Sunday’s referendum in Crimea will almost certainly favor breaking away from the Ukraine and joining the Russian Federation. Russia has troops on Ukraine’s Eastern border and threatening a military intervention to protect ethnic Russians from violence by “fascists” in Kyiv who ousted Former President Yanukovych.
The armed forces of Ukraine and Russia are on full alert and tensions are high throughout the country, especially in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The worst-case scenario is for the start of armed conflict in response to provocations or random clashes between supporters and opponents of Ukraine’s interim government that leads to Russian troops crossing the border and a military response from the Ukrainian military, which then escalates into all-out war and a hazardous East-West confrontation with unknown but likely tragic consequences.
The interim government leadership and potential presidential candidates must act rapidly to articulate a unifying vision for Ukraine’s political and economic future that provides a compelling case for ethnic Russians to remain citizens of Ukraine, and helps to build trust among all Ukrainians that they have the ability to bring stability and order to their communities.
The crisis response of the leadership of Ukraine’s interim government must obviously focus on the national security threats posed by Russian troops. But it should also immediately start an intense campaign to win the hearts and minds of all Ukrainians, especially ethnic Russians, to counter the narrative that the government in Kyiv condones right wing violence, and to communicate a message that all ethnic groups will be part of a new Ukraine.
The time for transcendent political leadership is now. The model for this kind of visionary leadership is Nelson Mandela. He showed it when he assumed the leadership of South Africa after years of brutal Apartheid policies. Instead of retribution against the White minority he united the country with a vision for all South Africans. His call for forgiveness over revenge was reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln’s appeal to a divided country after four bloody years of civil war to renew its commitment to rebuild as one nation.
Several commentators have written that none of Ukraine’s leaders in the interim government or potential presidential candidates are visionary leaders. I argue that visionary leadership often emerges in the heat of a crisis and the necessity for bold action. We witnessed an example of transcendent leadership from Interim Prime Minister Yatsenyuk when he reassured the residents of Crimea that there would be no retribution against them if the results of the referendum favor breaking away from the Ukraine.
The message of reconciliation also needs to be matched by actions. The first could be to nullify the ill advised law passed by the Verhovnaya Rada that downgraded Russian language as an official language. It should also strongly condemn any statements or actions by groups that support discrimination or violence against ethnic Russians, and remove any leaders in the interim government if they are shown to be the source of these divisive views.
There is much to be learned from Mr. Yanukovych’s mistakes. He dithered away the essential qualities for any successful leader, credibility and trust, long before protestors took over Maidan Square. The loss began when he failed to recognize that only visionary leadership could bring together Ukraine’s ethnic and political groups to support a national vision for Ukraine’s future. Instead, his leadership was anything but visionary. His obsession with silencing his most prominent political adversary, Yulia Tymoshenko, and undermining any other potential challengers to his reelection campaign in 2015 showed that maintaining power and partisan gains were his primary concerns.
One essential quality of leadership that Mr. Yanukovych did not have was the ability to recognize that his perception of the world was incomplete and a dramatic change of course was needed to avert major problems.
Nobel Prize laureate in economics, Herbert Simon, called this lack of leadership insight bounded rationality where leaders make important strategic decisions that ultimately fail based on information filtered through the prism of a leader’s limited perception of reality. Simon argued leaders should recognize and compensate for the cognitive limits of perception in the decision-making process.
The political leadership of Ukraine needs to stand above partisan and ethnic divides of the past and lead with a new vision of the future for all Ukrainians, regardless of ethnic origin. The time for Ukraine’s Mandela to emerge is now.