[Marxism] Ukraine: The Revolution That Wasn’t

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Apr 3 19:44:41 MDT 2018

NY Review
The Revolution That Wasn’t
Paul Quinn-Judge APRIL 19, 2018 ISSUE

The Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of Revolution
by Marci Shore
Yale University Press, 290 pp., $26.00

Near Abroad: Putin, the West, and the Contest over Ukraine and the Caucasus
by Gerard Toal
Oxford University Press, 387 pp., $29.95

Nouveau buildings that house the offices of Ukraine’s top leaders, often 
turn to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s late-night phone calls 
with Russian President Vladimir Putin. These are said to be quite 
frequent and quite relaxed for two presidents who have been unofficially 
at war in eastern Ukraine for the past four years. Poroshenko, a 
secretive figure who reputedly does not like to delegate, says little 
about his calls, according to senior government figures, so speculation 
often runs wild. I once asked one of the few leaders of the Maidan 
uprising to subsequently achieve high office about one burst of phone 
communications. Poroshenko seems to believe he can persuade Putin to let 
Ukraine off the hook, he remarked. I asked him half-jokingly whether he 
feared that one night Putin might just offer Poroshenko a deal that 
would suit the two presidents, but not necessarily Ukraine. That could 
well happen, he replied. Other observers feel the president has more 
basic issues on his mind. Asked what the two men might discuss, a 
politician-businessman looked amazed at the idiocy of the question. 
“Business,” he said witheringly.

These two answers essentially span the spectrum of explanations for the 
phone calls: few attribute noble motives to President Poroshenko. Even 
officials only a step or two down from the president often seem loath to 
explain or justify his more controversial behavior, such as his 
unwillingness to replace corrupt military officers or ministers. Among 
Ukrainians, this translates into a deep malaise. Four years after the 
flight from Kiev of Poroshenko’s predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, who was 
forced out by months of protests that paralyzed the capital, many 
Ukrainians are disillusioned with their leaders and the political class 
in general, demoralized by the weak economy, worried about the frozen 
conflict in eastern Ukraine, and frustrated by the president’s failure 
to address the systemic corruption that permeates all aspects of life. 
In many cases Poroshenko has fought hard to protect controversial 
figures like Prosecutor-General Viktor Shokin, whom he defended for over 
a year before firing him only when US Vice President Joe Biden 
threatened to withdraw a $1 billion loan guarantee.

Poroshenko, a wealthy businessman and former senior minister in the 
Yanukovych administration, was elected president in May 2014 following 
the Euromaidan protests, which had started in November 2013 in Kiev’s 
Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, over Yanukovych’s decision 
to postpone an agreement with the European Union. They had quickly 
turned into mass civil disobedience, ending in a bloodbath in 
mid-February 2014 that left 130 demonstrators and at least sixteen 
police dead. Yanukovych had fled to eastern Ukraine on February 22 and 
been whisked to safety by Russian special forces in an operation that 
Putin likes to say he oversaw personally.

Putin immediately denounced Yanukovych’s overthrow as yet another 
US-fomented “colored revolution,” the latest move on the part of NATO 
and the US to squeeze Russia’s traditional sphere of interest. Such 
revolutions, Nikolai Patrushev, a close Putin aide, wrote, presented “no 
less a danger” to Russia than ISIS. Retaliation was swift. The Kremlin 
deployed first subversion and then infiltration, quickly cobbling 
together two rump enclaves in two oblasts (regions) along the Russian 
border, Donetsk and Luhansk, naming the occupied territories the Donetsk 
and the Luhansk People’s Republic, respectively. The self-styled 
republics have a population of about four million and no means of 
support other than Russia.

Subsequent fighting in the east has resulted in at least 10,000 dead, 
according to the very cautious UN Office of the High Commissioner for 
Human Rights. Many thousands of Ukrainians now live along or on a 
three-hundred-mile front line. Neither side seems to show much interest 
in their well-being. Between five and ten civilians are killed most 
months, the majority by mines, IEDs, and booby traps. The war’s first 
year was especially bloody. A couple of thousand Ukrainian troops and 
armed volunteers may have died in the course of two largely Russian 
operations. Moscow claimed separatist forces had done the fighting, 
though in fact these forces barely existed. In the summer of 2014 
Russian troops crushed a Ukrainian effort to take back the occupied 
areas not far from the city of Donetsk. In early 2015, toward the end of 
a large but unsuccessful separatist offensive, Russian forces encircled 
Ukrainian forces in the area around Debaltseve, inflicting heavy losses. 
Civilian losses were also high.

