TIME Viewpoint

Putin’s Other Games

Although focused on Sochi, the Russian President will fight to hold sway over Ukraine

On Feb. 7, Russia’s attention will turn to the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where President Vladimir Putin is hoping that Islamist terrorists don’t spoil the event he hopes will showcase to the world a dynamic and strong Russia. But even before the Games begin, Putin finds Russian strength and influence being severely tested on a daily basis a few hundred miles from the Olympic venue — in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic now torn between Russia and the E.U. What Putin decides to do in a nation he believes should remain in the Russian sphere of influence could have an impact on the region at least as lasting as whatever happens in Sochi.

The Ukrainian uprising, which began in earnest in November when President Viktor Yanukovych reneged on a partnership agreement with the E.U., has in recent days turned violent. Three protesters have died in clashes with security forces. The Prime Minister resigned on Jan. 28, but the protests against Yanukovych continued.

The pro-E.U. protesters in the frozen streets feel they have Yanukovych, who has thrown his lot in with Putin, on the run. But West-leaning Ukrainians have bitter experience of failed uprisings. In 2004, during the Orange Revolution, young people camping in the Kiev snow demanded a nation where the law was obeyed and elections were honest. Today, Ukraine is as corrupt and chaotic as ever.

The biggest danger looming over this crisis is the possibility of Russian military intervention. This came closer in 2004 than many people realize, but was averted by desperate international diplomacy. Ukraine is divided between a Ukrainian-speaking, nationalist West and an East that is mainly Russian speaking and looks to Moscow for support. If serious fighting breaks out between the two camps, Putin could send in Russian troops, as he did in Georgia in 2008.

The Russian President would likely justify his decision by manufacturing an “invitation” and saying he had an obligation to protect Russian citizens in the East and to secure the Russian naval base in Ukraine’s Crimea. But a Russian military intervention would be a catastrophe, reducing Ukraine to its Soviet-era status as a Russian dependency and shattering Europe’s plans for stability on its eastern flank.

The lack of maturity in Ukrainian politics has created a dangerous vacuum and increases the likelihood of such an intervention. Ukraine’s political parties and alliances of recent years have all been damaged by vicious personal rivalries and well-founded charges of corruption. Only the ultra-nationalist Freedom party, which won over 10% of the votes in the past election, has authentic roots in West Ukraine — but with its tradition of racialism, it is hardly a beacon of hope for Ukrainians seeking liberal-minded leadership and an alliance with the E.U.

And yet a new government, should the protesters topple Yanukovych and Ukraine’s opposition unite in a coalition, could find a path to safety. Three tasks stick out. The first is to convince the Russian-speaking East that the democratic revolution is in its interest too. The second might be to construct a double federal structure for East and West, leaving mainly Russian Crimea autonomous. Third, a new government in Kiev must modernize the archaic coal-and-steel economy of eastern Ukraine, which is currently kept alive by Russian purchases. And the huge workforce there must be assured that its living standards will be protected during the transition. With Ukraine virtually bankrupt, only E.U. — and perhaps American — support could enable a new government in Kiev to finance the program.

There is one E.U. country that can be of particular help in bringing about a peaceful end to the crisis: Poland. Ukraine’s neighbor has a bitterly bought insight into Russian motives. Putin knows this, and is uneasy about Poland’s strong influence over the states along Russia’s western border. The Poles must persuade him not to crush Ukraine, and not to drive Russian imperial power up to the frontier of the E.U.

Brussels, even though it has been shunned for now, should keep repeating to Ukrainians that the door is still open. But E.U. entry must not happen before Ukraine is firmly on the track to democracy and the rule of law — and united in resistance to Putin’s economic and political blackmail. And only the Ukrainian people can bring that about.

Ascherson was for many years the Observer’s correspondent in Eastern Europe

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