Democracy Lab

Get Real, Nick Kristof

Happy talk isn't going to help Ukraine and Moldova deter Vladimir Putin.

Everybody loves to pick on the columnists at the New York Times. They're too liberal, or they're too conservative, or they're too middle-of-the-road -- just take your pick. Convinced centrist that I am, I generally don't have a problem with their politics. But I do have a problem with silliness.

Here's Nick Kristof on a recent swing through the village of his forbears in western Ukraine:

The kids here learn English and flirt in low-cut bluejeans. They listen to Rihanna, AC/DC, and Taylor Swift. They have crushes on George Clooney and Angelina Jolie, watch "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy," and play Grand Theft Auto. The school here has computers and an Internet connection, which kids use to watch YouTube and join Facebook. Many expect to get jobs in Italy or Spain -- perhaps even America.

I have news for Kristof: The days when the yearning for bluejeans or fondness for American pop helped us to separate ideological friends and foes ended in 1991. Nowadays there are plenty of Putin supporters, inside Russia and out, who play Grand Theft Auto and study English. As for using YouTube or Facebook, supporters of Putin's hard course in Crimea and eastern Ukraine have been doing a highly effective job of using social media to get their own message out. (Indeed, the interwebs are rife with catchy memes and snarky online commentary supplied by pro-Russian forces.)

But this is low-hanging fruit. Of greater import is Kristof's conclusion that a visit to his ancestral village, on the far western edge of Ukraine, can yield deep insights into what all Ukrainians think. This is a questionable assumption at best -- as I saw during my own recent reporting trip to Ukraine, about the same time as Kristof's. My visit took me to Odessa, a city where many Russian-speakers view the government in Kiev with deep suspicion. Ukraine remains a country profoundly divided by history, language, and regional identity. You won't get a proper picture of what Ukrainians want -- all Ukrainians -- without talking to people who represent other views. Yes, there are plenty of people from western Ukraine, and elsewhere, who supported the Euromaidan. But as recently as 2010 there were also enough Ukrainians who supported Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions that they were able to vote him into the presidency. Those voters haven't just disappeared.

Putin didn't create these divisions; they've been around for decades. The central government might have been able to assuage them, laying the groundwork for a Ukraine marked by healthy diversity rather than self-destructive feuding, had Kiev's post-Soviet leadership troubled to build effective state institutions. Instead, the politicians -- "pro-Western" and "pro-Russian" alike -- chose to steal the country blind, leaving their citizens to pick up the scraps.

When I arrived in Odessa, a city of 1 million people that today lives largely on tourism, I was startled to see that the baggage claim in the airport consisted of a long, knee-high piece of particle board on which airport workers simply dumped the passenger's bags: You'd think that the local and central government could have done better than that in the past twenty years. One sharply observed dispatch from economically stagnant eastern Ukraine described a state of "war without war" -- a good description not only of the current pro-Russian insurgency but also of a Soviet-era industrial wasteland that has languished for years without investment or serious reform.

I was particularly struck by a conversation I had in Odessa with Zoya Kazanzhi, a self-described Maidan activist. When I asked her how the West should help Ukraine, her response had less to do with defending her country from the Russians than with protecting it from its own politicians. Ukrainians will be voting in a special presidential election on May 25, a vote that was scheduled after the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych in February. "Send election observers," she said. "Lots of them." She emphasized that monitors need to be sent not on election day but right now, in order to prevent members of Ukraine's own political elite from using their traditional methods -- bribery, rigging, arm-twisting -- to tweak the result.

Specifically, Kazanzhi was worried about ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Kazanzhi, who doubles as a journalist, told me that she's been hearing that Tymoshenko's Fatherland Party (which controls the current interim government in Kiev) has been making backroom deals in Odessa with members of Yanukovych's old political party to give her the necessary votes to win the election. Similar reports in the Ukrainian media say that Tymoshenko is forging an alliance with Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man (and erstwhile Yanukovych backer), to guarantee her a victory. Akhmetov and his old buddies from Yanukovych's old political machine know a thing or two about techniques for fixing elections, and Tymoshenko wants the help: right now, according to the polls, she's trailing billionaire Petro Poroshenko.

Kazanzhi, like many Ukrainians I spoke with during my trip, is profoundly suspicious of Tymoshenko, whom she associates with the corruption and political infighting that has discredited the Ukrainian elite. The Euromaidan protests that ended up toppling Yanukovych were, in part, also an uprising against establishment politicians like Tymoshenko, who have spent most of the past two decades stealing their country's wealth or fighting among themselves. The prospect that Tymoshenko might use dirty dealings to orchestrate a return to power horrifies those Ukrainians who want to see substantive reforms. Activists hope that a robust monitoring effort by the Europeans and Americans will help to ensure that the next president actually turns out to be the one that Ukrainians end up voting for.