Poroshenko came to power amid hope that the country would finally break 
with its corruption-riddled semiauthoritarian past. (One of his campaign 
slogans was “A New Way of Living.”) His first prime minister, Arseniy 
Yatsenyuk, another wealthy businessman and prominent politician, 
declared his would be a “kamikaze government” of rapid, radical 
reforms—breaking up inefficient bureaucracies, ending corrupt practices, 
et cetera—that would destroy his own career but transform the country. 
No kamikaze reforms were recorded during his two years in office, and he 
continues to flourish. The president’s personal wealth, meanwhile, 
reportedly reached the $1 billion mark in 2017.

Ukraine has for the past two decades been caught in a vicious circle. 
While Russia attempts to keep the country within its orbit, reformers 
struggle to change a totally corrupt political system, and the ruling 
class subverts their efforts. In the most recent example of this, top 
government officials are fighting a vigorous rearguard action against a 
new Anti-Corruption Bureau. Twice in the past fourteen years mass 
demonstrations have overthrown a corrupt Ukrainian leader—the same one, 
actually—only to see power pass to politicians who are essentially 
members of a more liberal wing of the same corrupt ruling elite. The 
second effort in 2013–2014 prompted the Russian invasion that has left 
Ukraine crippled and partly occupied.

Marci Shore and Gerard Toal address this dark, often tragic story in 
different ways. In The Ukrainian Night, Shore goes straight to primary 
sources, interviewing participants in the Euromaidan protests and a 
smaller group of supporters of the protests in the east of the country. 
Many of her interviewees are from the intelligentsia—writers, political 
scientists and researchers, a physicist turned rock singer. All found 
themselves facing the police and government-paid thugs on Maidan because 
of a sense that all channels of dialogue with the Yanukovych regime were 
closed—as one writer, Jurko Prochasko, told Shore, “a non-radical 
conversation is simply not possible with Yanukovych.” Sometimes two 
generations were out on the Maidan. She asked a sixteen-year-old how his 
mother had felt about staying on the Maidan after a bad beating. “My 
mother was making Molotov cocktails,” he replied.

Most conversations are brief, eloquent, and sometimes poignant. Two 
activists from the best-known of the country’s ultranationalist groups, 
Right Sector, back from fighting in the grimmest battle of the war at 
the Donetsk airport, explain their reason for choosing the 
self-proclaimed antidemocratic and ultranationalist movement. Right 
Sector is the “only structure that has not sold out and will not sell 
out,” one of them told Shore. To the non-Ukrainian this might seem 
trite; in today’s Ukraine it is a crucial consideration. A veteran of 
the 2004 demonstrations known as the Orange Revolution remembered the 
immaturity of the participants. “We were convinced then,” he said, “that 
we can delegate to one person and he’s good, so it’s ideal, he’ll do 

The more recent generation of Maidan activists believed roughly the same 
thing. Many of their ideas are still relevant—like that of the protestor 
who described the EU as not just “some kind of Euro-zone” where 
politicians debate whether France or Germany is more important, “but as 
a system for protecting and preserving our civilization.” These days 
highly educated Maidan activists from western Ukraine still surprise EU 
officials with their embrace of Europe but their rejection of EU policy 
on gay rights or abortions. Another interview was uncomfortably 
prescient. The Polish foreign minister Radosław Sikorski, brought in at 
the end of Euromaidan to help mediate between Yanukovych and the 
mainstream Ukrainian politicians who represented the protesters, 
recalled the strangely friendly tone of those final negotiations in 
February 2014. At night “they all drank vodka together, and the 
atmosphere of their negotiations was ‘remarkably untoxic.’” The 
vodka-drinking politicians, ostensibly there to represent the 
protesters’ interests, quickly moved into power after Maidan. The 
demonstrators, meanwhile, were marginalized and left with little more 
than their dreams—“real democracy” according to one, solidarity 
according to another. But no regime change.

