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Ukraine in the Aftermath of Maidan

But you must believe me, one cannot have everything one wants—not only in practice, but even in theory. The denial of this, the search for a single, overarching ideal because it is the one and only true one for humanity, invariably leads to coercion. And then to destruction, blood—eggs are broken, but the omelet is not in sight, there is only an infinite number of eggs, human lives, ready for the breaking. – Isaiah Berlin

Friday, November 21 marks the one-year anniversary of the anti-government protests on Kiev’s Independence Square. Much has happened since then, nearly all of it detrimental to the deteriorating European economy and to U.S. and European security interests. The standard narrative of events which posits that the battle between pro-European Kiev and revanchist Russia is nothing less than a battle for the future, indeed, the soul of Europe, though widespread, is incorrect.

As is by now well known, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign a EU Association Agreement at last November’s EU summit in Vilnius was, of course, the spark that set off the conflagration. In a narrow sense, the aims of the Euro-Maidan protests have been met: Yanukovych was overthrown in February, a new government of an ostensibly pro-European cast was subsequently formed, a new President (Poroshenko) was elected in May, and he ultimately signed the Association Agreement in June. Yet all of this came at an enormous price. The long-term ramifications of Kiev’s “European choice” are still as yet unclear.

Since the mid-19th century, Russians—due to their tumultuous political history—have had cause to raise two particular questions in the aftermath of this or that debacle. In 1845 Alexander Herzen asked, “Who is to be blamed?” (Kto vinovat?), and nearly a generation later Nikolai Chernyshevsky asked, “What is to be done?” (Chto delat?).


In assessing the Obama administration’s role in the Ukraine crisis, perhaps it might be worth asking a number of questions along similar lines.

Was it worth it?

It would be difficult to answer in the affirmative. While the goals of the protesters in Kiev were indeed met, the aftermath suggests that an alternative solution similar to the one Vladimir Putin suggested to the German chancellor in the lead-up to the Vilnius summit could have and should have been pursued. On the one hand, Kiev got its Association Agreement. On the other hand, the costs of the ensuring crisis are staggeringly high: roughly 4,100 war dead, thousands more wounded, nearly 1 million people displaced, the loss of Crimea and the de facto partition of Ukraine. Further, a new Cold War between the U.S. and Russia is now well underway while intra-European comity is beginning to fray over whether or not to continue the sanctions regime against Russia.

Who in the Obama administration has been held to account?

For helping to engineer the worst foreign policy debacle since the second Iraq war, and possibly—though it is still too early to say—since Vietnam, not one of the President’s men or women have been called to account. As of this writing key members of the national security team and the principal architects of our Russia/Ukraine policy, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, UN Ambassador Samantha Power, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, and CIA Director John Brennan, remain firmly ensconced in their posts. And for his part, Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken was just promoted to Deputy Secretary of State.

Where do things stand now?

Three recent developments should concern us. First, the much-praised Ukrainian parliamentary elections that took place on October 26 have only served to strengthen the hand of the hardliners in Kiev. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s faction is ascendant; he will have a free hand to pursue projects like the building of his very own Berlin Wall between Russia and Ukraine. A project such as this, smacking as it does of Mr. Yatsenyuk’s latent authoritarianism, receives little to no coverage from our wondrously pliant media. Second, the Ukrainian crisis is splitting Europe. The governments of Italy, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia are turning against the sanctions. Serbia is, naturally, pro-Russian. Germany and France are increasingly ambivalent regarding the sanctions while Poland, the UK, Sweden, and the Baltics (no doubt with much American encouragement) are all for isolating and punishing Russia. Third, a renewed push to arm Ukraine will emerge as the GOP takes control of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees. This week the incoming chairman of Armed Services, Sen. John McCain released a joint statement with Sen. Lindsey Graham calling (again) for the Obama administration to send arms to Kiev.

Why did the Obama administration feel compelled to get involved in all of this?

