On March 26, as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine took an increasingly brutal turn, U.S. President Joe Biden made a comment that created a brief firestorm in Washington. Coming to the end of a major speech to NATO allies in Poland, he went off script and declared that Putin “cannot remain in power.” Although the statement was hardly controversial—along with Ukrainians, most Americans and their NATO allies would be glad to see Putin go—it seemed to mark a startling departure from the administration’s careful efforts to avoid escalation with Moscow. The president quickly clarified that his comments were personal, not policy, and the country moved on.  

Careless or not, however, Biden’s words were almost certainly not lost on Putin. The Kremlin has long fixated on the supposed threat of U.S.-backed regime change. For years, such claims have provided a convenient pretext for Russia’s repression of its own population, allowing the government to ruthlessly crack down on those showing any signs of dissent as well as opposition figures, the media, and independent organizations simply by suggesting, often with no basis, that they are influenced by the West. Yet the words and actions of U.S. leaders during Putin’s years in power have also given fuel to such claims. Indeed, in suggesting that regime change was in order, Biden may have been inadvertently bearing out one of Putin’s core motivations for invading Ukraine in the first place: the fear that the government in Kyiv—itself the result of successive popular revolts—had grown too close to the West, and that it could ultimately undermine Putin’s own hold on power.

Putin’s paranoia about democratic change and Western political meddling in the region around Russia is hardly new. But it was notably present in early January 2022, amid Russia’s troop buildup on the Ukrainian border, when a series of large-scale antigovernment protests broke out in Kazakhstan. At the time, Putin was already engaged in his tense standoff with the West over Ukraine. Nonetheless, the Kazakh uprising rattled the Kremlin: a former Soviet republic, Kazakhstan shares a 4,700-mile land border with Russia and the possibility that its authoritarian regime might be under threat seemed to raise the specter of another popular revolution on Russia’s doorstep. On January 5, Putin hurriedly dispatched more than 2,000 Russian troops to Kazakhstan to restore order. “We will not allow the situation to be rocked at home and will not allow so-called color revolutions to take place,” he stated. Shortly after Russian forces arrived, the protests were violently put down, and amid a national state of emergency, the Kazakh government regained control. In all, along with thousands of arrests, some 200 protesters were killed, and more than 700 were wounded.

In the West, Russia’s heavy-handed response to the Kazakh protests was hardly noticed. Seven weeks later, Russia launched its war in Ukraine, and the events in the Central Asian republic were quickly forgotten. Yet Russia’s actions in Kazakhstan—and Putin’s comments about them—provide an important clue to one of the lingering mysteries about the invasion of Ukraine. In the weeks before the assault began, Western analysts and the international press overwhelmingly focused on Putin’s fears about NATO expansion. Others then and since have emphasized his intent to re-create the Russian empire. Still others have explained his actions by calling him crazy and unstable or otherwise questioning his rationality. These explanations miss what might be the most important factor in explaining why Putin started a risky full-scale invasion of Europe’s second-largest country: his growing anxiety that, in losing Ukraine to the West, Russia could be exposing itself to the threat of a “so-called color revolution” at home—the kind of pro-democracy rebellion that, in the Kremlin’s narrative, has become synonymous with U.S.-backed regime change, particularly in the lands of the former Soviet Union.

In the United States, the color revolutions seem like events from a past era: the term is usually used to refer to the peaceful political transformations that occurred in Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004, and Kyrgyzstan in 2005. These movements were supported by the West, particularly by Washington, but they were primarily driven by the people of those countries themselves, who were rising up against failing and corrupt regimes to demand freedom and democracy. In Moscow, however, the continual fear of anti-regime pressure from below has given those events a central place in the Kremlin’s anti-democratic and anti-Western ideology. As Russian officials and Putin himself have long maintained, almost any popular uprising in Russia and its surrounding region is an attempt at a color revolution, and therefore must be backed, if not instigated, by Europe and the United States. In Belarus in 2020, as with the recent events in Kazahkstan, when huge protests broke out following Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s blatantly rigged election, the Kremlin immediately began warning of a “color revolution.” At the center of this legacy is Ukraine, which has had not one but two upheavals that could be considered color revolutions—a decade after the 2004 Orange Revolution, Ukraine experienced the Maidan uprising—and which in recent years has increasingly oriented itself toward the West.