Kristof doesn't seem to have noticed any of this. If anything, his follow-up column, from Moldova, doubles down on the cheerleading: "If there were an Olympic competition for bravest country in the world, the gold medal might well go to Moldova," he writes. "Wobbly politicians from Europe and America should come here to get spinal transplants." Just in case we didn't get the point right away, he goes on to describe Moldova as "plucky" and "gutsy."This isn't a country; it's a basketball team that's about to come out of nowhere to win the playoffs.

I'd be only too happy if Moldovans managed the equivalent of an upset victory. Sadly, the realities of international power do not reward pluck, and, in any case, Moldova -- which, again, I was visiting about the same time as Kristof did -- offers a good example of a country that has often been its own worst enemy. It's probably the poorest country in Europe.  It's estimated that around 1 million of its 4.5 million citizens now live outside its borders (many of them, incidentally, in Russia, where there are plenty of low-paying jobs that are still better than what you can find in Moldova). Many of the Moldovans I spoke with complained of a culture of rampant corruption and of a political environment dominated well-connected oligarchs. In some cases, Moldovans told me, the very same party bigwigs who rail against Moscow in public are busy making deals with Russia behind the scenes.

To be sure, some Moldovan politicians have tried to capitalize on such discontent by proclaiming a pro-European course -- not unlike the one favored by the activists at the Euromaidan. But the current government, a messy coalition of three feuding parties, has failed so dramatically to deliver on its promises of clean government and economic growth that opinion polls currently give a lead to the Communist Party, which wants to move Moldova into the Eurasian Economic Union, Putin's attempt to create a Moscow-dominated counterweight to the European Union. The Communists (who, by the way, actually launched the push to join Europe when they were in power a few years ago) now look set to win the next general election this fall. (The photo above shows nesting dolls on sale in the central market of the Moldovan capital of Chisinau.)

It would be bad enough if countries like Ukraine and Moldova only faced a threat from their enemies in the Kremlin. The reality, though, is that the people in these nations are also trying to survive the destructive whims of their own ruling elites. And this is something we have to be very frank about if we really want to help Ukrainians and Moldovans fend off Moscow's efforts to undermine them.

Should Europe and the United States support Ukraine and Moldova? Absolutely. The West must do what it can to help them reform their economies, maintain their territorial sovereignty, and resist further Russian aggression. But Nicholas Kristof's pep talks won't impress Vladimir Putin one little bit. What we need are policies that are realistic, effective, and tough. Taylor Swift isn't going to cut it.

DANIEL MIHAILESCU/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Novorossiya Is Back from the Dead

Why Vladimir Putin's casual use of a forgotten geographical term has ominous implications.

A few days ago, during my stay in the Ukrainian city of Odessa, I found my way to the modest tent encampment in a park that has now become the spiritual center of the local pro-Russian movement. There, I met 39-year-old Yegor Kvasnyuk, a bespectacled lawyer who is one of the coordinators of what is widely known in Odessa as the "Anti-Maidan." As the name suggests, the Anti-Maidan forces strongly reject the current interim government in Kiev, born as it was from the Euromaidan uprising that toppled former President Viktor Yanukovych in February. (Kvasnyuk hastens to add that he never liked Yanukovych, and claims that he has often run afoul of the ex-president's political party, which remains a big force in Odessa politics.)

Kvasnyuk insists that successive Ukrainian governments have repeatedly failed to take the legitimate desires of the Russian-speaking population into account. Russian is by far the dominant language in Odessa (though many there speak Ukrainian as well). Yet Kvasnyuk says that he and other pro-Russian activists spent years trying to get official recognition for teaching Russian in schools and allowing the use of it on government documentation. The Anti-Maidan activists also cite the deep cultural and political divides between Russian-speaking easterners, many of whom feel considerable nostalgia for the Soviet Union, and the Ukrainian nationalists from the western parts of the country, who regarded Soviet power as their mortal enemy. "There are very few of those people here," says Kvasnyuk. "But there are a lot of them in the West, and they want to rule us."

All of which is why, Kvasnyuk says, that he and his colleagues have joined the push for wide-ranging "federalization," meaning extensive autonomy for Odessa and its surrounding province. If that sounds similar to the primary demand issued by the insurgents who have now taken control of several key government buildings in eastern Ukraine, it's no accident: Kvasnyuk wholeheartedly approves of their actions, which, he says, are simply a "defensive response" to repressive policies pursued by the revolutionary government. He claims, without offering specifics, that the Kiev government violently suppressed pro-Russian demonstrations in the East, prompting the current revolt there.

