At the critical moment in Ukraine's Orange Revolution, the U.S. ambassador in Kiev, John Herbst, received a frantic telephone call. The husband of Leonid Kuchma's daughter, Lena, was on the line. Protesters had surrounded the outgoing president's residence outside the city. His family was trapped inside. "They're putting ladders against the fence! They're going to climb it!"
Herbst placed a call to an opposition leader. "What's going on?" he asked. The man didn't know but promised to find out. He phoned back moments later. "It's nothing," he told the ambassador. "The ladders were propped up against trees, not the fence. The demonstrators were just doing "a little sightseeing," he explained--and letting themselves be seen. "It was a form of psychological pressure," says one of those involved, and very effective.
It was also very dangerous. At that moment, tensions were near-fissile. Opposition leaders were pushing Kuchma to sign a new election law that would open the way to a rerun of last November's fraudulent presidential ballot, subsequently won on December 26 by their leader, Viktor Yushchenko. Radicals among them had stormed parliament only the day before. The presidents of Poland and Lithuania had just arrived in Kiev to mediate, followed by the foreign policy czar of the European Union, Javier Solana. In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin was warning Europe and the United States "not to meddle" in Ukraine's internal affairs--as the Kremlin itself was doing, with a vengeance. Amid the turmoil, Kuchma was stalling, hoping time and cold weather would dissipate the revolution's energy.
At least, he was until the demonstrators threatened to come over his fence. That was the turning point. "I think Kuchma realized then and there that we could get to him, physically," one of the ringleaders, Taras Stetskiv, later told a local newspaper, Zerkalo Nedeli. Had they, Ukraine's velvet revolution would have turned violent. The Ukrainian special forces ringing the president's dacha may not have fired on the people, but the Russian spetznaz units backing them up (in the same sense that GRU political officers backed up Russian soldiers in the Second World War, shooting any who disobeyed orders) almost certainly would have. As it was, within an hour Kuchma agreed to talks with Yushchenko and other opposition leaders at the Mariinsky Palace, setting the stage for their ultimate victory. The peaceful outcome is a credit to the new president's levelheadedness and considerable diplomatic skills. But it's revealing for something else: Kuchma's assumption that Washington was calling the shots, or was at least close enough to the opposition to be able to guarantee his security and guide the revolution. That, in turn, is key to understanding what happens next, not only in Ukraine but also in neighboring Russia and beyond.
No foreign government has followed events in Ukraine more closely than Moscow, or with more misgivings. The Kremlin's obsession with its near-abroad is legendary, not merely as a traditional sphere of influence but also for its more recent ambition to create a new "Euro-East," a whole civilizational zone that is part of Europe yet distinct, characterized not by Western-style liberal values but by Moscow's brand of quasi-autocratic "managed democracy." "If you're Vladimir Putin, following an antidemocratic trajectory, you want similar regimes around you," says a Western diplomat in Kiev. Instead, look what has happened. Former prime minister Viktor Yanukovych, the establishment candidate for whom Putin campaigned and twice congratulated on his "convincing victory," was blocked by a popular uprising from stealing the election. For Putin, all this has been profoundly unsettling. Here is a man whose career has been based on the exercise of administrative power, covert and overt. He has reengineered the instruments of the Russian state to do his bidding. Yet this "vertical power," as Russians call it, failed--utterly--in Kiev. Worse, the...