Over the past two weeks, residents of Kiev have lived through its bloodiest conflict since the Second World War, watched their reviled president flee and a new, provisional team take charge, seen Russian troops take control of part of the country, and heard Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, assert his right to take further military action. Yet the Ukrainian capital is calm.
Revolutions often falter on Day 2, as Ukraine has already bitterly learned twice — once after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and then again in 2005 after the Orange Revolution. That could happen again, but the new revolution is enjoying a prolonged honeymoon, thanks to Mr. Putin, whose intervention in Ukrainian foreign and trade policy provoked the uprising in the first place, and whose invasion has, paradoxically, increased its chance of long-term success.
The police, despised for their corruption and repression, are returning to work. Their squad cars often sport Ukrainian flags and many have a “self-defense” activist from the protests with them. A Western ambassador told me that the activists were there to protect the cops from angry citizens. My uncle, who lives here, said they were also there to stop the police from slipping back into their old ways and demanding bribes.
This revolution may yet be eaten by its own incompetence or by infighting. A presidential election is scheduled for May, and the race, negative campaigning and all, has quietly begun. The oligarchs, some of whom have cannily been appointed governors of the potentially restive eastern regions, are jockeying for power. But for now, Ukrainians, who were brought together by shared hatred of the former president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, are being brought closer still by the Kremlin-backed invasion.
“Yanukovych freed Ukraine and Putin is uniting it,” said Iegor Soboliev, a 37-year-old ethnic Russian who heads a government commission to vet officials of the former regime. “Ukraine is functioning not through its government but through the self-organization of its people and their sense of human decency.”
Mr. Soboliev is a former investigative journalist who grew frustrated that carefully documented revelations of government misbehavior — which he says “wasn’t merely corruption, it was marauding” — were having no impact. He and a few friends formed Volya, a movement dedicated to creating a country of “responsible citizens” and a “state worthy of their trust.”
“People in Odessa, Mykolaiv, Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk are coming out to defend their country,” Mr. Soboliev said. “They have never liked the western Ukrainian, Galician point of view. But they are showing themselves to be equally patriotic. They are defending their country from foreign aggression. Fantastical things are happening.”
This conflict could flare into Europe’s first major war of the 21st century, and Crimea may never again be part of Ukraine. But no matter what happens over the next few months, or even years, Mr. Putin and his vision of an authoritarian, Russian-dominated former Soviet space have already lost. Democratic, independent Ukraine, and the messy, querulous (but also free and law-abiding) European idea have won.
So far, the only certain victory is the ideological one. Many outsiders have interpreted the past three months as a Yugoslav-style ethno-cultural fight. It is nothing of the kind. This is a political struggle. Notwithstanding the bloodshed, the best parallel is with Prague’s Velvet Revolution of 1989. The emphasis there on changing society’s moral tone, and each person’s behavior, was likewise central to the protests that overthrew Mr. Yanukovych.
For Ukraine, as well as for Russia and much of the former U.S.S.R., the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was only a partial revolution. The U.S.S.R. vanished, but the old nomenklatura, and its venal, authoritarian style of governance remained. Mr. Putin is explicitly drawing on that heritage and fitfully trying to reshape it into a new state capitalist system that can compete and flourish globally. An alliance with Mr. Yanukovych’s Ukraine was an essential part of that plan.
That effort has now failed. Whatever Mr. Putin achieves in Ukraine, it will not be partnership with a Slavic younger brother enthusiastically joining in his neo-imperialist, neo-Soviet project.
The unanswered question is whether Ukraine can be a practical success. The economy needs a total structural overhaul — and that huge shift needs to be accomplished while either radically transforming, or creating from scratch, effective government institutions.
This is the work Central Europe and the Baltic states did in the 1990s. Their example shows that it can be done, but it takes a long time, requires a patient and united populace, and probably also the promise of European partnership.
The good news is that Ukraine may finally have achieved the necessary social unity. The bad news is that it isn’t clear if Europe, struggling with its economic malaise and ambivalence toward its newish eastern members, has the stomach to tutor and support Ukraine as it did the Visegrad countries — Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland — and the Baltic states.
This should be Ukraine’s biggest problem. But with Russian forces in Crimea, the more urgent question Kiev faces is whether it will find itself at war.
The answer depends in large part on Russia. Sergei Kovalev, a former dissident who became a member of the Russian Parliament in the 1990s, once told me that a good rule for understanding Russian strongmen was that “eating increases the appetite.” Mr. Putin has thus far lived up to that aphorism.
Thanks to his agility in Syria, his successful hosting of the Sochi Olympics and even, at first, his masterful manipulation of Mr. Yanukovych, Mr. Putin has won himself something of a reputation as a master strategist. But he has made a grave miscalculation in Ukraine.
For one thing, Mr. Putin misunderstands the complexities of language and ethnicity in Ukraine. Certainly, Ukraine is diverse, and language, history and culture play a role in some of its internal differences — just as they do in blue- and red-state America, in northern and southern Italy, or in the north and the south of England.
The error is to believe there is a fratricidal separation between Russian and Ukrainian speakers and to assume that everyone who speaks Russian at home or voted for Mr. Yanukovych would prefer to be a citizen of Mr. Putin’s Russia. The reality of Ukraine is that everyone in the country speaks and understands Russian and everyone at least understands Ukrainian. On television, in Parliament, and in the streets, bilingual discussions are commonplace.
Mr. Putin seems to have genuinely believed that Ukraine was Yugoslavia, and that his forces would be warmly welcomed by at least half of the country. As Leonid D. Kuchma, a former president of Ukraine and once a senior member of the Soviet military-industrial complex, told me: “His advisers must have thought they would be met in eastern Ukraine with flowers as liberators. The reality is 180 degrees opposite.”
Many foreign policy realists wish the Ukrainian revolution hadn’t happened. They would rather Ukraine had more fully entered the corrupt, authoritarian zone the Kremlin is seeking to consolidate. But we don’t get to choose for Ukraine — Ukrainians do, and they have. Now we have to choose for ourselves.
Chrystia Freeland is the author of Sale of the Century: Russia’s Wild Ride From Communism to Capitalism and a Liberal member of the Canadian Parliament.