The Kremlin has sought to portray the Ukrainian government as a dangerous, Western puppet in Russia’s historic heartland, ruled by a government that is the product of an American-backed coup rather than an expression of the democratic will of the Ukrainian people. It matters little that such claims have no grounding in fact or that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky won almost three-quarters of the vote in a 2019 election that was generally regarded as free and fair. For the Putin regime, the possibility that what has happened in Ukraine over the past two decades could be replicated in Russia itself has become an almost existential obsession.

But the Kremlin’s narrative of growing political interference by the West does not merely underpin Putin’s decision to pursue a maximalist invasion aimed at toppling the Ukrainian leadership. It also helps explain why the invasion has gone, from his perspective, so badly. Convinced by their own propaganda that the government in Kyiv was a creation of the West and the Ukrainian far right, Putin and those around him assumed that it would collapse almost as soon as Russian troops crossed the border and that the Russians themselves would be widely embraced. Instead, the Russian operation has quickly foundered, while unifying the Ukrainian population against Moscow more strongly than ever.

Paradoxically, in framing its own political opposition, and that of all of its allies in the surrounding region, in color revolution terms, the Kremlin has led itself to embark on a disastrous war that may ultimately do more to undermine Putin’s support at home than any other event in his two decades in power.

Democrats in Tbilisi

The story that the Kremlin likes to tell about color revolutions is fueled by a potent mix of geopolitics, paranoia, and propaganda, and it is often difficult to tell at any given moment which of these priorities is most important. But two things are beyond doubt: the fixation dates to the earliest phase of Putin’s leadership and it has taken shape around the intense U.S.-Russian rivalry over the political future of the former Soviet Union. In the first years after Putin came to office, the United States seemed to command wide influence in many parts of the former Soviet Union. In the 1990s, the bottom had fallen out of the Russian economy, and Russia had gone into a precipitous decline; Washington, basking in its victory in the Cold War, was seeking to bring democracy to the entire region. Young Americans a few years out of college were running around Kyiv, Tbilisi, and Moscow trying to explain to people how to govern themselves. Then, following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, U.S. President George W. Bush launched the so-called freedom agenda, which amounted to an intrusive democracy-promotion effort in many parts of the world. Crucially, this U.S. offensive coincided with a series of popular upheavals against Russian-backed or Russian-friendly regimes, the events that would come to be known as the color revolutions.

Although the local circumstances varied widely, these upheavals all followed a broadly similar pattern, with a disputed election precipitating large-scale, peaceful protests, and ultimately regime collapse.  The first of these took place in September 2000, less than a year after Putin came to power, when the Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic was defeated by Vojislav Kostunica in the Serbian presidential election. When the authorities claimed, implausibly, that no candidate had received a majority of the votes, large and peaceful protests broke out in what became known as the Bulldozer Revolution. After a week of protests, Milosevic resigned, and Kostunica was declared the winner.

Similar events unfolded in Georgia in 2003. Following parliamentary elections that autumn, President Eduard Shevardnadze, who had previously been the Soviet foreign minister, claimed his party had won, but exit polls and a parallel vote tabulation showed this was false. In what came to be called the Rose Revolution, after days of peaceful demonstrations, Mikheil Saakashvili, the head of the main opposition party, led protesters into the parliament building. Shevardnadze resigned, and within a few months, Saakashvili was elected president. During these events, the United States played a relatively minor role. U.S.-based organizations were involved, but the Georgian people took part because of their desire for change, and the new government commanded broad support, at least at first.

