The outcome of Vladimir Putin’s aggression in the Crimean Peninsula is not yet settled, but one thing is clear: He will have few indigenous allies, should he attempt to occupy and split away Ukraine’s Russian-speaking regions. Instead of stirring pro-Russian sentiments, the actions of his military have advanced national unity among Ukrainian citizens and have led the country’s new leaders to moderate their actions.
Immediately after the collapse of Viktor Yanukovych’s regime, marauding groups of far-right vigilantes threatened local governments and legislators, primarily in central and western Ukraine. In Kiev, a triumphalist post-Yanukovych majority in parliament pressed forward with revolutionary justice, releasing not only jailed political prisoners such as Yulia Tymoshenko but also a range of dodgy ultra-right activists who had been convicted of various criminal charges.
Parliament augmented these steps by moving to repeal legislation that was seen in eastern and southern Ukraine as protecting the status of minority languages, including Russian.
All these “revolutionary” actions played into Putin’s hands as pro-Russian protests began to proliferate in the eastern cities of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kharkiv and Sevastopol, where government buildings were seized.
Such “anti-Maidan” trends were exacerbated by Russian television, which is popular in eastern Ukraine. Broadcast reports about far-right gangs massing to move violently against ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in the east stoked panic.
When it became clear, however, that Russia was sending thousands of protesters into Ukraine and directly interfering in its neighbor’s internal political conflict, the interim government began to change course — and public opinion began to shift.
First, the new government, though peppered with right-wing politicians, is led primarily by moderate, pro-European politicians. Included in its top posts are respected ethnic Russians, Armenians and Jews.
Second, the Russian language has been championed in bedrock nationalist cities in western Ukraine. Late last month, for example, residents of Lviv answered the call of their moderate reformist mayor to spend a day speaking only Russian.
Third, the new leadership in Kiev moved quickly to nominate respected local leaders as governors in eastern and southern regions.
But it was Putin’s invasion of Crimea that had the most dramatic effect on Ukraine’s population and political elite.
Since the invasion, protests in favor of “federalism,” devolution of power or unification with Russia — which had not attained massive proportions — have abated. Although many protesters are aggressive, pro-Russia crowds number only hundreds or low thousands. In recent days, protests by pro-Russian groups in Donetsk and Kharkiv were clearly driven by agents from Russia; some were from Russia’s foreign intelligence service and others from Russia’s security service, with toughs bused in from across the border. Such efforts at manipulation have angered locals.
Polling data released this week shows that nearly 60 percent of the public approves of the reconfigured parliament and government. The same survey, conducted in recent days, found that 67 percent of Ukrainians endorse the parliament’s actions to remove Yanukovych from office, with only 19 percent opposed.
A spirit of pragmatism is emerging in Ukraine. Acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who was at the White House this week, announced Monday that Ukraine would support an internationally monitored referendum in Crimea if Russian troops and pro-Russian armed gangs withdraw.
Moreover, nationwide polling released last week shows strong support for moderate candidates who promote ethnic-cultural tolerance and market reforms and support integration with the European Union. Ukrainians appear to be looking for cool heads and for less-familiar faces.
A survey by Ukraine’s Center for Social and Marketing Research, known as SOCIS, found that about 30 percent of Ukrainians are undecided or don’t intend to vote in the presidential election scheduled for May 25. The other survey, by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, put that share at 40 percent. Among those ready to vote, billionaire businessman Petro Poroshenko, from southern Ukraine, is the surprise leader; the SOCIS poll found he has 31 percent support. Former boxer Vitaly Klitschko, who heads a social liberal party and consistently urged nonviolence during the Maidan revolution, has 21 percent of decided voters in SOCIS polling. Other moderate politicians account for an additional 24 percent — which means that about three-quarters of Ukrainian voters who have made up their minds are backing sober pragmatists.
Two hard-line far-right candidates together have 6 percent support, a decline from previous surveys, and a pro-Russian Communist has 7 percent.
Yanukovych still claims to rule Ukraine, but his actions, and Putin’s, are largely responsible for these results. Putin’s invasion of Ukrainian territory, coupled with widespread knowledge of Yanukovych’s lavish lifestyle and his economically ruinous misrule, have inspired unity among Ukrainians, which has reduced the possibility of Russia fomenting massive internal chaos in Ukraine.
In Ukraine’s brief history of independence, no founding visionary along the lines of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton or Thomas Jefferson has emerged. But in recent weeks, Ukraine has seen in Putin its King George III and in Yanukovych its Benedict Arnold.
Putin has given Ukrainians new reasons to focus on cooperation, solidarity, moderation and mutual understanding. And these augur well for the emergence of a stable, democratic and modern European state.
Adrian Karatnycky is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council and a former president of Freedom House.