A year after Russia incorporated Crimea, it now appears that the Kremlin may have underestimated the power of Ukrainian self-awareness and the desire of Ukraine’s citizens to make their own choices.

A monument to Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin damaged by bombing and shootings between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian army in Shakhtersk, the town of Eastern Ukraine. Photo: RIA Novosti

A year ago Russia annexed Crimea, which has since led to negative consequences for Russia, Europe and Ukraine, including a protracted conflict in the Donbas. In the numerous negotiations held since spring, Russia has pushed, if not for independence, then at least maximum federalization for the eastern regions, with full control over the territory by local administrators. Western and Ukrainian experts and politicians eye such demands with skepticism.

Indeed, the Kremlin’s policy in Ukraine since the start can hardly be described as a success. Its expectations regarding the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk have not come to fruition. Why did the “Crimean scenario” fail to strike root in Novorossiya (New Russia), as the Kremlin might have expected?

The main reasons do not lie on the surface. Once deemed insignificant, they have proved to be among the most decisive in this whole dismal saga. They are embedded in the fabric of Ukraine itself, and Russian politicians and diplomats hitherto did not consider them worthy of attention.

How the Crimean euphoria faded

After the annexation came the euphoria, the reasons for which are quite clear: The referendum to rejoin Russia was backed by 90 percent of the peninsula’s population, there was no military resistance, Ukrainian troops withdrew peacefully, and mass parades and rallies were held in support of Russia and its policies. Heartened by this outcome, some members of the ruling elite suggested that such an approach would bear fruit elsewhere. And so it was applied in the southeast of Ukraine, where, after the annexation of Crimea in March, the situation was escalating.

But here the “Crimea card” was not a trump card. There were several reasons for this. For starters, the sentiment of the population of the eastern parts of Ukraine was misjudged. Despite the fact that the Russian-speaking population was in the majority and supported Russia (as in Crimea), the people had just two simple demands: guaranteed official status for the Russian language (at least where they lived), and the right to dispose of tax revenues themselves, mainly to ensure funding in the social sphere.

Not only did most of the population never want to separate from Ukraine, they did not even pay a thought to the Kremlin’s pursuit of federalization. A survey of the population of eastern Ukraine in the spring of 2014 revealed that 70 percent of residents there opposed joining Russia. What’s more, the changes were planned not by means of a grassroots movement, but through tinkering at the top, i.e. the revolution was to be top-down, not bottom-up. In short, the desires and aspirations of the battered and exhausted people were thoroughly ignored, undermining trust in Russia.

A more detailed study of the real sentiments of the people exposes Russia’s supposed numerical support in the east as a myth, which Moscow made the mistake of believing. As such, without the support of the population, the whole idea of ​​Novorossiya was doomed from the start, and never justified the risks that its realization would entail.

Another important problem that Russia suddenly faces is Ukraine’s exceptional commitment to keeping hold of its eastern regions. In the euphoria of Crimea’s annexation, the Kremlin decided to support the rebels in the east of Ukraine, hoping for a quick victory. Politicians and their aides assumed that Kiev, already worn down by Maidan, confrontation and crisis, would not put up any serious resistance to eastern declarations of independence and convergence with Russia. The reckoning was that separation would, as before, happen more or less peacefully. But the “Crimean scenario” failed to materialize.

How neglecting soft power is causing problems for the Kremlin

The Kremlin underestimated a huge number of factors, chief among them Ukrainian self-awareness. Since it became independent, Ukraine has raised several generations who feel part of a full-fledged country with its own history and heroes. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, its citizens strove to find their own place in the world — and find it they did, creating a remarkably strong sense of identity as a distinct people, ready to defend their freedom to the end.

Thanks to Ukrainians’ acute sense of national consciousness, Kiev set about delivering a rebuff, and one that was certainly not expected. “Anti-terrorist” troops went on the offensive to win back positions taken by the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, inflicting significant losses. As a result, the “rebel-controlled” territory shrank noticeably. An entire army and national guard of volunteers from all over Ukraine appeared from nowhere and headed east.

A man walks with a Ukrainian national flag walks past a statue of Soviet Union founder Vladimir Lenin decorated with a Ukrainian national flag in Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine, Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014. Photo: AP

Of course, it would be amiss not to mention the West. Its assistance, however, is limited to non-lethal aid: money (albeit large sums), plus some equipment and small-scale arms. But has it helped the Kiev government to win back lost ground and lift the whole country? History shows that the overriding factor in any conflict is always the will of the people, and in Ukraine no amount of help from the West, even the most advanced, would be of use without an innate desire for self-determination.

It is this sense of national consciousness of Ukranians, of responsibility for one’s own independence and of nationhood that thwarted the Kremlin’s initial plans. And that was a serious miscalculation on Russia’s part. Diplomacy lost to begin with, and has now lost for decades to come.

Here, too, Russia’s deleterious lack of policy is plain to see. The matter relates to soft power, and the promotion of Russian values ​​and interests among Ukrainians. For the past 24 years, Russia has viewed Ukraine as a defective state that broke away but was destined soon to return to Russia, where it belongs. It was an error of judgment in foreign policy. This neglect of soft power has damaged Russia at every stage of the Ukrainian conflict so far.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.