This brings us to the introductory quote courtesy of Isaiah Berlin. A curious aspect to this whole affair is the seeming insistence on the part of policymakers and pundits alike that all of the foregoing is solely the fault of Vladimir Putin.  Yet the question remains: why did the U.S. and EU think that Russia would stand idly by as it tried to wrench Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit? For 15 years, inordinately powerful neoconservatives and their liberal internationalist enablers have been comparing Putin to Stalin and/or Hitler. Did they not believe their own rhetoric?

Perhaps not. But as was too often the case in the blood-soaked 20th century, a set of particular (to say nothing of peculiar) set of ideas can sometimes become the driver of events, and in the case of the year-long Ukraine crisis, it has been the Washington establishment’s misguided and ultimately dangerous belief that “democracy” is some sort of panacea for what ails developing nations.

The Ukraine crisis illuminates a central problem of contemporary political theory and practice: the steadfast denial by policymakers and pundits of a certain stripe that something as seemingly virtuous as “democracy” could lend itself to destructive ends. Further, our elites have the sequencing backwards: democracy is not viable in the absence of accountable, stable, institutions, and a political culture that values the rule of law. Democracy is not a midwife to these things.

And even if Ukraine did possess the requisite institutions and political culture conducive to parliamentary democracy, we still lack both the right and the ability to transplant democratic norms elsewhere. Yet democratic peace theory, entrenched and sacrosanct, is a line of belief, to borrow a line from the eminent historian of Europe [1], that grows more dangerous the more sincerely it is believed.

What the last year has shown is that our foreign policy has become hostage to our illusions. And, tragically, for thousands of Ukrainians those illusions have proved to be fatal.

James Carden is a TAC contributing editor, and served as an advisor to the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the State Department from 2011-2012.

27 Comments (Open | Close)

27 Comments To "Ukraine in the Aftermath of Maidan"

#1 Comment By Winston On November 21, 2014 @ 4:08 am

Are you joking? It is western megalomania, even as western counties (just listen to cocophany from UK) do not want labor from EE countries already in fold-et tu hypcrite!

#2 Comment By Fran Macadam On November 21, 2014 @ 4:57 am

I think it depends what one means by “democracy promotion” to even be able to claim that has what has caused this tragedy. Certainly the term by itself can be used deceptively; witness all the “Democratic Peoples’ Republics” that aren’t or weren’t. There is no monopoly to these on invoking high sounding ideals to mask less than ethical practices. Moreover, a “democracy” that is not in fact supportive of the policies of the external party fomenting “regime change” is never supported, no matter how accountable it is to its own people. Elections aren’t considered valid, even when they reflect a people’s will, unless the elections confirm the ascendancy of the interests of the external regime changer.
It rather seems that since by definition, the United States is alone coincident with the very concept of democracy, the exceptional and indispensable government in all the world, it necessarily follows that no other nation can be democratic, unless its interests are identical to those of the quintessential democracy.
It’s not that democracy has been tried in Ukraine and failed, or that Ukrainians are uniquely unsuited for it, unlike Americans. It hasn’t even been credibly tried, just used and abused as a propaganda slogan hiding power struggles by our elites and their oligarchs, who neither at home or abroad are sympathetic to genuine democratic accountability.

#3 Comment By Miles Pilkington On November 21, 2014 @ 7:54 am

Mr. Carden needs to speak to more Ukrainians. Ukraine is not being “wrenched” from the Russian orbit by the US and the EU. The Ukrainians have been fighting off Russia (i.e., the Mongol Horde for them) for a long, long time. The Maidan is just the most recent eruption. If you ask the Ukrainians “Was it worth it?” I think the answer from most is an enthusiastic yes. They are volunteering to dig trenches around Mariupol and engage in guerrilla warfare against a larger, more powerful enemy, despite the almost complete lack of material support from the EU and the US. As for this argument about democratic illusions, the Maidanists were fighting for no such thing. In fact it was Putin and the paleos in this country who granted Yanukovich untouchable status thanks to his “legitimate election.” Au contraire, the Maidanists were fighting precisely for “accountable, stable, institutions, and a political culture that values the rule of law.”

