Vladimir Putin is very nervous – and not just because his cherished Olympic games may turn out to be a flop. For the last two months, ordinary Ukrainians have occupied the streets of the capital, Kiev, because their president, Viktor Yanukovych, backed down from signing an agreement in November that would have brought Ukraine and the European Union closer.
At that time, Yanukovych’s balk was hailed as a foreign policy victory for Putin after Russia threatened economic retaliation if Kiev initialed the agreement. Putin even gave Yanukovych a discount on Russian natural gas imports and what amounted to be a $15 billion loan. And now with Ukraine on the brink of civil war, it’s all blowing up in Putin’s face.
From the beginning, Moscow treated the possibility of Ukraine signing a so-called Association Agreement with the EU as a zero-sum game. While many in the West refuse to acknowledge it, Moscow was right.
Concluding an Association Agreement would have meant visa-free travel for Ukrainians to the EU as well as significant liberal governance and economic reforms that, over time, would deliver greater economic growth. This was concerning for Putin for two reasons. First, he needs Ukraine to make the Eurasian Сustoms Union, his answer to the EU, a reality. Second, the example of the second largest former Soviet republic, and “little brother” of Russia, charting a course distinct from Moscow (i.e. towards the West), may inspire Russians to demand the same thing. Yet, Putin is far too busy enriching himself and his friends and clamping down on dissent in Russia to be bothered with such ideas. Indeed, Konstantin Krylov, a Russian oppositionist, even compared bordering Russia with living next to a dump (pomoika).
And for these reasons, you can understand why most Ukrainians yearn for the EU Of course, to get the benefits that an Association Agreement would confer, but also to escape the shadow of Russia; to become a “normal” country. The reaction of ordinary Ukrainians to Yanukovych snubbing the EU (after a series of closed-door meetings with Putin) was swift and dramatic. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets, tired of living under the Russian model, whose most salient features include corruption, authoritarianism and economic stagnation.
Yanukovych’s repeated attempts to disperse protesters who had set up camp in central Kiev only added fuel to the fire. He took a page straight out of Putin’s playbook when he transported paid thugs into the capital to beat up protesters and incite the crowd to violence, kidnapped and even murdered protest leaders and illegally rammed a bill through the Ukrainian parliament which threatened citizens with stiff punishments for participating in protests. One article in this bill threatened protesters with 10 days in jail for wearing helmets (worn to soften the blow from police batons), while another made it illegal to drive in columns of more than five cars.
Today, the protests have spread outside of Kiev and protesters occupy numerous government buildings, including federal ministries. Yanukovych is quickly backpedaling, offering concession after concession to the protesters, but it may be too late as they now have inflated their demands to include snap presidential and parliamentary elections. It is reported that senior Ukrainian law enforcement officials have already left the country, while Yanukovych has abruptly taken a sick leave.
Moscow is reeling. Since the protests began, Russian state television channels have deliberately misrepresented them, labeling the protesters “fascists.” And recently, an aide to Putin, Sergei Glazyev, publicly called on Yanukovych to “suppress the insurgency, which is provoked and financed by external forces [read ‘the West’].” Most disturbingly, there have been unconfirmed but persistent reports of Russian Special Forces “clandestinely involved in kidnappings, beatings and sniping” of Ukrainian protesters.
Only time will tell what will happen in Ukraine. However, one thing is certain: Putin has already lost. Even if Yanukovych were to regain his former power, it would require incredibly violent and repressive measures, discrediting himself and his Russian backers further (think Assad in Syria). Moreover, for the time being, Moscow is limited in what it can do with regard to Ukraine because of the Olympics.
The great irony is that while seemingly no one wants the EU anymore, many Ukrainians are willing to risk their lives just for a chance at membership. But if you read closer, the real impetus is their desire, once again, to throw off the Russian yolk that is holding Ukraine back.
The author is a Junior Fellow at the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies.