For many years I've said a terrible thing to my Ukrainian friends in private conversations:
"I don't even know if Ukraine will exist in twenty years."
The country has only been independent for a little over two decades and suffers from deep — though hardly insurmountable — political, cultural, and linguistic divisions. It has historically not remained independent for lengthy periods of time, and regional wars tend to rewrite its boundaries. Even though a whole generation has grown up accustomed to the idea of an independent Ukraine, a sense of fragility has always lingered in the air.
It appears that Ukraine's moment of truth has arrived. The country currently known as Ukraine is now at a historical crossroads. The range of possible near-term scenarios is more or less clear, but there is absolutely no certainty as to which path the country will take.
The same could have been said about Maidan a month or two ago. Nobody was sure which side would win, and there were many moments of near-despair among Maidan supporters. The failure of Berkut riot police to clear Maidan by brute force and Yanukovich's sudden flight to Russia caught most people by surprise — apparently even Putin.
Back then most people outside of politics (me included) thought that the struggle was about standing up for basic human rights and freedoms and getting rid of a regime that systematically trampled those rights and busied itself with self-enrichment. Since then a major paradigm shift has taken place among large numbers of Ukrainians as it has become plainly evident that the real game is not an internal, domestic struggle against the oligarchic regime of Yanukovich and his family, but a much shrewder long-term geopolitical game planned out some years ago in the Kremlin and well-known to Western diplomats.
The game revolves around the Kremlin's desire to reestablish the former sphere of influence of the Soviet Union, increase its territory where possible by adding areas with large numbers of ethnic Russians, and surround its borders with non-threatening states.
I tried to write that as neutrally as possible. I could restate it in a way that would make most Westerners shudder. But ultimately, is the Kremlin's desire that much different from what any major world power strives to do?
I don't feel I can rightfully condemn Russia's leaders, or tell people whom Crimea should belong to, or what Ukraine's borders should be, or whether it should try to join the E.U. and/or NATO. These are questions that don't have unequivocal right or wrong answers, and it's up to more impassioned people than I to figure that out.
If you take a really long view, such matters are of less importance than preserving and improving soil fertility and biodiversity, the loss of which would throw human civilization back to a much more primitive stage of development and permanently limit humanity's options. Compared to preserving the basic ecology upon which civilization depends, the problem of Ukraine is relatively trivial.
And yet it's one of the most important geopolitical moments of the past decade, and it will affect tens of millions of people and cause long-lasting global repercussions.
I'd like to refer readers to two interviews with political analyst and former Putin aide Andrey Illarionov which provide, arguably, the greatest clarity as to what is going on in Ukraine. The interviews are both in Russian and can be Google translated to a fair level of readability.
1. "Putin Believes that Part of Ukraine Should Belong to Russia" (10.10.2013)
2. "No One Will Help the Victim of Agression If the Victim Himself Does Not Resist" (17.03.2014)
If Illarionov's understanding of the situation is correct (it makes a lot of sense and is gaining traction in Ukraine), then it appears that the new government of Ukraine is currently pursuing a strategy of non-resistance and reliance upon foreign powers that will likely lead to the eventual loss of national sovereignty. Somewhat surprisingly, some western powers, such as the United States, are urging Ukraine to continue showing restraint and not react to provocation. And yet if Maidan protesters had pursued such a risk-averse course of action, Yanukovich would still be in power today.
There is a whole list of practical steps that the new government could have taken in the past 20 days to safeguard Ukraine's borders and critical infrastructure and make it much more difficult for the Kremlin to carry out its plans in Crimea and eastern and southern Ukraine. I remember Illarionov listing these actions about two weeks ago.
It is unclear (to me) whether this failure is due to new leaders simply lacking the courage to take responsibility for decisions that could cost the lives of Ukrainian troops, because of organizational chaos following their sudden rise to power, or because of an actual behind-the-scenes agreement with Moscow, western countries, and/or competing political and business groups who have their own stakes in the situation. In any case, Illarionov describes how such a strategy of appeasement is likely to lead both to a loss of sovereignty and loss of life, mainly among Ukrainian nationalists, Crimean Tatars, and Maidan supporters who risk being targeted as threats to the new status quo.
It is conceivable that there could be more Maidans in the near future if Ukrainians become upset with the new government's lack of decisiveness in defending Ukraine's sovereignty. There seems to be both a growing awareness of these issues (news and viewpoints spread very fast these days) and a growing readiness for war among much of the population of Kiev and likely elsewhere around Ukraine. These Maidans could bring more decisive, hawkish, and nationalistic leaders to power, as often happens durings times of war. That would probably not be good news for the Kremlin; I don't know what their plan is for that scenario, but their risks would grow substantially.
It's possible the new government will become more decisive as time goes on, but it's hard to imagine that happening without sustained popular pressure (i.e. demonstrations). It's probably safe to assume that the Kremlin and western powers have their representatives inside Ukraine who convey certain messages (offers, guarantees, threats, etc.) to national politicians. In the absence of popular pressure at home, Ukrainian leaders often end up serving other masters.
It's pretty clear now what those masters want. The West wants to see Ukraine gradually integrate into Europe, harmonize legislation and political culture, and open up its markets. The Kremlin wants to see Ukraine back in the fold or at least politically benign with minimal risk of popular uprisings.
The only real unknown is the popular self-organizing force that has come to be known as "Maidan." Will Ukrainians come together to force their leaders to protect national interests? Will they decide that it is all the same to them and not resist the scenario that is unfolding? Will only the more politically active western and central parts of Ukraine rise up, and will they fail to gain political influence over the east and south, leading to a possible split of the country? Will popular resistance appear only after Ukraine has effectively been split up and occupied?
Honestly, I have no idea what will happen. But what seems clear now is that Maidan is the unknown variable with the most power to drastically change the outcome for Ukraine.