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Reuters/Maxim Zmeyev
Election stopper.
WAR OF PERCEPTION

At the heart of the Ukraine conflict is a conflict about what actually happened

By Steve LeVine

Today’s Ukraine presidential election, coming three months after the flight of president Viktor Yanukovych to Russia, will bring clarity to one side of the Ukraine crisis—Kyiv’s. Chocolate magnate Petro Poroshenko is forecast to win the election outright and eliminate the need for a second round of voting.

But the core of the struggle will persist: a competing narrative—a months-long information war—over how the Ukraine crisis started. Did an arrogant NATO stir the pot to a boil, meddling in another state’s politics? Or was a belligerent Russian president Vladimir Putin destined to get to this point anyway? Is the Kyiv government riven with fascists, or is an imperial Putin simply determined to recreate the Soviet Union?

These questions are part of a global shouting match involving presidents and princes, but more importantly, they are driving apart ordinary Ukrainians, who are fighting in living rooms and among colleagues and friends. Grandmothers are especially dug-in—and menacing—in eastern Ukraine.

Making the conflict all the more difficult to resolve is a deeper and rawer battle between foundational narratives: Kyiv sees Moscow as the latest in a series of historical usurpers of Ukrainian independence; Moscow and much of eastern Ukraine, conversely, perceive Kyiv as traitors who collaborated with Hitler, and ultimately a challenge to the two nations’ collective origins in the state of Rus in the last millennium.

But the current crisis goes back to last November and a debate over national direction—should Ukraine enter a formal accession pact with the European Union or with Putin’s competing Eurasian Economic Union? When Yanukovych opted for the latter, he triggered protests on Kyiv’s central square, the Maidan, that escalated into pitched battles. On Feb. 21, he finally agreed to a power-sharing deal brokered by the EU, but within hours fled to Russia when his internal support evaporated.

A central point for Kyiv’s opponents is that Yanukovych’s critics could have adopted different tactics to oust him by simply waiting a year for the presidential election scheduled for March 2015. But instead they insisted on forcing him out. That is why Putin and eastern Ukrainian separatists brand the Kyiv government “unconstitutional.”

Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Russia, told Quartz that if the Feb. 21 agreement had held, “a lot of bloodshed might have been avoided.” But the Kennan Institute’s Matthew Rojansky said Yanukovych set in motion his own downfall when government troops began to mow down protestors. “Whatever the formal opposition leadership may have wanted, the Maidan itself would not have accepted less than his resignation and probably criminal trial had he remained in Ukraine,” Rojansky told Quartz.

Jeffrey Mankoff of the Center on Strategic and International Studies agreed. “The regime collapsed more than it was ousted by the opposition,” he said in an email exchange.

This war of words is likely to go on. In a note to clients, the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, predicts that Moscow will continue to apply pressure on Kyiv to accept Putin’s demands for a federated Ukraine with a weak center, and a pledge never to join NATO. That will trigger harsher Western sanctions on Russia. Part of winning will mean controlling the public narrative.