The resurgent nationalism that has characterised Vladimir Putin’s domination of Russian politics has meant that, unlike in the early years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin is no longer prepared to tolerate any defections from countries it regards as falling within its sphere of influence.
In the summer of 2008, Russia’s invasion of South Ossetia and Abkhazia effectively put paid to any hopes Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s president, entertained of forging closer ties with Brussels. Similar bully-boy tactics have been employed in Ukraine, where Moscow is suspected of rigging the corruption trial of the former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, another leading light of the pro-Western movement who is now languishing in a prison cell serving a seven-year term.
Yet while Moscow can congratulate itself on stemming the flow of its former satellites to the West, the reversal in the fortunes for all those Ukrainians and Georgians who sought a better and freer life for themselves should be deeply shaming for Western policy-makers who tried to lure them into the European fold in the first place. In the face of the brute force that Moscow is prepared to use to protect its interests, institutions such as the EU have been reduced to making futile gestures, as when Baroness Ashton, its foreign policy chief, joined demonstrators in the Maidan before Christmas, or Brussels more recently threatened to impose sanction on the Yanukovych regime.
As with Syria, where Western attempts to halt the bloodshed have been stymied by Russian intransigence, the only likely winner from the political turbulence that is now afflicting Ukraine will be Mr Putin. And while this may assuage the Russian president’s obsession with protecting his nation’s interests, it is hardly much consolation for the millions of Ukrainians who yearn for Western-style freedom, liberated from Russia’s authoritarian yoke.