The Ukrainian crisis is a story of the revolutionary spirit of 1989 and its nemesis, which is the Soviet Union, neither of which were thought to be alive in 2014. But both are alive. And every part of the world is going to feel the shock of their confrontation.
The connection to 1989 is a matter of provenance. The Eastern bloc revolutions of that year—in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia, together with the Baltic republics and other places—led to still further revolutions, not always under the easiest of circumstances. The spirit eventually spread to the tiny Republic of Georgia on the Black Sea, where, in 2003, the Rose Revolution proved to be the most utopian of the many revolutions. And the most utopian of revolutions ignited, in turn, the Orange Revolution of Ukraine in 2004—which, for a moment, seemed to be the most portentous.
The Orange Revolution felt like a breakthrough because all the previous European revolutions had never shown an ability to penetrate into Russia itself, quite as if some places were destined to remain immune. But Ukraine was culturally and religiously and historically tangled up in Russia. If the revolution could break out in Ukraine, why not in Russia, too? And why not penetrate southward into the Arab world? Within months of the Orange Revolution, the Cedar Revolution broke out in Lebanon, where a lot of people had evidently been paying attention to Ukraine. The vistas did seem to be broadening. It felt as if 1989’s revolutions had revealed the secret of world history, as per Hegel (whose most imaginative modern disciple proved to be Francis Fukuyama). And human nature had discovered its proper political expression, and the worldwide liberal future had become, for better and for worse, visible on the horizon. Which was delusionary.
Within a year or two, even Ukraine and its Orange Revolution had relapsed into authoritarian corruption. And, in the aftermath, all of this ebullient talk of human nature and invisible forces of progress took on a sinister tint. The notion that mankind craves freedom, that liberal democracy corresponds to the craving, and so forth—this enormous notion, which had come out of 1989, appeared to be, when soberly examined, a kind of dangerous cocaine, peddled by intellectual cartels. And so, a counter-notion arose, which insisted that 1989’s revolutions were merely a freakish series of coincidences and local conjunctures, without any meaning. A lucky break—not a sign of historical logic, as a chastened Fukuyama himself began to suggest. This second notion became the established wisdom during the next years. It was an anti-1989 doctrine. In the United States, the new wisdom led to a reformulated foreign policy goal, too, which favored, whenever possible, stability, with democracy demoted to an ornamental function—not that anyone admitted to democracy’s demotion. But stability first.
Only, in early February 2014, the crowds in Kiev and Lviv and other towns seemed to be uninterested in stability, and the Orange Revolution somehow burst anew into unexpected bloom. The new Ukrainian revolution appeared to be exceptionally clear-minded, too—a popular revolution begun explicitly for the practical purpose of entering into a trade deal with the European Union, which, in its current form, is itself the product of the 1989 revolutions. And more than a trade deal: an embrace of liberal political structures and values, which are supposed to figure within the trade deal.
Here was the spirit of 1989 in its purest distillation, level-headed, lucid—as if to rebuke everyone among the far-away observers who, out of a well-justified despair, had forgotten that a revolutionary idea did get loosed upon the world some 25 years ago. And the revolutionary idea still remains, in spite of everything, unpredictably powerful.
There has even been a mysterious hint of something global, if only because of the simultaneous outbreak of revolutionary stirrings in distant Venezuela, where the Venezuelans, some of them, appear to be awakening from their Chavista hypnosis. In Syria, crowds of protesters are reported to identify with the Ukrainian revolution. All of which may be meaningless, or not—who is to say? No one has ever successfully predicted a revolutionary contagion. Still, in Ukraine, Syria, and Venezuela, the revolutionaries do have something in common, which is an enemy, who is Vladimir Putin.
It is always said of Putin that he is a czar, operating on nineteenth-century principles. Or he is a Russian enigma. And he is not a Kremlin general secretary from Soviet times. Even so, he is a Kremlin general secretary. He has invaded Ukraine on the basis of the same logic that led Nikita Khrushchev to invade Hungary in 1956 and that led Leonid Brezhnev to invade Czechoslovakia in 1968. It is the logic of counterrevolution, and it is not inscrutable.
Khrushchev invaded Hungary because, in 1956, the Hungarian Communist Party had adopted a policy of independence from the Soviet Union and had decided even to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact. Khrushchev understood very well that Soviet communism was widely hated, including in his own country. He knew that, if the Hungarians succeeded in establishing their own national freedom, Hungary’s example would lead to independence movements and uprisings elsewhere in the communist world, and the Soviet Union would be destroyed. And if his invasion proved to be costly in prestige for the Soviet Union, and for the wider communist movement? No matter: It was do or die. In Brezhnev’s case, he invaded Czechoslovakia because, in 1968, the Czechoslovak Communist Party inaugurated the modest reforms that came to be known as the “Prague Spring.” Brezhnev knew that, if the “Prague Spring” went unchallenged, populations everywhere in the Soviet bloc would demand springtimes of their own, and the demand would spread to the Soviet Union itself. And the Communist Party would not survive. For him, too, it was do or die.
Were Khrushchev and Brezhnev wrong to make these judgments? The question can be scientifically answered because Mikhail Gorbachev conducted the experiment. In 1989, Gorbachev declined to invade any country at all, and soon afterward the Soviet Union came to an end, which leads to the suspicion that Putin in our own day is not an idiot. Why, after all, did Putin invade the Republic of Georgia in 2008? He did it because the ghosts of Khrushchev and Brezhnev told him that he had better do so. And likewise with Ukraine.
To instruct Putin, as President Obama has done, that he is on “the wrong side of history” only reminds him of how right he is, from his own standpoint. He is frightened of the unsettling confidence of the spirit of 1989 and its belief that democratic advances and world events are ultimately in sync.
We do seem to be on the brink of Cold War II, which might end up being a long affair. We ought to recall that Cold War I was, despite its reputation, not really a stable era. Russia in its Soviet and post-Soviet incarnations has never succeeded in establishing a zone of tranquility, except for relatively brief periods. The entire concept of Russian domination has proved to be a formula for repeated revolutions. The revolutions of the past took place in 1953, 1956, 1968, 1989, 2000, 2003, 2004, and 2014 (in, respectively, East Germany, Poland and Hungary, Czechoslovakia, everywhere, Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, and Ukraine). These events suggest a pattern, though, and maybe the pattern should be encouraged. The pattern is a generally eastward drift, and the purpose in encouraging it ought to be what used to be called, in language I never liked, regime change—achieved not of course by military adventures of our own but by the citizens of Moscow and St. Petersburg, aided by whatever peaceful support we can provide. Putin is terrified of precisely such a development, and, since he is a realistic man, we should adopt his fears as our hopes.
Paul Berman is a senior editor at The New Republic.