The dominant narrative on Ukraine's recent turmoil goes something like this: a corrupt president turns his back on a brighter future in Europe. He threatens journalists and arrests opposition leaders. Ordinary Ukrainians unite and rally peacefully in protest. Then as a final outrage, the president orders his security forces to fire on civilian crowds. Vladimir Putin, fresh from celebrations at Sochi, smiles quietly. But people power takes over; the president is ousted and flees. Mass celebrations take place. Democracy triumphs.
That's a great story, except that it's hopelessly naïve. In truth, what led to the latest 'colour' revolution in Ukraine was collective failure. Russia, the EU, the US and Ukrainians themselves are all culpable. And the future for Ukraine now looks much less certain than before.
Let's start with Russia. Moscow routinely interferes in Ukrainian affairs because it has no wish to see Kiev gravitate too close to either NATO or the EU. The Black Sea Fleet in the Crimea gives it an added – if largely symbolic – strategic incentive. Putin has sought to marginalise Western influence in what he sees as Russia's 'near abroad' and to protect ethnic Russians living in what used to be the Soviet Union. He used force in 2008 to blunt Georgian designs on South Ossetia, but more often favours muscular political and economic leverage.
Putin initiated the gas wars of the mid-2000s, and has linked Russian aid for former communist nations to their participation in a Eurasian Union built on the territory of the former USSR.
But Viktor Yanukovych, the ousted Ukrainian president, was no Kremlin puppet. In fact, Moscow had given up on him due to his tendency to play the West and Russia off against each other. As Dmitri Trenin at the Carnegie Moscow Centre has noted, Yanukovych let Russia down so many times that Moscow saw him as a highly unreliable partner.
What about the EU? While many are happy to recite Brussels' rhetoric about human rights and democracy, it has vacillated ineffectually over Ukraine. Part of this is due to the EU's makeup. Far from a monolithic super-state, its major decisions are still made by individual governments. Germany, as the leading European economic power, is wearing the cost of weaker EU members hobbled by the global financial crisis. It has no stomach for a major bailout for Ukraine, which needs around US$20 billion over the next two years to avoid defaulting on its loans.
As with Turkey, Europe has kept Ukraine at arm's length for two decades. That's because the EU remains opposed to the accession of an economic basket case on Russia's borders. So Brussels temporised, offering Yanukovych a long-term deal with closer cooperation down the track. But since it would have cost US$20 billion a year for Ukraine to clean up its economy to even approach EU standards, Yanukovych walked away. Instead he signed up to a US$15 billion loan from Russia.
The US has also dropped the ball on Ukraine, although it is unrealistic to expect Washington to pick up the pieces for every struggling nation. Like Moscow, Washington has meddled in Ukrainian politics, favouring anyone who resisted Kremlin pressure. But American attention is focused on Asia and an increasingly assertive China. The Obama Administration has little interest in mustering the political will for any rescue package, and wants the EU to finally take a bigger role in managing affairs on its doorstep. In 2013 it could only come up with US$1.3 billion in aid with the EU and IMF. That wouldn't have prevented a recession, and was one reason Yanukovych turned to Putin.
What of Ukraine itself? Yanukovych will doubtless be judged harshly. But it is a stretch to describe the events of the last few months as a democratic revolution with overwhelming popular support. Ukrainians are split almost down the middle on choosing between the West and Russia. And Yulia Tymoshenko, the newly released ex-prime minister, now becomes a potential rival to leaders of the alliance of convenience that ousted the president.
Past events suggest the prospects for Ukraine are bleak. In 25 years of independence it has been hopelessly mismanaged, riven by infighting, and teetered close to bankruptcy. Each side in Ukraine's complex political elite has conducted shady deals that enriched a small kleptocracy. Its currency is artificially overvalued, the economy has stagnated, and nearly a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. It came in at 144 out of 177 nations in Transparency International's 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index, and its GDP per capita in 2012 was about US$3866 (Australia’s, by contrast, was over $67,000).
More disturbingly, the demonstrators in Maidan Square were a loose amalgam of pro-democracy forces and the nationalistic far-right. Many of them were armed. It remains to be seen how much influence they will have in post-Yanukovych Ukrainian politics, and whether there will be reprisals against the 17% of the population that is ethnically Russian.
Ukrainians now justifiably fear a fully-fledged civil war. But the major players in the Eurasian chess game will fear being drawn in if that happens. Yes, Russia wants Ukraine as a buffer zone against the West: united and weak, but not Balkanized. But Putin may yet decide to make Ukraine the West's problem by simply walking away from his deal with Yanukovych. The EU wants closer association with Ukraine, but not full membership. The US is keen to use a democratic Ukraine as a check against Russia, but doesn't want to foot the bill for its failure to manage its own affairs.
Although the status quo is increasingly untenable, any optimism that Ukraine might become a triumph for democracy this time around should be tempered. As the Arab Spring showed, virtually all the recent 'democratic' revolutions have resulted in murky outcomes. In Ukraine, donning rose-tinted glasses once again will likely lead to disappointment.