#4 Comment By John Sobieski On November 21, 2014 @ 8:03 am

The Obama administration, the CIA, and the EU have precious little to do with the Maidan. While Ukraine did receive monetary aid to the tune (according to Nuland) of $5 billion, it is forgotten that Russia too was the recipient of billions of dollars in foreign aid.

#5 Comment By David On November 21, 2014 @ 8:13 am

The Maidan Revolution upended democracy. Yanukovych was a twice democratically elected president (according to EU standards). Some say, “yes, but he deserved to go. He was corrupt!” However between Yanukovych and Poroshenko, who is more corrupt? Yanukovych whose corruption was financial in nature, skimming off the top of the oil and gas industry, or Poroshenko, who is waging military campaign on his own citizens who reject his rise to power – a rise which came through a violent revolution, and elections which did not include the very half of the country he is warring against.

#6 Comment By Johann On November 21, 2014 @ 9:38 am

Much of tragic history is born from decisions based on ideology, not realism.

#7 Comment By SteveM On November 21, 2014 @ 10:12 am

When are we going to see U.S. democracy promotion in Saudi Arabia?

When can we expect to see sanctimonious Samantha Power confront the Saudi ambassador to the U.N. over Saudi Arabia’s egregious human rights abuses?

The selective outrage of the United States (regime) is itself outrageous.

#8 Comment By Dr. Preobrazhensky On November 21, 2014 @ 10:18 am

The article fails to mention the wishes of the Ukrainian people themselves. Apparently, their wishes do not matter to the author. The reality is is that the majority of Ukrainian voters voted for pro-Western parties in the last two parliamentary elections and that the majority of voters rewarded the pro-Maidan candidates by giving them a very solid election victory, in an election whose turnout was only about 6% lower than usual (meaning, pro-Western victory can’t be attributed to massive disenfranchisement of pro-Russian voters). The Ukrainian voters, at least most of them, want a pro-Western course and this hasn’t changed despite the turmoil that has resulted from Russian efforts to destabilize the country in order to punish it for its change in course.

As for the inner-Ukraine conflict, Ukraine’s West is the region with the lowest abortion rates, highest church attendance, highest birthrates and lowest out-of-wedlock birth rates, etc. By every measure it is the conservative part of the country. Interesting, and unfortunate, that some Western conservatives wish to throw the people from this deeply Christian part of the country under the bus, apparently simply to spite the neocons.

#9 Comment By Dr. Preobrazhensky On November 21, 2014 @ 10:30 am


Deposed president Yanukovich’s first “victory” was widely and correctly revealed as cheating. His second victory was legitimate, albeit rather thin (in the 2-person runoff race he won with less than 50% of the vote).

The problem was, Yanukovich’s actions after that legitimate victory. He took control of the courts (installing his hometown buddy who cleared his criminal assault record as head of the Constituitional Court) and flipped the elected pro-Western parliament by forcing its members to switch parties. He and this new parliament then gave Yanukovich new powers (never approved by a referendum or new elections) and changed the rules so that in the next election his side managed to retain control of the parliament despite a very healthy loss in the popular vote.

Imagine if Obama, after a narrow presidential victory and facing a Republican congress, managed to place some Chicago judges friendly to him on the Supreme Court, force the Congressional Republicans to change parties giving himself total control of congress, and have this new Congress pass laws, with the approval of the new Supreme Court, that massively extend his powers. That’s pretty much what happened in Ukraine under Yanukovich.

Would all that be “okay” because he was democratically elected President? Would him being overthrown in a popular uprising supported by the political leaders who actually won popular votes, be accurately described as undemocratic coup against a democratically elected leader?