As many Euromaidan participants do, Shore refers to the events as a 
revolution. There was no revolution, unfortunately. Euromaidan was a 
heroic and stubborn act of mass defiance in the face of ruthless and 
well-armed government forces. It was most certainly not a revolution as 
defined by standard Ukrainian, Russian, or Polish dictionaries, all of 
whose definitions emphasize fundamental change and the creation of a new 
system. In the case of Ukraine, the protestors sliced off the top layer 
of the regime but left most of the structure intact.

Gerard Toal’s Near Abroad is a rich and dense study of geopolitics in 
and around the now-independent states that once composed the Union of 
Soviet Socialist Republics,1 probably the best available today.2 He 
argues forcefully against reducing complicated geopolitical issues to 
facile formulas, and particularly against the US tendency to back 
leaders who talk a good line, preferably in English. “Embracing 
Bonapartism in the Caucasus or shoring up select Ukrainian oligarchs, no 
matter how good a game they talk, is not ‘support for freedom,’” he 
writes. At the center of Toal’s book is the 2008 NATO summit in 
Bucharest, where the alliance declared that Georgia and Ukraine would 
eventually become members. Putin warned that this would be viewed as a 
“direct threat” to Russian security. That summer he invaded Georgia, 
consolidating Moscow’s control over the two breakaway territories of 
South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian troops continue to nibble away at 
Georgia’s border with Russian-occupied South Ossetia, a few yards at a time.

Toal is highly critical of the US for the “thin geopolitics” it adopted 
after September 11, 2001, which, he argues, “organized the world” into 
“moralized binaries without regard to the depth and complexities of 
geography and history.” He calls instead—nobly and probably 
quixotically—for “thick geopolitics,” based on in-depth knowledge of 
places and people, necessarily less clear-cut and inevitably much 
messier. Toal suggests viewing the post-Soviet region as a “contested 
geopolitical field” with five main participants. These include the 
metropolitan state, in this case Russia, striving to find a 
post-imperial identity; former Soviet states that have gained or 
regained independence and now are trying to break loose from Russia’s 
grip; and minorities within these states that are often latently or 
actively secessionist. Somewhere in the field it might be useful to find 
a place for the role of state corruption and the often symbiotically 
related issue of organized crime.

Vladimir Putin also has a central part in Toal’s book. His annexation of 
Crimea propelled his approval ratings in Russia into the mid-eighties, 
where they have mostly remained. But the external price for his actions 
in Crimea and eastern Ukraine was high. US and EU sanctions, which have 
proven infuriatingly persistent, have increased the pressure on Russia’s 
sclerotic economy. International isolation has thwarted his great dream 
of returning to the top ranks of world leaders.

Toal quotes the US political scientist John Mearsheimer’s description of 
Putin as “a first-class strategist who should be feared and respected by 
anyone challenging him on foreign policy,” but does not seem convinced 
by it. He suggests that Putin’s character can be more usefully 
understood with reference to his hypermasculinity and the role of 
affect, or emotion, in his political choices. Putin’s lengthy record 
indeed indicates that his reactions are often provoked by a sense of 
spite or revenge. Russian analysts—some loyal, others critical—have long 
noted that under Putin action often precedes policy. Some have resorted 
to slang to define his leadership style, perceiving elements of the 
sovok—the constantly aggrieved, misogynist, racist post-Soviet man in 
the street—in his behavior. He is clearly a gosudarstvennik, a firm 
believer in the dignity of the state (gosudarstvo), who believes that 
this dignity must be protected at any price, including that of the 
truth. Another intriguing glimpse of Putin’s psychological makeup comes 
from Putin himself. In an early political biography he confided with 
apparent pride to one of his interviewers that he had not gone through 
the Soviet youth movements but had instead been a shpana, a young tough 
or punk.3

Mikhail Palinchak/TASS/Getty Images
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko welcoming Ukrainian soldiers 
released in a prisoner exchange with Russian-backed separatists, Kharkov 
airport, December 2017
If one looks back at the four years of Putin’s Ukrainian adventure, they 
make him seem more a sorcerer’s apprentice than a tactician. Russian 
behavior in Ukraine has whipsawed from one extreme to another. First 
came a not-very-covert incursion by seventy or so Russian adventurers, 
with no clear plan of action and led by an eccentric former Federal 
Security Service colonel; they wandered into a medium-sized eastern town 
where government structures had disintegrated after Yanukovych’s flight, 
then got bogged down. There followed brief but brutal invasions by 
Russian conventional forces, and an effort to build at high speed a 
viable army for the two separate entities. Along the way Putin briefly 
toyed with the idea of carving a Russian-speaking state, Novorossiya, 
out of southeast Ukraine, then dropped it. What remains are the two 
barely functioning semicriminal enclaves of Donetsk and Luhansk that 
depend entirely on Russian money and protection.

