Five Reasons to Listen to Russia on Ukraine

To understand the many ways Ukraine could go wrong, pay attention to the Russians.
How could this go wrong? Pro-Russian protesters in the Crimean capital of Simferopol. Photographer: Bulent Doruk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Russian rhetoric on Ukraine can be infuriating, a continuous rewriting of history to disguise a fundamental disbelief in its neighbor's right to become a fully independent country.

For all that, Western leaders need to listen more carefully, because some of what is being said in Moscow is right.

First, the Russians are correct that we should all be wary of what just happened in Kiev -- even though the idea pushedby Russian officials that this was a coup d'etat is false. (A coup requires that an existing leader be forced from power by part of the existing state structures, usually the army. That did not happen in Ukraine.)

This was a revolution, conducted by people who took to the street peacefully and turned to violence when faced with the same. President Viktor Yanukovych's strategy was precisely to provoke the protesters into radicalization so he could justify an armed crackdown on "fascists" and "terrorists." His plan failed to fool Ukraine's military into taking part, but succeeded in provoking the protesters -- so much so that when the parliamentary opposition leaders signed a power-sharing deal with Yanukovych last week, protesters scuppered it and forced him to flee.

Second, Russia's insight that Ukraine's political opposition is grasping and prone to destructive infighting is accurate. This has been the tragedy of independent Ukraine so far and may be again.

Third, Russia's warning that part of the population in Ukraine's east sees this uprising as an existential threat to their identity is also accurate. It is frustrating that Russian leaders won't acknowledge that the protests had broad support, even in parts of the east, triggered by anger at endemic corruption and the suppression of civil rights. Yet that unity will be quickly forgotten if underlying issues of identity take hold. In Crimea, the goals of the protesters in Kiev were never understood. Protesters this week replacedthe Ukrainian flag with a Russian one over the city hall in Kerch.

Fourth, the question of Ukraine's borders is not simple. The country gained its independence almost by accident in 1991, when Boris Yeltsin dissolved the Soviet Union. Yeltsin didn't even raise tricky issues such as which country should get Crimea, which had been signed over from Russia to the Ukrainian Socialist Republic by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. The assumption was that borders would stay open and everyone would remain friends, making the question less important. Closing the Russian-Ukrainian border to trade as a result of a Ukrainian pact with the European Union, or distancing the country from Russia, would make those questions suddenly critical. How problematic such issues can become in malicious hands was seen in Yugoslavia in the 1990s and Georgia in 2008.

Put together, these factors are explosive. The situation can turn out well only if a number if things go right. Order must be restored quickly. The economy must be stabilized. Ukraine's leaders must act with a hitherto unknown selflessness and willingness to reach out to foes. No inflammatory steps can be taken (such as shooting the fugitive Yanukovych, should he be found, in the way that his chief of staff was shot in the leg this week). Plus, the Russians must cooperate.

Every day that Ukraine remains without a government and functioning police force is dangerous. So far, only the actions of right-thinking instant militias formed from among the protesters have prevented a breakdown of order and rampant looting. That gives a further lie to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's caricatureof the protesters as "armed extremists and thugs," yet the situation is inherently unstable. Less disciplined militias will form.

Finally, when Russian analysts and politicians splutter at the charge that they are interfering in Ukraine's affairs, they are only half wrong. If Russia wanted to destabilize the situation now it could do so in a heartbeat, by sanctioning or even arming secessionist movements in Crimea and other parts of Ukraine's pro-Russian heartlands. So far it hasn't and says it won't, but it can.

QuickTake Unrest in Ukraine

(Marc Champion is a Bloomberg View editorial board member. Followhim on Twitter at @MarcChampion1.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.