Why the West Must Join the Ukraine Protesters
What the Ukraine protests are really about: Western freedom vs. Putin’s vision of a restored Russian empire.
By Mikheil Saakashvili
Jan. 27, 2014 7:21 p.m. ET
The television-news coverage of Ukrainians protesting in the streets of Kiev might prompt viewers to think they’re flicking past just another outbreak of unrest in an overall restless world. The usual paraphernalia is there—the street rallies, Molotov cocktails and police crackdowns. But these demonstrations are unlike those in other countries, where people are seeking social rights or protesting against a corrupt ruler. What we have been witnessing in Ukraine, with protests that began in November and have gained a volatile intensity in recent days, is the first geopolitical revolution of the 21st century.
The burning dividing line between the hundreds of thousands of protesters in cities across the country and the Yanukovych regime’s police lies between two ideologies, two visions of the world and two choices of life: independent, Western democracy or Vladimir Putin‘s Russia.
President Putin has been emboldened in recent years by the perception that the United States and Europe are overwhelmed by other crises elsewhere. And he has been empowered by his successes in Armenian and Georgian politics, as well as in Ukraine itself—in 2010 he engineered the ouster of the government formed after the 2004 Orange Revolution that he despised. He seemed convinced that he finally was squeezing the West from the post-Soviet region that he thinks is his natural domain.
Everything was going well for Mr. Putin, even the Ukraine government’s last-minute refusal in November to sign an association agreement with the European Union initially seemed a triumph of his geopolitical gamesmanship. But an unexpected factor came into play: Ukrainians’ longing to live in a democratic, open and European society run by a clean government.
What Mr. Putin has come to embody—for Russia and for its neighboring states—finds its origins in the old KGB, a much more powerful force in Russia than any other political group or party. The KGB’s power was based on deceit, violence and cynicism, which are now hallmarks of the current Russian regime. From the Kremlin’s perspective, Russia has no borders; it just has peripheries that are bound to be forever corrupt, chaotic, failing and incapable of creating their own functioning democratic states. So, as inefficient as Russia is itself, the Kremlin thinking goes, still only Russia can govern them.
The Ukrainian national anthem, which the protesters fervently sing these days, includes this line: “Let’s prove to everyone that we can be masters of our own fate.” That is what Ukrainians seem to have been doing for these past weeks, in the record freezing temperatures of the Eastern European winter.
What they are seeking is the freedom to choose their way of life. When I was in Kiev last month, I met with the main opposition leader, Vitali Klitschko. We sat up a whole night talking, focusing not so much on the rallies surrounding us as the actual future of Ukraine. Mr. Klitschko wanted to learn from the example of Georgia, where I was president from 2004 until last fall, about how to stem corruption and nepotism, about how to reform state institutions and build the Ukraine of his dreams.
Having known him for many years, I can testify that Vitali Klitschko—a former world heavyweight-boxing champion—is also a reflective and fast-learning politician. What’s more important is that he’s clean, which is a rare commodity in Ukrainian politics. When we met in December, I was particularly impressed by his broader vision for Ukraine, a vision that reflects the wider aspirations of protesters across the country.
In Kiev, the future is being decided. A triumph for the protesters would mark the end of Mr. Putin’s dream of a restored Russian empire. Their defeat would mean a huge rollback of European influence and values. The credibility of the U.S., already eroding in the region, would vanish. Mr. Putin knows it. Brave citizens of Ukraine know it.
That’s why, unlike in the Orange Revolution of 2004, this time there is blood in the streets. The police have killed protesters and openly committed torture. Disappearances of activists are regularly reported. The expression of concern by Western governments is not enough. I know Vladimir Putin well enough to understand that he is behind the crackdown in Kiev, just as his hand is at work in Bashar al-Assad’s massacres of Syrians and in the Iranian nuclear-weapons program. The time has come to hold the godfather responsible, not just the members of his clan. The Kremlin is a nerve center of the troubles that bedevil the West.
The other day, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Filaret, spoke powerfully of one incident that hit the world’s television screens. A Ukrainian Cossack protester was captured by the riot police, beaten up, stripped of his clothes and taunted as he was forced to stand naked on the street in freezing temperatures. According to Patriarch Filaret, this naked Cossack symbolizes Ukraine: naked, tortured but holding his head high and not surrendering to brutal force.
The democratic world must not leave this Cossack out in the cold. The time to act is now. What can be done? Western governments have already denounced the Yanukovych regime’s brutal crackdown. Mere words aren’t enough. The U.S. and the EU should sanction those in the Ukrainian leadership and their supporting oligarchs—no matter where they may be—who are responsible for the crackdown. Such sanctions should include visa bans and freezing personal overseas bank accounts. Protest leaders, including Mr. Klitschko, should be invited to Washington or another Western capital for high-level meetings, and Moscow should directly be warned to stop meddling in Ukraine’s affairs.
In August 1991, President George H.W. Bush told Ukrainians and other Soviet Republics, in a speech quickly dubbed “Chicken Kiev,” not to seek independence and integration with the West. Now, more than two decades later, the West must not send a similar message to people who have shown so much commitment to freedom. Too much is at stake. Let’s hope Washington, Paris, Brussels, Berlin and London grasp that fact before it’s too late.
Mr. Saakashvili, president of Georgia from January 2004 to November 2013, is senior statesman at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.