Beyond the burning barricades and the corpses in the streets, here is what is at stake in Ukraine's insurrectionary drama.
The future of Ukraine as an independent state-nation
Intense violence inside a state, still falling short of civil war, can go two sharply different ways. It can tear the state apart, as in Syria and the former Yugoslavia, or, if people join hands to retreat from the brink, it can weld a state-nation together, as in South Africa. A state-nation has a shared civic national identity rather than a single ethnic national identity.
One reason that the last months in Ukraine have been so chaotic is that Ukraine, despite being an independent state for more than two decades, is neither a fully functioning state nor a fully formed nation. To use the phrase "law and order" to describe any of what happened in Ukraine last week is like using "tea and sandwiches" to describe hooch made of vodka, gristle and blood. President Viktor Yanukovich is a thug, but he is also an ineffective thug. Effective and disciplined security forces would not be randomly shooting and killing demonstrators in the street one minute and abandoning the same streets the next.
Similarly, the administration, parliament and the economy are nothing like those of a normal European state. They are infiltrated and manipulated to an extraordinary degree by oligarchs, cronies and the president's family, a.k.a. the Family. To give just one example: According to the Ukrainian edition of Forbes magazine, Yanukovich's son, a dentist, won 50% of all state contracts in January — possibly the biggest dental extraction in history.
This, as well as militia brutality, is what many Ukrainians are so angry about, and what some have given their lives to change. But if last week's deal — for a coalition government, constitutional reform to give parliament back more powers and a presidential election before the end of the year — can be made to stick, then these bloody days could yet go down in history books as a decisive chapter in Ukraine's path to independent state-nationhood. If not, further disintegration looms.
The future of Russia as a state-nation — or an empire
With Ukraine, Russia is still an empire; without Ukraine, Russia itself has a chance to become a state-nation. The future of Ukraine is more central to Russia's national identity than Scotland's is to England's. Centuries ago, people who lived in the territory that is now Ukraine were the original Russians. In this century, the people who call themselves Ukrainians will shape the future definition of what is now Russia.
The future of Vladimir Putin
Konstantin von Eggert, an independent Russian journalist, once observed that the most important event in Russian politics over the last decade did not happen in Russia. It was the Orange Revolution of 2004 in Ukraine. That seemed to Putin's regime to be the most threatening in the 15-year wave of velvet or color revolutions that started in central Europe in 1989.
So Putin's "political technologists" developed techniques to counter it. These involved brutality, of course, but also lots of money, GONGOs (government-organized nongovernmental organizations) and media manipulation that makes Tony Blair's spin doctor Alastair Campbell look like the Archbishop of Canterbury. When Putin trumped the European Union's rule-rich but cash-poor association offer to Ukraine with a cool $15 billion, one Russian political technologist, Marat Gelman, tweeted: "Maidan installation sold for 15 billion — most expensive art object ever." (Maidan is Kiev's Independence Square, epicenter of the protests.)
But it didn't quite go according to plan. So Putin and Yanukovich met in Sochi, Russia, and then on Monday, Russia released more of the $15 billion, and on Tuesday, Yanukovich's militia started using live ammunition against increasingly desperate and sometimes violent protesters. The fact that Putin was prepared to risk international blowback during his treasured Sochi Olympics shows how vital Ukraine is to him. Now he has retreated tactically, faced with the facts on the ground; but have no illusions that he will stop intervening.
The future of Europe as a strategic power
The geopolitical issue here is not whether Ukraine joins Europe or Russia. It is whether Ukraine becomes increasingly integrated into the political and economic community of Europe, as well as having a very close relationship with Russia. It is also whether the EU will stand up for basic European values on its own front doorstep, as it failed to do in Bosnia 20 years ago.
It is now clear that the EU miscalculated by delivering an us-or-them ultimatum last autumn, without offering Ukraine desperately needed ready cash or the clear and certain prospect of EU membership. As the Ukraine expert Andrew Wilson notes, the EU took a baguette to a knife fight. In recent weeks, it has done better. The deal signed Friday was a real success for the personal diplomacy of the German, Polish and French foreign ministers, and the argreement to release Yulia Tymoshenko was another positive sign. But does a Europe weakened by the Eurozone crisis have the strategic imagination and resolve for the long term?
The future of revolution
I have argued that, in our time, 1989 supplanted 1789 as the default model of revolution. Rather than progressive radicalization, violence and the guillotine, we look for peaceful mass protest followed by negotiated transition. That model has taken a battering of late, not only in Ukraine but also in the violent fall that followed the Arab Spring. If this fragile deal holds, however, and the fury on the streets can be contained, Europe might again show that we can occasionally learn from history.
Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European studies at Oxford University, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and a contributing writer to Opinion.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times