Putin has insisted from the start that Russia is not a participant in 
the conflict, and thus bears no responsibility for any postwar 
reconstruction; moreover, Russia has stated that it recognizes Ukrainian 
sovereignty over the enclaves. Russia also denies invading eastern 
Ukraine with its regular army, stationing its elite troops in the 
separatist areas, or supplying, training, and overseeing the new 
separatist armed forces—even though Kremlin publicists have admitted all 
of this, Russian nationalist volunteers fighting alongside the 
separatists openly discuss it, and Russian troops guarding Ukrainian 
POWs in 2014 casually identified their units to prisoners who not only 
spoke the same language but often had served in the same army in Soviet 

After the war broke out, I made several trips to Ukraine and spoke with 
the separatist leaders in Donetsk. They admit that they are totally 
dependent on Moscow for financial and all other forms of assistance. A 
Putin adviser, Vladislav Surkov, regularly visits Donetsk to inspect the 
situation, quite often, as one leader put it, “to yell at us.” (Surkov 
is also the leading Russian figure in the Russia–US bilateral 
consultations on Ukraine.4) Separatist leaders have, however, been able 
to develop profitable economic activities, mostly criminal, in 
particular cross-border smuggling. Drugs, scrap metal, coal, and 
weapons, among other commodities, move without hindrance across the 
heavily guarded frontiers of Russia, Ukraine, and the separatist territory.

President Poroshenko has other concerns. He proclaims that he is still 
committed to reform, and in particular to measures for curbing 
high-level corruption. Yet in the view of most citizens, and probably 
the whole diplomatic corps, he is devoting much of his energy to efforts 
to stave off reform measures that would, if implemented, profoundly 
change the nature of Ukrainian governance. The president’s personal 
popularity ratings and those of his party are usually in the low teens, 
and many observers suspect that he will have to call early parliamentary 
elections this year. His only consolation perhaps is that most other 
Ukrainian politicians are equally unloved. His Western backers are 
deeply frustrated. “He rarely rejects any advice” on reforms, an 
outgoing ambassador remarked. “He just does not implement them.”

The Kremlin framed events in Donetsk and Luhansk as a popular uprising 
by oppressed Russian-speaking Ukrainians. This is not correct. The 
Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) separatist leaders I interviewed over 
the course of several visits between 2014 and 2016 frequently expressed 
amazement at finding themselves in charge of a ministate. Most had 
dreamed at best of lucrative positions in a new oblast administration. 
They had zero administrative experience and barely knew one another: the 
initial four highest-ranking DNR officials in Donetsk consisted of a 
former security guard for Yanukovych’s old political party, a 
chronically unsuccessful small businessman, the representative of a 
Russian Ponzi scheme, and the former head of counterterrorism forces in 
Donetsk oblast.

Within a couple of months their Russian handlers were expressing 
disappointment. Moscow had hoped to extend control across several more 
southeastern oblasts, but the leaders of the DNR and the Luhansk 
People’s Republic could not even consolidate power in their own regions. 
“I think President Putin received a good intelligence report about the 
limits of our power,” one of them, Andrei Purgin, told me that spring. 
Basically we are a burden, said another, “like a suitcase without a 
handle: you can’t use it, but you don’t want to throw it out.”

In Kiev euphoria turned to stagnation. Euromaidan activists emerged from 
the protests with a blueprint for institutional reform, notably of the 
judiciary and the police, and in the struggle against corruption. Their 
plans were efficiently blocked and gutted by the establishment. 
Reformers also had to come to terms with the grim reality of total 
corruption: when choosing a candidate for an appointment, the choice was 
usually between an exceedingly able but corrupt specialist or a clean 
neophyte. The Maidan leaders who went into the parliament were not able 
to form a unified bloc, and have been diluted and dispersed among other 
parties; they have also learned that while they tried to live on the 
$600-or-so basic monthly salary, many political leaders bought votes for 
tens of thousands of dollars or even more, depending on the vote’s 
importance. Their inability to form a coherent force with a single 
message has cost them dearly.