In the years that followed, further peaceful revolutions unfolded in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. For Moscow, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution proved to be particularly important. The 2004 Ukrainian presidential election was a hard-fought battle between Viktor Yanukovych, who was pro-Russia, and Viktor Yushchenko, who favored closer ties with the West. Initial results showed that Yanukovych had won, but the count was marred by election fraud, provoking large, peaceful demonstrations and ultimately a new election, which Yushchenko won. As a result, the largest former Soviet republic apart from Russia had entered on the path that would lead it, a decade later, to firmly embrace a pro-American and pro-European government.

President George W. Bush speaking to Rose Revolution supporters in Tbilisi, Georgia, May 2005
President George W. Bush speaking to Rose Revolution supporters in Tbilisi, Georgia, May 2005
Jim Bourg / Reuters

An important subplot of the color revolutions was the involvement of the United States. For the most part, the U.S. role was grounded in a desire for greater freedom and democracy in the region. In Serbia and Ukraine, U.S. support was unambiguous; in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, Washington’s efforts were far more modest. Nonetheless, in all four countries, U.S. organizations—including the federally funded National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute and private nonprofits such as the Open Society Institute (now called the Open Society Foundations)—took an active part in training civil society activists and helping build opposition coalitions. U.S. advisers also sought to help would-be color revolutionists learn from the experiences of other countries. In early 2003, I led members of Georgia’s opposition on a trip to Serbia to meet with political and civil society leaders there; several of them went on to lead the Rose Revolution later that year. In turn, participants in the Georgian protests advised their counterparts in Ukraine in 2004. A year later, I was also among a group of Americans and others who went to Kyrgyzstan to work with some of the leaders of the Tulip Revolution.

Despite this level of engagement, however, the U.S. government seemed to have little awareness how its actions might be viewed—and instrumentalized—by Moscow. Seen on the ground, these upheavals were extraordinary expressions of popular sovereignty by citizens of countries that had never experienced meaningful democracy. Moreover, in those years the Russian government was not yet generally understood as overtly anti-democratic: Putin, still in his first tenure as president, was being advised by liberal economists, Russia was a member of the G-8, and in the early years of the George W. Bush administration, Washington had a working relationship with the Kremlin. As a result, many in the United States understood the color revolutions as more about democratic development in the countries where they occurred than about using U.S. influence to counter Russian authoritarianism: indeed, not all the governments that emerged from these upheavals proved to be pro-Western or even democratic. But the U.S. imprint was hard to miss. In 2005, during a visit to Tbilisi, Bush told the Georgian people, “Because you acted, Georgia is today . . . a beacon of liberty for this region and the world.” It was heady, even inspiring rhetoric, but to the Kremlin, referring to a former Soviet republic as “a beacon of liberty for this region” sounded like a warning.

Not least was the general thrust of U.S. foreign policy at the time: the United States had military forces occupying Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which had led to the toppling of nondemocratic regimes. In subsequent years, as Putin sought new ways to reinforce his rule and tamp down on dissent, the Kremlin began to portray the color revolutions as part of a broader U.S. project to oust unfriendly leaders through a variety of approaches, from popular protests to military intervention.

From Kyiv to Moscow

By 2005, it looked to many observers, including Putin, that almost any country with an entrenched or corrupt leadership might be a ready candidate for a color revolution, and for authoritarian regimes such as Russia’s, the primary goal was to keep the contagion from spreading further. To this end, the Russian government passed laws that restricted freedom of speech and assembly and also began harassing nongovernmental organizations and creating legal barriers for organizations that relied on foreign funding. Other undemocratic regimes in the region, including those in Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, soon followed suit.

Even so, the Western-oriented governments that had emerged in Ukraine and Georgia were regarded by Moscow as potential threats. In Ukraine, Russia continued to aggressively back pro-Russian politicians and aim pro-Russian media at the Ukrainian people. The Kremlin took even stronger measures against Georgia, whose government was outspoken both in its commitment to the West and in its opposition to Russia and, like Ukraine, had a strong ambition to join NATO. In 2008, Russia attacked Georgia to support pro-Russian separatists in the two breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The war, which caught the West by surprise, sent a clear message: Moscow was not going to tolerate a functioning, explicitly pro-Western state on its southern flank and was prepared to use its military to prevent it.

By the end of the decade, these efforts seemed to have slowed the momentum of the color revolutions. Following the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, attempts to stage similar revolutions in Azerbaijan in 2005 and Belarus in 2006 failed because those regimes allowed much less space for the freedoms that had made color revolutions possible. Then, in 2010, Moscow’s preferred candidate in the Ukrainian presidential election, Yanukovych, at last won the presidency in a vote that was regarded as fair by Western observers. By this point, Washington’s freedom agenda had also stalled, as the United States found itself mired in the Iraq war. Moreover, and President Barack Obama had declared an intention to “reset” U.S. relations with Russia.  At the Kremlin, Putin had ceded the presidency to Dimitri Medvedev while serving a four-year term as prime minister, a move that some U.S. observers hoped would bring a moderating influence to Russia’s approach to the West.

To Moscow, the Arab Spring was a continuation of the revolts in Georgia and Ukraine.

But then the Arab Spring erupted. As popular revolts against authoritarian regimes spread across the Middle East, few in the West saw the color revolutions as a relevant precedent because the initial democratic promise of those events had already faded. In Moscow, however, the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere were almost immediately seized upon as direct continuations of what had happened in Georgia and Ukraine and Putin claimed they were a result of “aggressive foreign interference”—a shorthand for Western powers seeking to promote democracy. Amid the fallout, which was longer and more violent than that after the color revolutions in the former Soviet republics, Russia became directly involved in the Middle East, propping up President Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian regime in Syria with a decisive military intervention and sending Russian forces to conflicts in Libya and Yemen. Addressing the UN General Assembly in 2015, Putin said, “the export of revolutions…of so-called democratic ones, continues…. Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress we got violence, poverty, and social disaster.” 

Around the time of the Arab uprisings, the Putin regime also began to face an increasingly restive opposition at home, which the Kremlin naturally blamed on the color revolutions and the West. Even with the pro-Russian Yanukovych in office in Kyiv, Putin alleged that Ukrainian activists were trying to undermine Russia. “As far as ‘color revolutions’ are concerned,” he said in 2011, “it is a well-tested scheme for destabilizing society.” He added: “Some of our opposition members were in Ukraine and officially worked as advisers to its then president, Yushchenko. They are now transferring this practice to Russian soil.” Putin was overstating the case, but there were people in the early years of the Yushchenko presidency who would have liked to have seen a similar transformation take place in Russia. In early 2012, they almost did.

Like the earlier color revolutions, the events in Russia were triggered by a disputed election. After Putin’s party appeared to have rigged the results of the December 2011 parliamentary election, protests erupted and continued throughout the winter, reaching a climax around the presidential election in March that returned Putin to the presidency after his brief sojourn as prime minister. By the time of Putin’s inauguration in May, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in what were the largest protests in Russia since the end of the Soviet period; one of their key demands was Putin’s resignation. In a sweeping counteroffensive, Putin was able to regain control, cracking down on the protesters, staging pro-government demonstrations, and blaming Western-backed “Orangists” for the unrest. In particular, he accused U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of having sent a “signal” to “some actors in our country.” In fact, Clinton was not behind the protests, but the experience of the earlier color revolutions and the manifest support they received from the U.S. government gave Putin an opening to put forward such a claim.

By this point, there was no longer any question at the Kremlin that a large-scale democratic uprising in Russia was a real and continuing risk, and the color-revolution concept had become a way to turn this threat into a powerful narrative about U.S. and Western interference.

The Unfreedom Agenda

A year and a half after the protests in Moscow, Putin’s confrontation with the West reached a new pitch with the Maidan uprising in Kyiv. In November 2013, under heavy pressure from Moscow, Yanukovych reneged on a promise to sign an association agreement with the European Union. Anger at this betrayal led to large-scale protests in the Ukrainian capital and elsewhere in the country that continued to grow throughout the winter. Ultimately, after Yanukovych unleashed his security forces in a botched crackdown, the Ukrainian parliament voted to dismiss him from office, and he fled to Russia.

Although the events looked an awful lot like the earlier color revolutions, this time there was no disputed election involved, and the motivations of the protesters were complex. To most Western observers, Yanukovych was a corrupt leader who had abused his office and betrayed his people and therefore deserved to be ousted—a view supported by the hundreds of thousands of ordinary Ukrainians who had taken to the streets. Prominent among the protesters, however, were also hard-line nationalists, and Moscow immediately portrayed the events as a right-wing coup supported by Washington to bring down a fairly elected, pro-Russian president.

In doing so, the Russian government once again drew on apparent signs of U.S. involvement. In February 2014, a surreptitious recording surfaced on YouTube—many suspect thanks to Russian surveillance—of a phone call between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, in which the two discussed what the post-Yanukovych Ukrainian government should look like and how they could work to get the government the United States wanted. Whether or not the Kremlin was behind the leak, it proved highly useful to the story Russia wanted to tell: Moscow pointed to the phone call, which had occurred while Yanukovych was still in office, as damning evidence that the Maidan uprising was an American creation. Russia also portrayed the Maidan movement as an effort by Ukrainian nationalists to get rid of an elected president from the east whom they and the United States did not like. Drawing a direct parallel with Ukrainians who collaborated with the Nazis during World War II, the Kremlin alleged that the uprising was led by Western-backed fascists, a claim that would be repeated endlessly in the years that followed and that would lead to Putin’s extravagant falsehood that the current Ukrainian government is headed by Nazis.

Russian anti-riot police at a rally for jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Omsk, Russia, April 2021
Russian anti-riot police at a rally for jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Omsk, Russia, April 2021

The Maidan protests marked a turning point in Moscow’s anti-color revolution ideology. Up until 2014, Putin had mostly focused on containing protest movements in Russia and other former Soviet republics and preventing their spread. But in Ukraine, these efforts had failed, and the Russian government began to resort to harsher measures. Even as Yanukovych resigned and left the country, Russia invaded Crimea and then backed pro-Russia separatists in a new war in the Donbas. Again catching Western leaders largely by surprise, these steps marked a dramatic shift in Moscow toward hard power. But they also grew out of the Kremlin’s conviction that the West was going to keep employing color revolution tactics until it got what it wanted in Ukraine—and possibly in Russia itself.

In the years that followed, Russia went increasingly on offense, taking the fight against democracy to the West itself. In what could be understood as a nefarious mirror image of the story Moscow was telling about U.S.-backed regime change, the Kremlin accelerated its efforts to destabilize U.S. and European societies through cyberwarfare, disinformation campaigns, and other means. Among its varied aims were supporting Brexit and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign; assisting far-right forces in countries such as Austria, France, and Italy; and encouraging separatist movements from Spain to California. In 2016, Russia interfered directly in the U.S. presidential election; two years later, a U.S. Senate study alleged that Russia had also meddled in elections or engaged in other forms of interference in 19 European countries. At the same time, the Kremlin continued its ruthless pursuit of domestic opponents both at home and abroad, including a series of poisonings ranging from opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza in 2015 and 2017; former military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal (along with his daughter, Yulia) in 2018; and Alexei Navalny in 2020. 

For a time, Putin’s strategy in the West appeared to be paying off. In the United States, the election of Trump brought an administration to the White House that was far friendlier toward Russia than its predecessor had been, hostile to traditional Western alliances, and not interested in democracy promotion. In Europe, a growing number of populists, including Viktor Orban in Hungary, Milos Zeman in the Czech Republic, and Matteo Salvini in Italy, cultivated ties with Moscow, and many Western democracies were increasingly polarized. In Ukraine, meanwhile, the continuing conflict in the east worked for Russia because it kept Kyiv at war, therefore precluding further steps toward Ukrainian membership in NATO. To further destabilize Ukraine, Russia engaged in cyberattacks and other forms of political meddling. Lost in much of the U.S. coverage of Trump’s first impeachment, in December 2019, was that Trump’s threat to withhold military assistance to Ukraine until Zelensky agreed to investigate Biden’s son Hunter was an effective amplification of Putin’s own efforts to weaken and discredit Ukraine’s leadership.

