Last week Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych returned to work after a four-day sick leave that he took in the middle of a major crisis in his country. According to Donald N. Jensen, resident fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, the two-month standoff between Yanukovich’s government and protestors is entering a decisive phase.

 

 

Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych’s political base, already diminished, deteriorated even further during his short absence last week, a sick leave that was widely interpreted as a political tactic to buy time. On Sunday, thousands of demonstrators gathered in Kiev, unintimidated by violent clashes with police, the kidnaping and torture of opposition leaders, and hundreds of injuries to demonstrators, all of which have occurred since protests began in late November. A few days earlier, the Kremlin suspended the $15 billion in assistance Yanukovych had been relying on to cover Ukraine’s basic expenses. Before his break, Yanukovych signed the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and the rest of the government in a failed effort to appease the opposition by offering them senior positions in Ukraine’s government.

There are signs that his support among the elites is also shrinking. On January 29, more than fifty legislators in his Party of Regions were willing to go against the president’s wishes and vote for unconditional amnesty for the demonstrators. But Yanukovych restored the shaky unity of his faction by threatening to declare martial law and disband the parliament. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s oligarchs, who have grown immensely wealthy under his rule, have been openly nervous about an uncertain future.

The political deadlock reflects the fundamental reality that Yanukovych’s corrupt, thuggish regime—which has been patterned after Russian president Vladimir Putin’s next door and through which the Ukrainian president has looted the country—has lost legitimacy and is no longer able to cope with the challenges facing the nation. Yanukovych’s options—limited by Kremlin preferences as well as the turmoil on the streets—thus appear to be narrowing to three unpleasant courses of action: bloody suppression of the protests; surrender of authority, which could mean he either leaves office or remains a greatly weakened figure as the opposition takes power and tries to move the country toward the European Union; or outright subservience to the Kremlin, his long-time patron, whose imperial appetite precipitated the crisis.

After months of skillful global diplomacy on Russia’s part, with countries ranging from Syria to Iran, many assumed that Moscow’s deft promise of a bailout in December would turn Ukraine away from the EU for good. But the Kremlin’s campaign to tie nearby Ukraine to itself more closely appears to have backfired, at least for now, as a result of inattention, miscalculation, and overconfidence. Russian leaders were surprised by the strength of the opposition to Yanukovych. Despite Russia’s significant influence in the country, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has admitted that events in Ukraine are “spinning out of control.” A statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry on February 3 said Moscow was concerned about the demonstrators’ attempts to “inflame the situation.”

Russian policymakers, as they did during the Orange Revolution in 2004, have failed to properly understand the growing alienation of Ukrainian society from its leaders, and the extent to which Ukrainian civil society has grown since 2004. Inexplicably, despite alternatives, the Kremlin continued to support Yanukovych, a man who was jailed as a teenager for pickpocketing, even after he began practicing his trade on the country he ruled. Moscow’s public reaction to the current crisis—beyond surprise and some confusion (last week the Kremlin delivered mixed messages about whether it would carry out the terms of the loan package before suspending it)—has thus far been to invent convenient scapegoats for the unexpected turn of events in Ukraine: Western interference; the rise of extremist elements; and separatist pressures. (In a recent article in the Russian press, for example, Nikolai Bordyuzha, General Secretary of Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), warned of the “great danger that external forces are increasingly interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign states.”)

The most likely scenarios at the moment—a compromise by Yanukovych, a compromise by the opposition, a crackdown, or chaos—would provide only short-term resolution to the standoff. None of them ensures stability.

The Kremlin has good reason to be alarmed. First, Ukraine’s future is strategically important to Russia. A Ukraine integrated into Europe guarantees there will be limits to Russian revanchism, a weakening of Russian influence on Poland and the Baltic States, and no de facto reconsolidation of the Soviet Union though schemes such as Putin’s Eurasian Union.

Second, if the protestors are successful in achieving their demands—including new elections and constitutional reform, in addition to closer ties with the EU—this would serve as encouragement to opposition forces within Russia (an especially alarming prospect for Putin, since in his public comments he does not admit that Ukraine is really a separate country).

Third, suppression of the Ukrainian protests would serve as a lesson to potentially wayward leaders in the former Soviet space, who, in the past few days, have indicated that they are watching the Ukraine events closely.

Finally, Yanukovych’s political fate is significant to Putin personally, since the Russian leader appears to have invested considerable political capital in the Ukrainian president. These considerations are so important to the Kremlin—not only to its strategic plans, but to its vision of what Russia is and the future of the Putin regime—that it is unlikely to agree to any settlement to the Ukraine crisis that promises over the medium to long term to remove the country from Moscow’s sphere of influence.

Russia will thus do anything it can to stop Ukraine’s move toward association with the European Union. (At an awards ceremony in Moscow on November 28, the day Ukraine passed on its chance to sign the EU association agreement in Vilnius, one of Putin’s advisors who was key in overseeing the struggle for Ukraine, Sergey Glazyev, was named “Person of the Year” for achieving the “return of Ukraine to a united economic space with Russia.”) Moscow is interested in stability in Ukraine, but on its own terms. On the one hand, an economically collapsed or politically unstable neighbor would be a drag on whatever form the reintegration of the post-Soviet space might take. On the other hand, Russia has powerful levers at its disposal to shape events. In addition to suspending tranches of the December bailout, Russia is able to:

  • Control gas shipments to Ukraine, (in the past few years, it has twice turned off the flow of gas to the country to force the hands of Ukrainian leaders);
  • Manipulate the price of gas to Ukraine’s fiscal disadvantage;
  • Arbitrarily impose trade restrictions on Ukrainian exports;
  • Flood Ukraine with television propaganda highlighting alleged Western interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs and the threat of fascism;
  • Infiltrate Ukrainian security forces to stage provocations that would discredit the opposition (there have been persistent but unsubstantiated reports of Russian special forces being involved in kidnappings, beatings, and even sniping against the Ukrainian opposition);
  • Stir up secessionist sentiment in ethnic Russian areas such as Crimea and Donetsk.

By all signs, the Kremlin also maintains a tight hold on Yanukovych. In a recent interview Glazyev called on Yanukovych to “defend Ukrainian statehood” and “put down the insurrection” or “risk losing power.” Whether he was referring to the threat from the streets or one from the Kremlin remains unclear.

At least three top Ukrainian officials surrounding Yanukovych have close ties to Moscow and provide insurance that Yanukovych will not stray too far from the Russian fold: oligarch Viktor Medvechuk, a friend of Putin (who is the godfather of his daughter) who led a campaign to reject the EU association agreement; Andrey Kluyev, the new presidential chief of staff, who reportedly pressed for a crackdown on the demonstrations in late January; and Mykola Azarov, the recently resigned prime minister. A recent press report claims that the business assets of Kluyev, Azarov, and Yanukovych are held via a network of lawyers in Austria with links to the Kremlin.

The most likely scenarios at the moment—a compromise by Yanukovych, a compromise by the opposition, a crackdown, or chaos—would provide only short-term resolution to the standoff. None of them ensures stability. The risks of further escalation of the political crisis, economic collapse, and Ukraine’s breakup will remain. All these scenarios, moreover, offer opportunities for Kremlin interference. According to press reports, some pro-Moscow analysts are pushing for Moscow to annex Ukraine’s eastern and southern areas, where the percentage of ethnic Russians is high.

“In fighting for Ukraine, after all,” James Sherr, a fellow at the Russian and Eurasian program at Chatham House (London), recently observed, “Mr. Putin is fighting for himself. No one knows how far he will go.” But Ukrainians will not settle lightly, he cautions: “The protest movement there is a reproach to anyone who believes that principles do not matter in international politics.”

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