Another crucial part of Ukrainian society, the Ukrainian officer corps, 
has evolved over the past four years. Front-line officers, from captains 
to lieutenant colonels, often from the east and usually 
Russian-speakers, feel that it will fall to them eventually to recapture 
the eastern enclaves. The officers were energized not by Euromaidan, 
with what they saw as its chaotic violence, but by the annexation of 
Crimea—“the return of the Russia my parents told me about,” as one put 
it. Four years in the east have given them self-confidence and a 
profound disdain for their military and civilian superiors—many of whom 
they say are corrupt, incompetent, or perhaps Russian agents.

They frequently voice the suspicion that the Russian and the Ukrainian 
leaders are both comfortable with the current stalemate. Putin wants to 
keep Ukraine economically and socially off-balance, one officer said in 
the presence of several others. And Poroshenko is happy because he has 
an excuse for not carrying out reforms. Officers also occasionally refer 
wryly to a newly formed elite military force, the National Guard, which 
many suspect has been created to protect the president from them.

Ironically, many officers now seem happy to work with one of the most 
controversial products of Euromaidan, the volunteer battalions. A number 
of these units emerged from Ukraine’s soccer hooligan groups. Many 
describe themselves as Nazis or simply as far-right. During Euromaidan 
they spearheaded many of the attacks on the police. Now they have—in 
theory, at least—been incorporated into Interior or Defense Ministry 
structures. (For example, one officer of the Azov regiment, a force 
known for its quasi-Nazi regalia and alleged human rights violations, is 
now chief of police in a medium-sized western Ukrainian city. He says 
that only about 20 percent of his fellow fighters were Nazis, but that 
these were among the toughest.) Along the front line, Right Sector units 
carry out covert cross-border raids or help extract Ukrainian State 
Security operatives from separatist-controlled areas. “The army loves 
Right Sector,” I was told by one senior government security adviser.

Kiev winters, often a time of low clouds, slushy snow, and ice-covered 
sidewalks, tend to give rise to dark talk of another Maidan—a final 
outburst of rage against a regime that has once again deceived the 
public. This is always possible. There are a lot of angry, disillusioned 
people in Ukraine. But many are deathly tired of politics, and any new 
outburst could be much more violent than that of 2014. There are many 
more guns, trained military veterans of the volunteer battalions, and 
the National Guard.

Besides, some of Poroshenko’s rivals in the ruling elite admit that, by 
their own criteria, his performance is quite good—not as a democrat but 
as an autocrat. “He is not doing badly, despite what Russians and 
Washington believe,” said one opposition strategist. “He has 
consolidated enormous wealth and influence, and basically has cut oxygen 
to the opposition. At this point no one can stand up to him, which is a 
big difference from all twenty-five years of Ukraine’s independence.” If 
that is the case, Poroshenko and Putin may just continue to chat, spar a 
bit, and discuss business, while looking for a way out that will 
preserve the systems that have brought them both great wealth.

—March 21, 2018

Toal’s work also contains a detailed discussion of Russian and Western 
rivalries in the Caucasus, which is not covered in this Ukraine-focused 
review.  ↩

Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post–Cold War Order, by Rajan 
Menon and Eugene Rumer (MIT Press, 2015) is an excellent treatment of 
the crisis’s early years, and deserves prompt updating.  ↩

Natalya Gevorkyan, Natalya Timakova, and Andrey Kolesnikov, От первого 
лица. Разговоры с Владимиром Путины [At First Hand: Conversations with 
Vladimir Putin] (2000). Originally published by the now-defunct Vagrius 
publishing house, the book is available online: 
lib.ru/MEMUARY/PUTIN/razgowor.txt ↩

Surkov’s brief also includes the South Caucasus and domestic policy. A 
political think tank closely associated with him, the Center for Current 
Policy, has produced authoritative work on Russia’s Ukraine policy and 
also more recently on Putin’s reelection campaign. In a long commentary 
on the latter subject the think tank emphasized the enormous 
significance of a pro-Russian Trump presidency—essentially a cure for 
all that is harmful to Putin’s government. Benefits would include the 
probable collapse of Western sanctions without any major Russian 
concessions on Ukraine and the opportunity to present Russia’s influence 
on Washington as revenge for the defeat of the USSR in the cold war; it 
would also underline the fact that Russia had been right throughout its 
long conflict with the US, and bring Russia out of isolation, not as a 
regional power but a world one. ↩

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