Kvasnyuk stressed that his movement isn't ready to give up on the idea of Ukraine altogether. "Right now we hope that we can solve our problems ourselves, without help from Moscow," he told me. But what if the government in Kiev doesn't offer quite as much autonomy as the pro-Russians want? "If we don't get federalization," Kvasnyuk told me, "then there won't be any way to preserve the integrity of Ukraine." So, in effect, secession. But what about after that? Would Kvasnyuk want to join Russia?

It was here that our conversation took a rather unexpected turn. No, he explained. It would make more sense for the other Russia-oriented parts of Ukraine to join together to form a new country of their own -- a country he referred to as "Novorossiya." His eyes sparkled. "A population of 20 million, with industry, resources." With advantages like that, who needs to become a part of Russia? "By European standards that's already a good-sized country."

"Novorossiya." I'd heard the term before -- but mainly in history books that described the 18th-century Russian wars against the Ottomans that resulted in the Russian Empire's expansion to the coast of the Black Sea. The newly conquered territories were dubbed "New Russia," a name that was still being applied to southern Ukraine right up until the late 19th century. My conversation with Kvasnyuk, however, was the first time I'd heard the term invoked as a possible state-building scenario in the 21st century.

But it will certainly not be the last. A few days later, on April 17, Russian President Vladimir Putin, no less, suddenly began using the word during his annual televised question-and-answer sessions with the nation. "Under the tsars, this region was called Novorossiya," he said. "These territories were passed on to Ukraine in the 1920s. Why the Soviet government did that, may God judge them."

So how seriously are we take all this? Was Putin's choice of terminology merely a bit of psychological theater on the same day that Ukraine, Russia, the United States, and the European Union were trying to work out an agreement in Geneva to prevent further escalation in Ukraine? Or does Putin regard this as a realistic scenario? There have long been rumors of maps of a correspondingly divided Ukraine circulating in the Kremlin. Or is that simply clever disinformation, designed to keep the West anxiously guessing?

It's worth noting that Russia has already rehearsed the Novorossiya option on a much smaller scale -- in the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (inside Georgia), and in the separatist enclave of Transnistria (in Moldova), which borders on Ukraine. In each of these places, disgruntled minorities seeking greater control over their own affairs have fought wars against their national governments, with Moscow's encouragement and support.

In the case of Transnistria, Russia ended the 1992 civil war there by introducing troops designated as "peacekeepers." Those troops are still there, ensuring that the territory -- which is inhabited largely by Ukrainians and Russians who have little interest in subjecting themselves to the rule of the Romanian-speaking Moldovans who mostly run the country today -- remains a "frozen conflict." Transnistria claims for itself the status of an independent state, though not even Russia recognizes it as such. (On April 16, the Transnistrian government once again emphatically declared its desire to join Russia, something it has done many times before; so far Moscow has declined to answer in the affirmative.)

That may be because little Transnistria -- despite its population of a mere 350,000 -- remains quite useful to Moscow as it is. The Russians have used the existence of the enclave to cause all sorts of trouble for Moldova, which the Kremlin would like to keep in its orbit. To name but one example, Russia allows the Transnistrians to swipe natural gas from the Russian pipeline that crosses their territory. But Moscow sends the bill for the gas to the Moldovan government, which is left to deal with the debt.

An independent Novorossiya may not need to engage in such tomfoolery, though. Merely by coming into being, this new entity would, at a stroke, reduce Ukraine's population and economic power by around half. Rump Ukraine would lose all access to the sea, as well as much of its heavy industry. Skeptics point out that much of that industry is largely obsolete and starved of investment, while eastern Ukraine's population is rapidly ageing -- all of which are good reasons why Moscow probably wouldn't want to assume the direct burden of dealing with such problems by annexing the territory outright. (The bill for absorbing the much smaller Crimea -- population 2 million or so -- is likely to be quite high already.)

Theoretically speaking, then, one can imagine that Russia might be happy to leave Novorossiya on its own (perhaps under the de facto control of some of the Moscow-friendly oligarchs who already control a disproportionate share of eastern Ukrainian industry). In any case, it's not only the gun-toting "little green men" in eastern Ukraine who seem to be keen on the idea. Earlier this week, pro-Russian activists announced the creation of an "Odessa Republic," potentially a first step toward realizing the Novorossiya idea. So far, though, this new entity remains more a creature of the Internet than a political reality. (As far as that goes, Novorossiya also has its own Twitter feed, as well as the odd website devoted to the idea.)

In any case, says Kvasnyuk, snuggling up too close to Russia isn't desirable: Having Moscow as a good friend is already enough. If the government in Kiev tries to intervene, the government of Novorossiya would need only to ask the Kremlin for help: "And then they'd send in the peacekeepers." And why not? It's been done before.

GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images