Not What Putin Bargained For

What transpired in Ukraine last week was nothing short of remarkable; after three months of mass protests against the decision of their president, Viktor Yanukovych, not to sign a deal which would’ve brought Ukraine and the European Union closer, Ukrainians humiliatingly forced him to step down. Yet, they didn’t stop there, demanding and getting snap presidential elections, a return to an earlier, more democratic constitution, and the release of prominent political prisoner Yulia Timshenko. When Vladimir Putin, Russia’s strongman president, cajoled and bribed Yanukovych into turning down the EU deal in November, he certainly didn’t have this in mind.

A series of closed-door meetings between the two heads of state were forced on Yanukovych because Moscow threatened to raise Ukraine’s gas bill and limit Ukrainian exports to Russia. In addition, as a result of the corruption of Yanukovych and his regime, Ukraine was in desperate need of a financial bailout. Putin made an offer Yanukovych couldn’t refuse; what amounted to a $15 billion loan and a 30 percent discount on Russian natural gas, contingent upon closer ties between Russia and Ukraine, as well as the possibility of the latter’s entry into Russia’s corrupt and authoritarian version of the EU, the Eurasian Customs Union. Whether the last scenario would happen or not is academic; Ukrainians were alarmed at the prospect of living any longer under Putin’s model, i.e. less democracy, more cronyism, and economic stagnation. Predictably, they took to the streets.

Putin’s worry was evidenced through Moscow’s actions. Firstly, the screws began to be tightened at home, featuring a crackdown on more-independent Russian media outlets. Next, the idea that those protesting in Ukraine were “fascists,” conspiring with the West to undermine Russia, began to gain traction in Russia at the Kremlin’s behest, perfectly embodied in a documentary, titled “Biochemistry of Treachery,” that premiered in primetime on Russian state television a week ago. This was more below the belt than you might think since some Ukrainians fought with the Nazis during World War II against the Soviets.

Finally, a campaign was waged by Moscow to change the dynamics of the situation in Ukraine. Putin’s right-hand man and chief propagandist, Vladislav Surkov, was dispatched to Ukraine, followed by Russian security advisors. When the protests in the Ukrainian capital became violent and spread to other, primarily Ukrainian-speaking regions in the west of the country, more pro-European than the primarily Russian-speaking, pro-Russian east, a paramilitary group appeared in the latter to support Yanukovych and “cleanse the country of fascists.” An article in the Russian government daily, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, confirmed this. Then there were the reports that groups of Russian special forces were clandestinely operating in Ukraine, attempting to break the protests.

They say desperation is a stinky cologne, and indeed it stunk when Putin’s aide, Sergei Glazyev, publicly called on Yanukovych to “suppress the insurgency, which is provoked and financed by external forces [read “the West”].” Even more so when an assistant to Russian deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, tweeted the link to a video released on Youtube of a conversation between the US Ambassador to Ukraine and the Assistant Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland, where the latter can be heard uttering, “f*ck the EU.”

The consequences of the recent developments in Ukraine deeply trouble Putin. For one, it’s axiomatic that whoever governs Ukraine next will be less pro-Moscow than Yanukovych, meaning closer relations with the EU because, as we have seen, this is a non-starter for Putin. Consequently, wrangling Ukraine into the Customs Union will be nearly impossible, effectively rendering the project dead. Moreover, the notion of Ukraine, which Putin described in 2008 as “not even a state,” charting a different course than Russia is a deep shock to Moscow.

Most concerning for the Kremlin is the example the events of the last few months in Ukraine have set; that is, sustained people power can topple unresponsive regimes in the post-Soviet space with minimal violence. The fact this occurred in Ukraine, a place with deep historical and cultural ties to Russia, makes it all the more threatening. While unlikely because of the deep structural nature of the political and economic reforms needed in Ukraine, the possibility that it could shed its Soviet past and become a ‘normal’ European country represents Moscow’s worst nightmare.

As the Olympics wind down, Putin will be forced to face reality; while his power appears safe for now, there is an economic storm on the horizon because of his statist, kleptocratic policies. This, combined with Putin’s failure in Ukraine, only mean greater and harsher repression in Russia. An ominous example of this was the February 21 decision by a Moscow court against eight individuals who took part in mass protests in Russia two years ago in order to intimidate would-be protesters. In short, the future of Putin’s Russia and what will come after it look substantially bleaker after the Ukrainian people’s success.

Keary Iarussi is junior fellow at the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies.

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