Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Vladimir Putin: Geopolitical wrecking ball

Vladimir Putin: Geopolitical wrecking ball
Published 21 Feb 2014 

With his crude but effective intrusion into Kyiv's strategic decision-making, Russia's president has comprehensively destabilised Ukraine with unpredictable consequences and triggered a reprise of the 'Orange' events of 2004-5.

Then, with Putin's overt support, Viktor Yanukovych deployed 'administrative resources' to rig the presidential election. Mass street protests, with some brokering from Western emissaries, forced a rerun, which Yanukovych lost decisively to the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko, a humiliating reversal which has haunted both Yanukovych and Putin since.

While Moscow has always strongly resented the idea that Ukraine should join NATO, it seemed more relaxed about former Soviet republics having closer economic ties with Europe.  But when, in 2013, a number of them seemed likely to conclude Association Agreements (AA) with the EU, Moscow's reaction became emphatic.

Punitive trade boycotts were unleashed against Ukraine and Moldova, and Armenia was threatened with a withdrawal of Moscow's security guarantee against Erevan's arch-enemy Azerbaijan. After a sudden trip to Moscow to see Putin, President Sargsyan abruptly announced his country was trashing years of negotiations toward an AA and planning instead to join Putin's Customs Union, a kind of Clayton's USSR.

Then after two secretive meetings with Putin, Yanukovych announced Ukraine too was 'suspending' its long-running negotiations, only a week before it was to sign an AA at the Vilnius EU Summit of 28-9 November 2013. [fold]

On 17 December, after another Putin-Yanukovych meeting, it was announced that Russia would purchase US$15 billion worth of Ukraine's wilting Eurobonds (to stave off any possible default), and reduce the price Gazprom charges Kyiv for its gas imports by a third. To keep Yanukovych honest, the US$15 billion would be dispensed in tranches, and the gas deal would run for 18 months, reviewed quarterly.

Before his sudden about-face, Yanukovych had shown every sign of firming up on an AA in response to Moscow's economic coercion (gas price hikes, trade boycotts and gas pipelines bypassing Ukraine).

Kyiv's abrupt and totally opaque 180-degree turn shocked Ukraine's citizens even more than it shocked Brussels. For months, polling had shown solid, even decisive majority support for the AA. Ordinary Ukrainians, not just in the centre and west, saw the AA as the key to their becoming citizens of a 'normal' country like the EU countries they had visited or seen on their screens, free of the corruption, cronyism and sustained economic stagnation of their homeland. Hence the large crowds on the Maidan that have persevered through three months of Kyiv winter.

Yanukovych's instinct was seemingly to make few concessions and wait for winter to do its work. But several times he has attempted violent dispersal of the protesters.

He was probably being pushed in that direction in part by Kremlin economic blackmail. After the first US$3 billion tranche had been disbursed, Russia had suspended the program because of the resignation, in response to Maidan pressure, of Ukrainian prime minister Azarov (a Russian), a decision of which Moscow clearly disapproved. The latest crackdown earlier this week was launched immediately after a second tranche of bond purchases worth US$2 billion was announced. Yanukovych had had a discreet meeting with Putin in Sochi a few days earlier, where quid pro quos for a second tranche may well have been discussed.

Until recently, the Maidan protesters maintained remarkable levels of discipline and organisation despite the growing regime violence, casualties and disappearances, some of it carried out by hired thugs (titushki), not regular police or security units. Opposition leaders like Klichko and Yatseniuk have consistently called for calm, but unsurprisingly, more militant groups have lately grown more prominent, some of them managing to acquire weapons.

The Kremlin's line since Stalin's day has been that western Ukrainians are all 'Fascists', and this hyperhole has been given undue prominence by poorly-informed Western commentators. If anti-Russian Ukrainians, many of whom would have lost relatives to the holodomor (Stalin's enforced mass starvation policy in Ukraine in the 1930s), are 'extremists', what is one to say of the unreconstructed Ukrainian Communists and Yanukovychites in the east demanding the protests simply be crushed?

In a conversation with the uncensored Maidan TV station Hromadske (Community), the eminent US historian of the region, Timothy Snyder, referred to this attempt to disqualify the protest movement as 'abuse of history'.

Now Yanukovych, Putin and the EU have an entrenched polarisation and  potential civil war on their hands, all essentially flowing from Putin's attempt to foist his own geopolitical dreams on the Ukrainian public, most of whom do not want his Customs Union. 

Recently, Moscow voices have begun talking of 'federalisation' projects, a theme taken up also by pro-Moscow groups in, for example, Crimea and Kharkiv. As it has done elsewhere, the Kremlin may support breakaway pro-Russian enclaves and proclaim an obligation to protect 'fellow countrymen' it has liberally issued with Russian passports. Any such manoeuvres with a large country like Ukraine would be far more destabilising than similar tactics in Georgia.

What's needed, ideally, is fresh elections, hopefully yielding a new, competent and legitimate leadership with the wisdom to rule for both ends of the country. An EU-US economic package with enough noughts to compete with Putin's offer and a renewed IMF support deal would also be highly desirable, if not essential.

It's hard to be optimistic about any of this. Until recently the US leadership has been focused elsewhere, and many influential EU leaders believe Russia is best not provoked, and Ukraine is a basket case they should shrewdly avoid taking on.  They seem to view the emergence of a Putinist anti-Western empire flush on their borders with remarkable equanimity.

The EU's responses so far have tended to be too little, too late. With the Sochi Olympics out of the way, and given his conviction that the West is in terminal decline, President Putin may be prepared to throw some more weight around to win the battle for Kyiv.

You may also be interested in