'Heroes Never Die'
Just as the mainstream media vastly overestimated the significance of the opposition political movement in Russia, it vastly underestimated the potency of populism in Ukraine, which has exploded in a breathtaking manner in recent days to rewrite Ukrainian history once again. What was claimed by Russia as a spectacular foreign-policy win, turning Ukraine away from the EU, has turned into the lowest foreign policy failure of Vladimir Putin's career.
Take Mark MacKinnon, the Senior International Correspondent for the Canadian Daily Globe and Mail, for instance.
Back in December of last year, jailed former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko called for the constitutional dismissal of the corrupt, pro-Russia Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich (a convicted criminal with ties to the secret police), followed by national elections. Yanukovich was frustrating the will of the Ukrainian people by blocking their integration into the European Union and seeking condominium with Russia.
In a tweet, MacKinnon mocked Tymoshenko as if she were some kind of idiot, saying: "Er, how?" I explained to him that the President of Ukraine can be impeached just like the President of the USA, indicating such an outcome was quite credible. The senior international correspondent for a major global news organization responded with initial surprise that this was the case, and then said it would never happen, implying I was nearly as clueless as Tymoshenko.
Last Saturday, a little more than two months after Tymoshenko made the call, it happened. The Ukrainian parliament demanded that Yanukovich resign and when he fled the capital of Kiev and refused to do so, it voted impeachment against him by a landslide margin. Just hours before, it had voted to nullify all the politically motivated charges Yanukovich had brought against Tymoshenko, and set her free. Hours later, she was in a motorcade and then on a jet headed for Kiev, where she appeared before tens of thousands in the Maidan and declared: "You are heroes! Heroes never die!" She urged them to stay vigilant until final victory had been won.
After being impeached, Yanukovich was replaced by close Tymoshenko ally Oleksander Turchynov as acting president, and national elections were scheduled for the end of March. Soon, Yanukovich's own party had thrown in him under the bus (Russian-language link).
Events in Ukraine have come full circle. In late 2004, Yanukovich tried to steal the presidency with Russian assistance, and a massive popular insurrection which would come to be called the "Orange Revolution" blocked his power play. But the coalition government that followed did not hold, and Yanukovich swooped in and claimed the presidency in early 2010, jailing his chief rival Tymoshenko on charges that were no less credible than those lodged by Yanukovich's mentor Vladimir Putin against Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
And then Yanukovich's own coalition dissolved. His secret deal-making with Putin to keep his country out of the EU fatally underestimated the country's desire to join it, and he vastly exceeded the bounds of reason in building a Hearst-like Xanadu outside Kiev. Over the weekend, the citizens of Kiev marched through his palatial residence, gaping at his private zoo, Roman ruins and galleon and rummaging through incriminating papers he didn't have time to destroy before he fled. His credibility as a national leader evaporated.
Turning out in huge numbers, Ukrainian citizens occupied Kiev's central square and demanded that Yanukovich be ousted. They held their ground even when military force was used against them, fighting back with incredible courage and skill. They organized a small city within the confines of the square, called Maidan in Ukrainian, complete with hospitals and mess halls, showing incredible organization and fundraising skills.
Over and over again, they beat back the advances of the regime's storm troopers until the latter finally capitulated and joined them. Horrific videos were released in which rooftop snipers (Warning: graphic content) of the regime gunned down unarmed citizens, and all moral credibility was lost by the government. In response, the citizens literally ripped up paving stones and flung them at their tormenters.
Yanukovich had dismissed his entire cabinet and agreed to early elections, but after butchering so many citizens his words fell on deaf ears. When told he had to resign or the presidential administration building would be raided, he fled the capital city and, echoing his mentor Putin, declared that those opposing him were "bandits" whose actions were similar to those of the Nazis in prewar Germany.
Yanukovich is now holed up in the far-Eastern city of Donetsk, just a stone's throw from the Russian border. It's reported that he's already made one attempt to flee to Russia, and been blocked. The Financial Times quoted an unnamed Russian official in the Kremlin as stating that Russia was considering military action to annex the Crimea, where Russia has a military base and many pro-Russia residents, implying that Russia might back Yanukovich in a civil war. Chillingly, when Yanukovich issued his defiant refusal to resign, he spoke not in Ukrainian but in Russian.
After Russia rolled tanks into Georgia in 2008 and annexed Ossetia and Abkhazia, such threats from Russia must be taken with the greatest seriousness. Ukrainians were fortunate that Yanukovich's ouster occurred during the Russia-hosted Olympiad, which undoubtedly forced Russia to keep a very low profile. But when the games end, things may be different.
Yanukovich now holds the fate of his country in his hands. He has three options: jail, exile or civil war. If he stays in the country and does not fight back, he'll be tracked down just like Saddam Hussein, prosecuted and jailed. Undoubtedly, he can flee to asylum and a comfortable life in Russia. Or, he can work with Vladimir Putin to support a counter insurrection aimed at dividing Ukraine the way India was divided, into two new countries one of which would be dominated and controlled by Russia, the other becoming a member of the EU.
The NATO countries must make certain Russia does not use military force in Ukraine. To let another domino fall after Georgia would send a clear message to Putin that he can use military force without opposition anywhere in post-Soviet space, and it would betray all the values for which NATO supposedly stands. Resolute NATO action will deter Putin, whose military is fundamentally corrupt and weak. But dithering, like we saw during the Georgia conflict, could encourage Putin to even more aggressive and dangerous actions.
Russia's support of separatism in Georgia and Ukraine is insanely hypocritical, given Russia's furious resistance to separatism in places like Chechnya and Dagestan within Russia. It is simply obscene for the country that controls the world's largest amount of territory by far to seek more territory and more dominion over foreign people. NATO was created specifically for the purpose of stopping such aggression, and it must now step forward and fulfill its mission.
Follow Kim Zigfeld on Twitter @larussophobe.