#10 Comment By Miles Pilkington On November 21, 2014 @ 10:53 am

Yanukovych was democratically elected and democratically impeached.
Re: Poroshenko “waging military campaign on his own citizens,” what would you do if you were faced with violent separatists supported militarily by a foreign country? Just hand the geography over? There’s also the question of defending the interests of the significant number of Ukrainians in the Donbas who would like to remain within Ukraine.

#11 Comment By JohnG On November 21, 2014 @ 11:10 am

“And even if Ukraine did possess the requisite institutions and political culture conducive to parliamentary democracy, we still lack both the right and the ability to transplant democratic norms elsewhere.”

Like pretty much everyone else, I am skeptical about the institutions in Ukraine. However, let us not be overly optimistic about the non-transplantable western “democratic norms” either. Just WHAT are we talking about?! EU’s constitution was REJECTED by the French, Irish, and (I believe) the Dutch, yet it went into effect, so talk about the right to lecture the rest of the world on democracy!

EU is a totalitarian monster that tried to integrate Ukraine and, beside the violent breakup of that unfortunate country, the adventure may end up being the proverbial straw that breaks EU itself. Openly anti-EU Front National is already the largest party in France and UKIP is a major headache to the elites across the English Channel. Not to mention the dissatisfaction in countries like Hungary and Slovakia that are asked to impose damaging sanctions while getting nothing in return. This is not going to end well for the arrogant elites in Brussels.

#12 Comment By JohnG On November 21, 2014 @ 12:42 pm

@Miles Pilkington

“…what would you do if you were faced with violent separatists supported militarily by a foreign country? Just hand the geography over? There’s also the question of defending the interests of the significant number of Ukrainians in the Donbas who would like to remain within Ukraine.”

Well, McCain-Clinton reasoning & actions are coming back to bite. Everything that you say is applicable (verbatum!) to the Kosovo situation. Not to mention a large number of Serbs ethnically cleansed after NATO-backed thugs took over, and numerous christian-orthodox churches destroyed.

Back to the point I made above. What ON EARTH gives us the right to lecture anyone?!

#13 Comment By A C Mulder On November 21, 2014 @ 1:15 pm

Thanks for this article, Mr Carden. I’ve been attempting to follow the Ukraine crisis since the uprising in the Donbass Region last March and am frustrated by the lack of any reliable reporting about this conflict in the western media. One of the few sources I can find is Stephen Cohen who periodically writes for the Nation Magazine and is interviewed weekly on the conservative John Batchelor Show.

Your statement could not have been more appropriate to the current problems with US Foreign Policy and our attempts to ‘spread democracy’:
“Further, our elites have the sequencing backwards: democracy is not viable in the absence of accountable, stable, institutions and a political culture that values the rule of law. Democracy is not a midwife to these things.”
This brings to mind the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770, when the young lawyer and future president John Adams defended in court the British soldiers who fired on a crowd and killed five civilians, not because he believed them to be innocent but because he understood the Rule of Law demanded all men be given a fair trial. Adams knew the Rule of Law must be maintained under all circumstances and this principle proved important in forming the US government after the Revolution. Americans tend to forget this history or simply stay ignorant of the facts. Thanks for the reminder.

Also, your statement about being hostage to our illusions brings to mind a quote by Daniel Boorstin:
“We suffer primarily not from our vices or weaknesses, but from our illusions. We are haunted, nor by reality, but by those images we have put in place of reality.”
As a veteran from a military family, I have come to see the federal government’s urge to ‘spread democracy’ as the thin veneer of respectability laid over the desire to put in place foreign governments willing to do Washington’s biddings (as evidenced in Kiev) regardless of the outcomes to their own citizenry and often at their expense. The image of democratization hides the reality of what US Foreign Policy really attempts to do. However, our recent escapades-Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya and now Syria- have resulted in a worn out US military and depleted financial resources, a reality that will cause more and more suffering for Americans (as well as countless others) as it continues. No one knows how this Ukraine crisis will end but most likely it will not end well. What a sad legacy for future generations.

