Written by Neil Munro.

In a televised interview with Russian journalists this week, Vladimir Putin made the claim that a “revolutionary situation” had existed in Ukraine since 1991. The ordinary Ukrainian had seen little benefit from the Soviet collapse and subsequent transformations of the economy and politics. Corruption and the growth of social inequality had reached intolerable levels. Of course, we have these problems, too, Putin admitted, but they are far worse in Ukraine than Russia. Magnanimously, Putin said he understood the Maidan. However, he made clear, armed insurrection is not the answer to the Ukraine’s problems. In an important sense, he is absolutely right.

Civil society in Ukraine is still only a potentiality not an actuality. The brave men and women who fuelled the burning barricades and fought hand-to-hand with the Berkut paramilitary police were not its representatives. Instead, they showed us something much more primeval. The battle on and around the square was like a scene from antiquity.

Amidst this madness, there was method. Snipers fired into the melee. According to Russian television, the Estonian Minister of Foreign Affairs told Lady Ashton in an intercepted telephone conversation that the same group of snipers picked off individuals on both sides. If true, the allegation casts a pall over the Maidan’s triumph.

Apparently unable or unwilling to muster the force needed to clear the square, President Yanukovich gave in to most of the opposition’s key demands. The Berkut were the only line of defence between him and the enraged mob. In the middle of the night, he seems to have panicked, rushing around his mansion to gather valuables and documents, and then flying out to Kharkiv on a helicopter.

The Western view of what happened is that this was a more or less spontaneous uprising against a bad government that wanted to drag Ukraine unwillingly back into the orbit of Russia. Without genuine popular support from thousands of ordinary people, the organizers of the Maidan wouldn’t have managed to bring down the regime. Yanukovich was, if not a tyrant, at least a potential tyrant, and so deserved to be overthrown.

The Russian view is that the Maidan was organized by professional revolutionary cadres, funded and trained by the United States. Putin directly hinted at the involvement of American intelligence agents when he referred to people “across the pond” sticking wires into Ukraine as they would into a laboratory rat.

Reacting to the failure of its Ukraine policy, Russia decided to take control of Crimea. The stated reason– to protect ethnic Russians there—was an obvious fig leaf. Violence on the peninsula was minimal and its population was mostly pro-Russian.

China had been comfortable with Yanukovich’s pro-Russian stance. It looked to be a very promising relationship. Ukraine is a rich country, in land, minerals and human resources. China brings pragmatism, money and technical expertise. She even offered Ukraine a nuclear umbrella as a sweetener. Now she has to begin again from scratch.

China is probably baffled by Ukrainian nationalism, and disconcerted by the hankering after liberal ideals which motivated some protesters on the Maidan. Sceptical of the West’s good intentions, she nevertheless is mindful of Russia’s expansionist past. She cannot accept the precedent that ethnic minorities can redraw international boundaries as they please.

There are no easy solutions to the problems of Ukraine. From the Western standpoint, each one carries economic and political costs.
Most costly of all would be an ethno-nationalist war which Ukraine would certainly lose. In the aftermath of defeat, Ukraine would probably have to cede its most productive southern and eastern provinces. A bloody partition would create millions of refugees.

The economic isolation of Russia is the second most costly option. It would close off Russia’s markets to Europeans, raise the price of energy and do nothing to reunite Ukraine. Russia could weather the resulting crisis, sell its resources elsewhere and blame any privations of its people on the West. Living standards in Ukraine would go into freefall and the new regime there might not survive.

The least costly solution lies in ending zero-sum politics in Ukraine. In the immediate short term, the West needs to act swiftly to stabilize the Ukrainian economy. It should make clear to the Ukrainian government and parliament that ethno-nationalist policies which victimize Russian-speakers are a road-to-nowhere. National reconciliation should be their watchword.

This leaves unresolved the question of Crimea. The peninsula is very much the consolation prize. Russia apparently intends to annexe it, but stands to gain little which she did not already possess. The savings in rental costs for the port of Sebastopol will be outstripped by the new costs of supporting the region economically and defending it.

Ukraine, which literally means “borderlands,” presents a complex mix of ethnic, linguistic and regional cleavages. To say it is split in two is a gross oversimplification.[1] Elections in Ukraine have always been close, but now pro-Russian candidates will be severely handicapped. How can they explain to centrist Ukrainians that their best friend is a country which has annexed part of their territory? Vladimir Putin would rather go down in history as the president who returned the Crimea to Russia than as the president who lost Ukraine. In reality, the two outcomes are the same.

China has the opportunity to play a very constructive role. She can admonish the West not to oversimplify the situation, and remind the anguished Russians that decisions made in haste may be regretted later. The key is dialogue. The prize for success is, potentially, a prosperous and peaceful Eurasia. The penalty for failure is a return to a world that old Cold Warriors may find comfortingly familiar, but the rest of us find chilling.

Neil Munro is Lecturer in Chinese Politics, University of Glasgow.

[1] Neil Munro. “Which Way does Ukraine face? Popular Orientations towards Russia and Western Europe.” Problems of Post-Communism 54.6(2007): 43-58.