WARSAW—The Ukrainian parliament recently passed legislation directly modeled on Russian precedents. The laws curb demonstrations, using language broad enough to apply to almost any gathering. They criminalize “slander,” which might mean any criticism of the government. They require the members of any organization with any foreign funding, including the Greek Catholic Church, to register as “foreign agents,” which is to say spies. These laws were passed at night, with a show of hands. Deputies did not discuss them, or in some cases even read them.
Within days, central Kiev became a war zone. Men with truncheons used clouds of tear gas to break up protesters who have been demonstrating against corruption and Russian influence since November. Priests said Mass before the barricades; buses burned in the snow. Riot police shot people with rubber bullets. Then they shot them with real bullets. Others were hauled away and beaten. Anyone standing near the scene last Tuesday received a text message from the phone company: “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.” So far, five people are dead.
These events are so harsh, and so contrary to what anyone expected, that they should lead us to abandon immediately some of the illusions we have long held about this part of the world. First and foremost, it’s time to abandon the myth of the “color revolutions”: the belief that peaceful, nonviolent demonstrators, aided by a bit of Western media training, will eventually rise up and overthrow the corrupt oligarchies that have run most of the post-Soviet orbit since 1991. The history of Ukraine, from the 2004 Orange Revolution until now, has proved this belief to be false.
In fact, corrupt oligarchs, backed by Russian money and Russian political technology, are a lot stronger than anyone ever expected them to be. They have the cash to bribe an entire parliament’s worth of elected officials. They have the cynicism to revive the old Soviet technique of selective violence: One or two murders is enough to scare off many thousands of peaceful demonstrators, one or two arrests will suffice to remind businessmen who is boss. They have also learned to manipulate media (as the Russians do), to multiply their money in Western financial institutions (as the Russians do), even to send threatening text messages. They have crafted a well-argued, well-funded alternate narrative about Western economic decline and cultural decadence. A friend jokingly calls this the “all your daughters will become lesbians” line of argument, but it is surprisingly powerful.
But the recent history of Ukraine should lead us to abandon another myth as well: the belief that some kind of post-Cold War order still prevails in Europe, and that the United States is an important part of it. It is true that European Union leaders have engaged with Ukraine for the past several years at many levels—presidential, ministerial, bureaucratic—in an effort to create a broader relationship. It is true that their effort failed, following a concerted Russian campaign of targeted trade boycotts, veiled military threats, big bribes (a lower gas price), many smaller bribes, and a massive anti-Western propaganda effort designed to make Ukrainians believe “Europe” would be bad for them.
The American response, meanwhile, has been negligible. After European talks broke down, the Obama administration sent an assistant secretary of state to hand out cookies to demonstrators in Kiev. Now the administration says it might not issue visas to a few Ukrainian leaders. That policy might make a few people in Washington feel better, but it will also send the Ukrainians running directly into the arms of the Russians. In the words of a Canadian diplomat, “It’s like watching a hockey game with only one team on the ice.”
It will take a while for these new truths to sink in, but once Ukrainians realize that the ideal of the color revolution is dead, and that the West has no tools to revive it, there may be consequences. If peaceful demonstrations don’t work, after all, some may logically conclude that it’s time to use violence. Ukrainians have indeed constructed violent resistance movements more than once in the past century. It’s even possible that the Ukrainian government hopes they will do so again, as that might rapidly render all opposition illegitimate.
There is a less worst-case scenario, but it will require more patience than almost anybody has, and more thinking than almost anybody wants to do. What Ukraine really needs now is a slower, deeper, cultural change, led by Ukrainians who want to live in a less corrupt state. The Ukrainians need to create strong alternative institutions such as media, or trade unions or schools, as well as political organizations. They need to persuade their businessmen to change the climate. They need to found companies that refuse to do “business as usual.”
At the same time, Europeans and Americans must also cease to facilitate either Ukrainian or Russian corruption. We must start to take serious threats seriously. A trade boycott must be met with a trade boycott. Dishonest propaganda must be answered. If we want to use sanctions, we should use real economic sanctions, and we should direct them at the real perpetrators, in Moscow as well as Kiev. But before doing anything else, we need to be honest about the scale of this setback, the regional nature of the problem, and the profound weakness of our past policy. Slogans just aren’t good enough anymore. It’s time to get back on the ice.