#14 Comment By Johann On November 21, 2014 @ 1:42 pm

Au contraire, the Maidanists were fighting precisely for “accountable, stable, institutions, and a political culture that values the rule of law.

Fire-bombing and taking over government buildings in the US by force would be met with prompt deadly force.

Federalism is the best solution, not the all-or-nothing mentality. The solution is to give the eastern separatist region autonomy. In fact that’s the best solution for almost all countries.

#15 Comment By sid_finster On November 21, 2014 @ 3:23 pm

Considering the rigged nature (and consequently lackluster turnout) of Ukraine’s two 2014 elections, they hardly could be called “democratic”.

As far as Novorussians is concerned: there were people living in Kosovo who wanted to stay part of Serbia. Don’t their voices matter?

#16 Comment By Dr. Preobrazhensky On November 21, 2014 @ 5:12 pm

“Considering the rigged nature (and consequently lackluster turnout) of Ukraine’s two 2014 elections, they hardly could be called “democratic”.”

Turnout in the 2014 parliamentary elections was 5.5% lower than in the 2012 elections.

The elections was flawed (little TV airtime to the anti-Western parties, some anti-Western politicians attacked in public) but certainly not “rigged.” And, given the loss of pro-Russian Crimean and its pro-Russian voters, a clear pro-Western victory was inevitable and not indicative of “rigging.”

Pro-Russian parties did participate and one of them did better than expected.

#17 Comment By John Doe On November 22, 2014 @ 1:15 am

Many commenters somehow forget that the EU Association Agreement was a) pretty one-sided, most of the Ukraine’s “high-tek” industry would had to go; b) by no mean was a prelude to EU integration, and the Agreement states that plainly, that EU membership is out of question and has nothing to do with this agreement at all.

#18 Comment By Miles Pilkington On November 22, 2014 @ 9:28 am

It was also met with deadly force in Ukraine. But when it comes to violence in the service of a just cause, I believe the United States, whose founding revolution was much more violent than the Maidan, provides a model.

Federalism is a non-starter for the Ukrainians as they know it is annexation by another name.

#19 Comment By sid_finster On November 22, 2014 @ 10:13 am

Have you seen Ukrainian TV lately? Intimidation and physical attacks on opposition politicians?

And yes, turnout was low. The Central Election Commission kept having to revise the figures upward. This in spite of Ukraine allegedly having become independent. You’d think people would want to vote.

And by the way, don’t assume that most citizens of Mariupol want to be part of Ukraine. My friends from there certainly do not.

#20 Comment By philadelphialawyer On November 22, 2014 @ 3:08 pm

Yeah, I’m not seeing it either. “Democracy” had precious little to do with it. I see two or perhaps three power centers (Russia and the USA/EU, or Russia, the USA and the EU) fighting over a border area. None of the outsiders (nor many of the insiders, by all accounts) cared all that much about “democracy,” but, as has been mentioned, a democratically elected government was overthrown, if not by the West, than certainly at least with its approval, to the point of actual cheerleading and literally handing out cookies!

Does anyone actually believe the neo con rhetoric about “democratization” (or, for that matter, the lib interventionist rhetoric about “human rights”) any more? Only if one does is the Berlin quote relevant and the thesis of the article credible.

What I see instead is a world hegemon, and its little brother, trying to grab yet another chunk of territory from a regional power, and integrate it, and its people, into its own military (NATO) and economic (EU) institutions, for their own benefit.

Anything can be couched in ideology, the question is whether it is for real or not. At one point, republicanism was a real ideology that people would fight and die for, as in the wars of the French Revolution. At one time fascism fit the bill as well, as did socialism. But it is hard to shoe horn the Ukraine affair into this model. Everyone, in and out of country, claimed to be a “democrat,” everyone claimed to be about “human rights,” but the naked international (and national and ethnic) power politics are pretty clear.

#21 Comment By Steven H On November 22, 2014 @ 10:23 pm

This article assumes that the EU wanted Ukraine within its orbit. All the that lumbering organization wanted was to keep Ukraine at bay with a small treaty and not upset Putin.

