Skip to content

There Are Important Lessons We Should Learn From The War In Ukraine

2022 March 13
by Greg Satell

The war in Ukraine is, in so many ways, an unspeakable tragedy. An unprovoked attack by a cynical power, continuous and barbaric shelling of innocent civilians and what may be the largest refugee crisis in history, makes us recalibrate what humans are capable of. And all of this, for the most part, to satisfy the hubris of one man.

Yet despite the horrors, I am hopeful. In the 20 years I have been involved with Ukraine, I have seen it evolve from a kleptocratic post-communist state to an emerging democracy with the power to inspire the world. I could not have imagined, when I first fell in love with the place all those years ago, what has come to pass.

The truth is that Ukraine has much to teach us beyond the mighty courage and spirit we see on our TV screens. The reason Ukrainians fight so bravely is because they have struggled so long and hard. It is because of that struggle that they know what they are fighting for. That’s why, despite the cold calculations by armchair strategists, Ukraine defies expectations.

The Orange Revolution – A Nation Awakens

When I first arrived in Ukraine the political apathy was palpable, especially in comparison to Poland, where I had been living. After 80 years of communism and then 10 more under kleptocratic rule, few thought change was possible. So why worry or complain about things that you couldn’t do anything about anyway? It seemed better to focus on things close to you; your family, your work, your friends.

That changed in 2004. The opposition candidate for president, a relatively boring technocratic reformer named Viktor Yushchenko, was poisoned by pro-Russian agents. He survived, but his face was permanently disfigured and many thought it would end his campaign. Instead, it was invigorated. He appeared on TV and pointed to the damage, screaming, “Look at my face!”

In that moment, the once mild-mannered banker was transformed into an inspirational leader. The forces backing his opponent, an almost cartoonish thug named Viktor Yanukovych, tried to falsify the election, which led to the Orange Revolution. I remember that, at first, the effort often seemed futile. But we persevered and the Supreme Court of Ukraine nullified the falsified election results. Yushchenko rose to the presidency.

It was an astonishing transformation in a mere matter of months. If the regime had chosen a somewhat more suitable candidate, or at least not poisoned the leader of the opposition, things could have gone very differently. But it was too much. Even in a corrupt, post-Soviet state there are limits to impropriety. The insults to dignity were just too extreme for the people to accept. Against the odds, they rebelled, and won.

The Second Rise Of Yanukovych And The Failure To Survive Victory

For the temerity of the Ukrainians to choose their own president, Putin shut off the gas. Yushchenko’s presidency sputtered and, when the financial crisis hit in 2008, the reformist agenda lost credibility. Viktor Yanukovych, the same man that we took to the streets to keep out of power, won a legitimate election and took office.

He was even worse than we had feared. His presidency wasn’t so much a reign as it was an insatiable grab. He changed the Constitution to grab more power and threw his opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, in jail to cripple the opposition. And the grab for money—symbolized by his tastelessly extravagant Mezhyhirya estate—was obscene, even for Ukraine.

So by 2013, Viktor Yanukovych had consolidated political power and proved to be a model of avarice and incompetence. Corruption reached new heights (experts estimate that the regime looted as much as $100 billion—an amount almost equal to the entire GDP of Ukraine). Scandals, epitomized by the heinous case of Oksana Makar, began to pile up.

Things came to a head when Yanukovych backed out of a trade agreement with the EU. It was the final straw. It is one thing to steal, to make a mockery of the rule of law and to run the country far below any reasonable standard of competence. But the prospect of EU integration had come to symbolize inclusion into Europe and a chance to, someday, live a normal life.

Once again, it was too much.

A Revolution Of Dignity Forged Through Shared Values

When Yanukovych announced that he would not go through with the EU trade agreement, a young journalist and activist named Mustafa Nayem, was moved to post this on Facebook, calling people to go return to Independence Square, the scene of the Orange Revolution, commonly known as the “Maidan:”


Okay guys, let’s get serious. Who’s ready to go to the Maidan today at midnight? “Likes” will not counted. Only comments under this post with the words “I’m ready.” Once there are more than a thousand, we will organize it.


In the space of an hour, there were more than 600 comments and Nayem posted once again that they would meet at 10:30. Within hours, more than a thousand people showed up to protest. In the ensuing days. the crowds swelled further. First 10,000, then 50,000 and before long, the protesters had set up camps. They were in it for the long haul. The Euromaidan protests had begun.

The regime fought back, but to little avail. Riot police attacked, yet more people came to the Maidan. Yanukovych passed a law outlawing the protests and even more came. Things escalated and the regime started shooting the protestors. Soon there were Molotov cocktails, helmets, and improvised shields. In the end more than 100 people were dead in the streets.

The world took notice and the diplomats came. Meanwhile, away from the cameras, other meetings were held in Parliament. The President’s allies in the Party of Regions had enough and were ready to defect. The oligarchs, facing sanctions against their western assets, were through with him as well. Suddenly bereft of any support, Yanukovych fled from the country.

These events came to be known as the Revolution of Dignity, because it was the moment that the Ukrainian people demanded to have their sovereignty as an independent country recognized, no matter what the cost. That’s what led Putin to annex Crimea, invade Donbas in 2014 and then the entire country in 2022.

Strategy Is More Than A Game Of Chess

We tend to imagine people will act rationally and that, by taking their interests into account, we can come to some sort of reasonable strategy. Yet the events in Ukraine belie that basic assumption. At each point Putin’s cold calculations resulted in the opposite of what he wanted, pushing Ukraine further and further out of his grasp. As I explained in Harvard Business Review after the events of 2014, strategy is more than a game of chess.

Consider the ultimatum game. One player is given a dollar and needs to propose how to split it with another player. On a rational basis, the second player would accept anything over a penny, but decades of experiments across different cultures show that’s not true. People will reject an offer that offends their dignity.

Putin could have accepted Yushchenko, the opposition candidate for President in 2004, who was not, by any stretch of the imagination, anti-Russian, but he poisoned him instead and ignited the Orange Revolution. He could have accepted Ukraine’s desire for closer trade relations with Europe, but he couldn’t abide and triggered the Revolution of Dignity in 2014.

The original intention of the Ukrainian people was not to pull away from Russia, which many, if not most, considered a “brother” country, but to pursue a so-called “Finnish model” that would maintain good relations with both Russia and the west. Yet Putin could not bring himself to recognize the Ukrainians’ desire for a separate and distinct identity.

That’s why he launched a war that Russia cannot win and that the rest of the world found so repugnant that they leveled such crippling sanctions. Putin’s actions will impoverish the Russian people and endanger the existence of his regime. It doesn’t make any sense until you realize that Putin was also acting not on any rational basis, but because of how he has come to see his identity and place in the world.

It will likely be his undoing.

– Greg


Image: Flickr – Ukrainian Presidential Press Service


One Response leave one →
  1. March 13, 2022

    Thank You Greg for this perspective.

    I’ve been waiting for you to write this article on the situation in the Ukraine.

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS