What Mr. Putin has come to embody—for Russia and for its neighboring states—finds its origins in the old KGB, a much more powerful force in Russia than any other political group or party. The KGB’s power was based on deceit, violence and cynicism, which are now hallmarks of the current Russian regime. From the Kremlin’s perspective, Russia has no borders; it just has peripheries that are bound to be forever corrupt, chaotic, failing and incapable of creating their own functioning democratic states. So, as inefficient as Russia is itself, the Kremlin thinking goes, still only Russia can govern them.

The Ukrainian national anthem, which the protesters fervently sing these days, includes this line: “Let’s prove to everyone that we can be masters of our own fate.” That is what Ukrainians seem to have been doing for these past weeks, in the record freezing temperatures of the Eastern European winter.

What they are seeking is the freedom to choose their way of life. When I was in Kiev last month, I met with the main opposition leader, Vitali Klitschko. We sat up a whole night talking, focusing not so much on the rallies surrounding us as the actual future of Ukraine. Mr. Klitschko wanted to learn from the example of Georgia, where I was president from 2004 until last fall, about how to stem corruption and nepotism, about how to reform state institutions and build the Ukraine of his dreams.