By the time of the Ukraine invasion, the Kremlin saw color revolutions everywhere.

By 2021, however, the world looked very different. The United States was now led by Biden, a longtime Russia hawk who had for years supported the expansion of democracy in eastern Europe and who had traveled to Ukraine six times as Obama’s vice president. In Ukraine, the election of Zelensky in 2019 had shown that Ukraine could have peaceful transitions of power, and numerous polls showed that Russia’s support for the separatists in the Donbas was making a previously divided population increasingly unified in its pro-Western orientation. And in Belarus, the huge and sustained pro-democracy protests that followed Lukashenko’s blatantly rigged election provided fresh evidence that popular uprisings were again posing a serious threat to Moscow and its allies. “Essentially, we are talking about a poorly disguised attempt to organize another ‘color revolution,’” Putin’s foreign intelligence head, Sergei Naryshkin, said at the time.

Meanwhile, Putin faced new troubles at home. The Russian economy was stagnating, and the country was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Putin’s most visible critic, Alexei Navalny, had grown more popular, leading the Kremlin to have him poisoned in 2020 and then, after he survived, convicted and imprisoned on a charge of embezzlement. In the run-up to Russia’s parliamentary elections in September 2021, the Kremlin was so unnerved by a Navalny voting app designed to help voters pick the best opposition candidates that it forced Apple and Google to remove the app from their online stores. By this point, Putin was also increasingly fixated on Ukraine and the threat that the Zelensky government, now backed by a newly invigorated pro-Western consensus, seemed to pose to his long-term grip on power. That fall, Putin began the troop buildup on the Ukrainian border that ultimately prepared the way for the invasion in February 2022.

The Next Revolution?

Putin’s paranoia about color revolutions does not explain away his extraordinarily brutal actions in Ukraine any more than his apparent fears about NATO expansion or his dream of a new Russian empire. But if the survival of his autocratic regime is his driving aim, the specter of a popular uprising at home goes a long way toward explaining why Moscow felt it was necessary to try to destroy the democratic government in Kyiv rather than undertake a far more limited, easily achievable invasion in the east of the country. As Putin and his regime have portrayed it, for nearly his entire time in power, Russia has faced, domestically and in its region, continual political interference and efforts at regime change from Washington. Nowhere has this been more true than in Ukraine. With the Ukrainian government becoming ever more closely oriented to the West, a spate of popular uprisings in neighboring countries, and economic and public health crises at home, Putin may have judged that he could wait no longer.

This motivating fear has never been widely understood in the West. Had Western leaders been able to recognize Putin’s color revolution obsession, Russia’s demands that Ukraine renounce NATO and implement the Minsk agreements—the never-enacted, Moscow-driven settlement of the Donbas war that would have given the separatist republics extensive powers in Kyiv—might have been seen differently: rather than ends in themselves, more of a pretext aimed at securing Moscow’s primary goal of establishing a compliant leadership in Kyiv that was inoculated against Western influence.

Paradoxically, in choosing to invade, the Kremlin seems to have fallen for its own color revolution propaganda, leading it to think that the Ukrainian government was merely a Western creation and did not represent the Ukrainian people. As the war in Ukraine drags on, it is also becoming apparent that Putin made another, potentially catastrophic miscalculation. A war that was originally driven by an effort to ensure regime preservation at home has led to a cratering Russian economy due to sanctions, a humiliating showing by Russia’s military, Russian soldiers coming home in body bags, and—despite ever-harsher crackdowns—growing Russian protests against the war. This is not what regime preservation looks like. In his fervor to bring an end to color revolutions once and for all, Putin has made himself that much more vulnerable to a popular uprising.

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  • LINCOLN MITCHELL is Adjunct Associate Research Scholar in the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and the author of The Color Revolutions.
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