KIEV, Ukraine — To Viktor Yushchenko, the man at the heart of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution a decade ago, March 2014 looks a lot like August 1939. Europe, once again, is at war. But Europe is also, once again, refusing to realize it and react.
Yushchenko, the former Ukrainian president who has spent much of his political life at odds with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and incurred his wrath, says there should not be any doubt about what is going on: Putin’s Russia has been waging economic and information war on his country for years. It has now added a territorial war in seizing Crimea. Instead of reacting: “Europe has paused.”
“Putin will not pause,” he said. “This pause, not to bring Ukraine deeper into the European community, Putin will use this. This is harvest time for Putin.”
Yushchenko just a decade ago was almost a messianic leader here, not so much attracting voters as worshipers. Americans will remember him primarily as the man who survived an apparent assassination attempt by dioxin poisoning, then rose to power on the shoulders of massive protests against a brazenly stolen election.
They’ll remember less, if anything, about his rule, which fell victim to infighting and a failure to capitalize early on his popularity. Swept into office by multitudes who chanted his name in 2004, he was a one-term wonder who failed to win even 6 percent of the vote when he stood for re-election six years later.
In the end, he was defeated by both the woman who had been his partner in the Orange Revolution, Yulia Tymoshenko, and his enemy from 2004, Viktor Yanukovych — the same Yanukovych seen as a Russian puppet in the rigged 2004 voting who, duly elected in 2010, fled Ukraine in February, triggering Russia’s seizure of Crimea.
Tymoshenko announced Thursday that she will run again for the presidency in the elections now scheduled for May, but Yushchenko has no similar plans. Even as the current crisis has revealed Ukraine’s lack of leaders — Yanukovych, of course, is exiled in Russia, and Tymoshenko, who became a billionaire during her time in office, is just out of prison on an embezzlement conviction — Yushchenko knows he’s watching from the sidelines. “I’m done with Ukrainian politics because Ukrainian politics are done with me,” he said, laughing.
Still, as the only modern European-style leader in Ukrainian history, he remains fiercely pro-Ukrainian — something that is clear not only from his words but by the decoration of his office suite in central Kiev. It reflects his love of Ukrainian history — filled with pastoral landscapes, paintings of farms kids with chickens, and portraits of the 19th-century poet Taras Shevchenko, whose work is considered the foundation of the Ukrainian language.
Yushchenko expresses concern that the West isn’t listening closely enough to Putin. For instance, he brings up the Russian president’s oft-quoted phrase that “the greatest tragedy of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
“This is his mindset,” Yushchenko said, pausing before adding context. “The greatest tragedy of the last century was not the Holocaust and the murder of millions. It was not World War I and the deaths of millions. It was not World War II, which also saw the deaths of millions. It was the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin makes it very clear that his mission in this life is to restore the USSR.”
He wonders how France, Italy, Germany, how any nation can believe this is in their best interest. Ukraine is the largest country entirely within Europe. What’s deeply puzzling to him is that while it should be clear that the protests that began in November and built through February in Kiev were not about seizing power, but setting Ukraine on a new, more European direction, Europe’s support has been muted.
“At this moment, the West has failed Ukraine,” he said. “This is Nazi appeasement, again.”
Britain’s Neville Chamberlain and France’s Edouard Daladier accepted the Nazi seizure of Czechoslovakia, thinking Germany’s Adolf Hitler would be satisfied. “The parallels are very good, because it’s clear Crimea isn’t about Crimea, but is a piece of a bigger plan,” Yushchenko said.
To fully understand what is happening, Yushchenko argued, one must first understand the place of Ukraine in Russian policy.
“It has not changed, not in 50 years, or 100 years, or 200 years,” he said. “When Russia builds an empire, it starts with Ukraine. In other words, to build a new empire, the success of Putin’s policy rests on the war in Ukraine. His mission is not complete without it.”
Crimea was a dramatic new step in that policy, but it was hardly the only aggressive step. To see evidence of past aggression, many Ukrainians believe you need look no further than Yushchenko’s face. During the Ukrainian presidential elections, Yushchenko was seen as a fresh-faced Western-style leader, a handsome, charming alternative to the more bombastic and Soviet-style Yanukovych, Moscow’s favorite.
But in September 2004, after a dinner at the home of a Ukrainian security official, Yushchenko became ill. He was taken to a hospital in Austria, where doctors said he’d been poisoned with a chemically pure dioxin that may have been slipped into his soup.
Exactly who was behind the poisoning has never been officially determined. It’s been blamed on the Russian secret police, on Yanukovych’s supporters, even on Yushchenko himself, a publicity stunt to garner election support.
His Austrian doctors said he barely survived. Today, the scars the dioxins made on his face are visible but have faded.
But the attempt on his life was not the first time Ukraine had suffered from Russian aggression, he argued.
“Six times Ukraine has declared its independence,” he said. “Five times, we have failed, due entirely to Russian aggression.”
He does not believe the current crisis has to be a sixth failed attempt. The Western world can stand against Russia; however, he said, sanctions must be tougher. Europe has the power to cripple Russia by stopping the purchase of Russian natural gas, though he admitted such a step would be painful. Gas may cost more for a winter in Europe, he said. But there is a larger issue at stake here.
Ukraine must be strengthened. He spoke before the International Monetary Fund announced Thursday up to $18 billion in loans to Ukraine, though he said such support would be a step in the right direction.
He said the Ukrainian military needs support, equipment and training. And he said that the upcoming Ukrainian elections, scheduled for May 25, must go well, and Europe must help ensure that they are not disrupted.
He said that Russia is not too strong to stop at this point. But Russia has for years advanced its war on Ukraine through propaganda, through economic pressure, through political pressure, through diplomatic pressure. The world must make it clear that it will respond in kind, and in ways that matter to Russia, he said.
Europe, he said, appears willing to “draw the curtain back down, from the Baltic to the Black Sea,” to avoid confrontation with Russia.
“The talk today is not about the integrity of Ukraine,” he said. “It should be.”
He added, “I’ve never met a Russian who believes in Ukrainian independence. And when we look to Brussels and D.C. for a counterargument, it’s hard to see their answer. The ball is on their side of the field. What will they do with it?”
“The biggest European state is disappearing before our eyes,” he said. “It must be a common cause to stop the aggressor. Crimea was a test. If we don’t understand that, we’re inviting the aggressor to advance even further.”