KIEV, Ukraine – The crowds are gone from Independence Square, known as the Maidan, where massive demonstrations unseated a Ukrainian president. Yet the signs of struggle remain, sprawling across the Maidan and the surrounding streets: the tents and soup kitchens, the piles of black tires and debris, and the posters of the youthful dead on walls and makeshift shrines that are adorned daily with fresh flowers.
Pay attention to this revolution. The Kremlin has tried to crush it by dismembering Ukraine and mounting a fierce propaganda campaign that falsely labels the uprising “fascist.” Moscow wants to discredit Ukraine’s presidential elections on Sunday by stirring up violence that makes voting impossible in eastern sections of the country.
But the Maidan revolution of February is still alive. And the ongoing battle between Moscow and Kiev reflects a larger struggle for the soul and direction of Europe. The struggle pits an educated generation of young Ukrainians seeking democracy against Vladimir Putin, who wants to build a Eurasian empire based on anti-Western values and autocratic rule.
Ukraine is the test case in which Putin seeks to demonstrate the decadence of democracy. He has destroyed the post-Cold War European order by invading another country and faced little opposition. His aggressive Russian nationalism is admired by far-right European parties that are expected to do well in European Parliament elections that will also be held Sunday.
With his bare-chested machismo, his homophobia, his odes to tradition and religious orthodoxy, and his disdain for the West, Putin has become a hero to conservative Europeans who have been hurt by globalization and the economic strictures of the European Union.
“The real plan of Putin is to break the European Union,” the French intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy said during a fascinating gathering of U.S., European and Ukrainian scholars in Kiev, called “Ukraine: Thinking Together.” Putin, says Levy, has bought into the “Eurasianism” dogma of an adviser named Alexander Dugin, who has written of scenarios in which a strong Russia splits Europe and NATO and becomes the leader of a grand (and anti-American) federation of Eurasia and Europe.
Sound fanciful? In reality, yes, given Russia’s economic and demographic weakness. But not in the Russian leader’s mind. His aggression was provoked by Ukrainians’ desire to move toward the European Union rather than join the Eurasian confederation he was promoting.
“Putin is trying to divide Europe and to stimulate anti-American sentiment in Europe,” said Constantin Sigov, a professor at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. That is self-evident in Ukraine.
So the geopolitical impact is clear. If Putin can thwart the pro-Europe Maidan revolution, he may decide to snatch chunks of Romania, Kazakhstan or Latvia on the pretext that they are inhabited by ethnic Russians.
But at the Kiev conference, it became clear that the fate of Ukraine will have an emotional impact as well.
It is more than 20 years since Eastern and Central European nations joined Europe after the Berlin Wall fell, breathing new passion into Western civics lessons on democracy. Since then, U.S. democracy has become paralyzed by partisanship, and the European Union has become bureaucratized and passionless.
The conference participants spoke emotionally of the yearning for democracy that they witnessed on the Maidan, where EU flags were raised next to the Ukrainian banner. The violence of the revolution’s last days, sparked by a pro-Russian government’s murder of demonstrators, was only a coda to months of peaceful protest.
Putin has demonized the Euro-Maidan revolution because its example threatens his authoritarian system. How ironic that he demands a destructive form of federalism for Ukraine when he has totally centralized power in Russia. Ukraine’s new government is ready to decentralize power and protect language rights, but that isn’t what Putin wants.
Rather, he aims to promote a new philosophy for Europe based on naked power grabs and anti-democratic norms. The Maidan’s civic activists are seeking the opposite: a chance to prove that democracy is still the best system. They are different from their parents, who grew up under the Soviet Union, and they have nothing to do with the anti-Semitism of Ukraine’s past.
This is terribly threatening to Putin, who has his own middle-class youth to contend with.
“Putin wants to break the Maidan because the Maidan can break Putin,” said Volodymyr Viatrovych, director of the Ukrainian Institute for National Memory. If the Maidan revolt succeeds – which would require sustained U.S. and European help – it will have a profound effect on Russia. If it fails, said Sigov, “it will be very dangerous for the future of Europe.” Indeed it will.
Contact Trudy Rubin at email@example.com.