Revolutions, State Collapse, and Ukraine

Photo Ukraine map

by Gordon M. Hahn

[ first published by Geostrategic Forecasting Corp., 18 May 2014, http://geostrategicforecasting.net/gordonhahn/2014/05/18/revolutions-state-collapse-and-ukraine/]

If the first casualty of war is the truth, then the first casualty of revolution is legality. Revolutions often consume not just the old regime but the country and people over which it ruled. As the ideological and administrative centers implode, politics polarize and institutions dissolve into hyper-dysfunction and the breakup of the state. This is particularly problematic for the territorial integrity of multi-communal states like Ukraine. When such states undergo revolutionary forms of regime transformation, they are highly vulnerable to break up. Those that experience negotiated or ‘pacted’ transitions or transformations imposed gradually ‘from above’ under the control of the old regime and elite are able to weather the storm of revolution maintaining their territorial integrity.

Just a few examples make the point. In 1990-91 Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s revolution from above weakened thoroughly the Soviet communist party and state apparatus. To be sure, Gorbachev had begun to separate the two apparati as he semi-democratized the country in 1989-1990, and the Soviet Union saw a series of separatist movements and inter-ethnic conflicts emerge. But it was Yeltsin’s efforts to fully separate the Party from the state inside the Russian Federation and support politically some of the separatist movements in the 14 union republics during the months before and after the August 1991 failed hard-line coup that led to the fall of the ‘perestroika’ Soviet regime. The implosion in Moscow and the death blow it dealt to Gorbachev’s attempt to negotiate a transition to democracy and a new federative and truncated version of the USSR caused by the failed coup sparked the collapse of the USSR along the administrative-territorial borders of the union republics. The process did not stop there. Five autonomous republics broke away from several of the former union republics, now independent ‘post-Soviet’ states: Abkhaziya, Ajariya, and South Ossetiya from Georgia; Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbajan, Transdniestr from Moldova; and the Chechen half of Checheno-Ingushetiya from Russia.

A similar outcome – revolution leading to state collapse and secession – occurred in communist Czeckoslovakia in 1989. The peaceful ‘velvet’ revolution from below led to the partitioning of the country into two. There are many other examples that could be pursued in addition to these two cases. In Yugoslavia, the demise of communism led to the rise of several nationalisms and successor states.

A seemingly contrary dynamic in revolutionary modes of regime transformation is rare: re-unification rather than dissolution. A prominent example is the reunification of Germany after the peaceful revolution from below in East Germany in 1989. It was natural for Germans to re-join in a single state after the removal of the ideological divide and Soviet occupation that drew the artificial border between them.

In most cases, however, cases of state collapse are often the result of the breakdown of administration and of institutionalized politics and the emergence of revolutionary dual power in the central capitol first and in the periphery later. These processes in turn are prone to spark separatism in minority-dominated regions.

The pivotal role of revolutionary as opposed to transitional modes of regime transformation (whether from above or below) in state breakups is demonstrated by the contrasting results of two late Soviet era referenda. One held before and another after the revolutionary moment when Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s defeat of the August coup and the collapse through the autumn of negotiations on a new Soviet Union Treaty and political system that would have led to a transition to democracy rather than consummation of the revolution from above. In the March 1991 referendum on preservation of the Soviet Union under a new treaty, 71.48 percent of Ukrainians voted in favor. In December, 90.3 percent of Ukrainians voted for independence from the USSR.

Ironically, Ukraine – the union republic that put the last nail in the coffin of the USSR in December 1991 – is suffering a similar fate as a consequence of its own post-Soviet revolutionary upheavals. Riven by corruption and criminality, the US and the West opted ostensibly to resolve this problem (and bring Ukraine into NATO) by funding openly revolutionary elements, some of whom were allied with neo-fascist elements or became so on the Maidan. Over time, Ukraine and Russia would have democratized by themselves through whatever mode they ultimately chose. Such organic, evolutionary change might have led to less volatile pacted or imposed regime transformations. Instead, they were battered or at least pressured by complicating, cursed questions: whether or not to enter NATO, whether or not to democratize now, whether or not to crackdown on democrats, whether or not to use nationalism and ultra-nationalism to buttress or overthrow the regime.

Revolutionism – revolution, democratic or otherwise, as a value – is dangerous. Once the political game moves outside legality and constitutionality, all bets are off and anything can happen.

The results of Western revolutionism in Ukraine include not just the break up of Ukraine but also the rise of ultra-nationalism and neo-fascism in both Ukraine and Russia and the threat of both civil war and and inter-state war involving at least one nuclear power. Ukraine is experiencing both the dissolution and reunification scenarios of revolutionary breakup simultaneously. Crimea and perhaps Donetsk, Lugansk and other southeastern provinces are turning away from Ukraine and returning to Russia in response to Kiev’s ultra-nationalist and anti-Russian stances and its violent efforts to hold the country together.

Of course, aside from ‘objective’ political processes, there are subjective elements to any political outcome. Political leaders’ decisions and free will can redirect a nascent revolutionary transformation towards a pacted or imposed trajectory by reducing polarization and seeking compromise. In Ukraine, unfortunately, has not happened.

The Maidan provisional government sent signals to ethnic Russians and Russian-language speakers in southeast Ukraine that their worst fears of an ultra-nationalist Ukrainian regime would be realized. Its neo-fascist element – the Right Sector – violated the February 21 agreement that could have put the crisis on a transitional rather than revolutionary trajectory and repealed a law giving the Russian language state status in the southeast. This combined with Western and Russian stoking of the nationalist flames in western and southeastern Ukraine, respectively, has turned a crisis into a slow-burning civil war.

The US and the West should have considered all this when it initially gambled with the lives of people and states through democracy-promotion programs, color revolutions, and the recent Arab and now Slavic ‘Springs.’ The same is true of Putin’s Crimean gambit.

Although it is now too late for Ukraine and its territorial integrity, it is not too late for our own national discussion about the ways we conduct American foreign policy. In particular, we need a thorough analysis of the intentions of, and outcomes yielded by U.S. democracy promotion policies and whether they really coincide with American interests and those of whom such policies are intended to help.

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About Gordon M. Hahn