Unfortunately, the Ukrainians and their former President wanted to raise the stakes.

#22 Comment By giovanni On November 24, 2014 @ 12:25 am

The Ukrainians have been fighting off Russia (i.e., the Mongol Horde for them)”

only the NAZI ukrainians call russian Mongol Horde, million of ukrainian speak “Mongol” and have relative in “Mongolia”.

#23 Comment By Baldur Dasche On November 24, 2014 @ 7:53 am

The disorders of the Maidan would not be tolerated for 10 minutes in most of the western democracies. One has only to look at the response to ‘riots’ or ‘terrorism’ anywhere from Wall Street to the suburbs of Paris, in the modern experience or in history, to find out that a brutal rapid response – Napoleon’s ‘whiff of grapeshot’- is an excellent anodyne. Yanukovich could have (should have0 called out the army and the National Guard, ordered the rioters to disperse and machine-gunned those who refused.
Even should the mob win – show me a evolution that didn’t devolve into a bloody massacre.

#24 Comment By Michael Kenny On November 24, 2014 @ 9:28 am

Snce Mr Carden has always been part of the “let Putin win” faction, his arguments are hardly surprising. It should not be forgotten that all this is essentially about Israel. Victoria Nuland’s agttempt to block the Association Agreement was part of the neocon strategy to break up the EU, seen as a dangerous rival to the US world hegemony essential in neocon eyes to the defence of Israel. Like Dr Frankenstein, the neocons have lost control of their monster and it is ever more likely that the only way to deal with Putin will be by military action. I would thus read Mr Carden’s article as one of a growing number of increasingly frantic articles from the pro-Putin faction trying to persuade the US to leave Europe in the lurch. But precisely for that reason, if Putin wins, Israel loses. Will the Israel Lobby allow that to happen?

#25 Comment By Eugene Costa On November 24, 2014 @ 11:56 am

If you have not figured out the US intervention by now, you may need a larger map than you have been using. The intervention in Ukraine is directly connected to the US’s desire to overthrow Assad, for various reasons, including to eliminate the Russians’ use of port facilities there, and also as preparation for war against Iran, which Israel direly desires. Then suddenly along comes ISIS, which from the beginning has been part of the US effort to intervene against Assad in Syria with the supposed support of the collection of imbeciles, Conservative and Liberal, as well as Progressive, that is the US population. In the next presidential election, if there is one, this will all be covered by a new car smell, exactly the same as the old ones, which were Clinton, Bush, and Obama. Enjoy your Nobel Peace Prizes.

#26 Comment By Eileen K. On November 24, 2014 @ 4:22 pm

Here’s the truth about the situation in Ukraine. The USSA – in the persons of Victoria (F*** the EU) Nudelman aka Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt – instigated the illegitimate, violent coup that ousted a democratically elected President (Yanukovych) and installed a mishmash of nationalists and Oligarchs. This is in violation of both US and International law, as well as a violation of Ukrainian sovereignty.
This is not new to the USSA’s Zionist-controlled government; this same government – under both Democrat and GOP Presidents – violently violated the sovereignty of several nations across the globe, wherein millions of innocents were murdered. In Iraq alone, around a million civilians were killed in bombings, shellings, and outright murders by USSA and other forces. NATO planes bombed Libya, killing civilians there; and, worst of all, militants – aided by NATO airstrikes – not only captured then President Muammar Ghadaffi – but also tortured and murdered him. The same would’ve happened to Viktor Yanukovych had he not fled to Russia. In other words, outside of Israel, the USSA is the most dangerous terrorist state in the world.

#27 Comment By from Germany On November 30, 2014 @ 3:43 am

Thank you so much for that article. I really agree with your point of view and I would be just more than happy to see that the United States are not interested in getting interfered into that escalating conflict, I personally like to live in peace in Europe. You have just improved my opinion about the “Conservatives” in the US with that article, thanks again!