Moscow will be content to watch Ukraine's new revolutionary leaders succumb to factional infighting and the pressures of the country's basket-case economy
Vladimir Putin has been here before. A decade ago, when he was starting his second term as Russia’s President, a popular uprising broke out in Ukraine. It took no more than a few weeks to break the bond of centuries between the two biggest countries in Eastern Europe. The current revolution in Ukraine looks very different. Unlike the peaceful Orange Revolution, this one has been violent and has dragged on for months. But the questions it has forced Russia to ask are much the same: To what extent should we intervene? When do we cut our losses and accept Ukraine’s drift toward the West? What would we gain, and what would we risk, from using our military to regain control?
Then, as now, these questions have been hotly debated in Moscow. Then, as now, Moscow watched its ally, Viktor Yanukovych, get ousted by mass protests. Then, as now, the question of Crimea, an enclave of Russian nationalism in the south of Ukraine, looms large. But after the Orange Revolution, Russia did not send troops to defend Crimea. It did not even cordon off the city of Sevastopol, the home of Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet, on the southern tip of the Crimean Peninsula. Instead Russia decided to bide its time and wait for Ukraine to come back around, as it is now most likely to do again.
“If you take the short-term view, the situation is of course very unstable,” says Andrei Klimov, a Russian diplomat and lawmaker in Moscow. “But Russia and Ukraine have been a union — religious, political, economic, you name it — for a thousand years. And if you look at it from the perspective not of days but of decades, that tradition will live on. There’s no getting away from it.”
For the new revolutionary government, the first order of business has been to get as far away from that tradition as possible. Among the first bills it passed after seizing control of parliament last week revoked the rights of Ukraine’s regions to make Russian an official language alongside Ukrainian. More than 30 monuments to Vladimir Lenin, the founding father of the Soviet Union, have been toppled in the past week across Ukraine. The leader of Ukraine’s Communist Party, another relic of the Soviet past, had his house burned down on Monday night. But none of that will help Ukraine keep the forces of politics and economics from working in Russia’s favor.
Ukraine’s new government, which has now effectively taken control of the entire country except for Crimea, has many bad days ahead. The euphoria and camaraderie of the protest movement is already fading. Its leaders are taking off their body armor and putting on suits as they morph into bureaucrats and politicians. Tuesday marked the start of the presidential race in Ukraine, and it will force the brothers in arms against the old regime to compete for the formation of the new one.
This fight will not be pretty. With only three months to go before the May elections, there is no clear leader among the revolutionaries, and in the last round of polling conducted in December, the popularity of the likely presidential contenders was more or less evenly split. Their political views run the range from nationalists to liberals, and just about the only thing that united them over the past three months was their common hatred for the old regime. But now they will have to debate the issues, and as the history of fistfights in parliament shows, Ukrainian politics is a contact sport.
Whoever wins will then face the greatest challenge of all, Ukraine’s economy, an utter shambles that needs to be fixed soon to avoid a nasty chain reaction — a default on the national debt, a collapse in the currency value, galloping inflation, spiking prices of basic goods and, ultimately, a very angry populace. “So it’s quite possible that in a few months’ time we’ll see protests gathering outside the house of the current leaders [of the revolution],” Vladimir Oleynik, an outspoken member of the Yanukovych regime, told me recently. And he is right. After two successful uprisings in the past 10 years, Ukrainians have developed a taste for protest. They are great at it, and they will use their people power no matter who is in charge. (On Tuesday, the new leadership already had to postpone the process of forming a new government after protesters said the procedure was not sufficiently transparent.)
So what does all that mean for Russia? It means that to undermine Ukraine’s new leadership, the last thing Russia should do is send in troops. Nothing unites rival political forces like a common enemy, especially a foreign aggressor. Besides, any attack on Ukraine right now would raise the chances of a militantly anti-Russian candidate becoming the next President of Ukraine. So the gentle and accommodating tone of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday should not come as a surprise. During a visit to Luxembourg, Lavrov said Russia had “confirmed our principled position of nonintervention in Ukraine’s internal affairs.” He even suggested that Russia respected the European choice of the Ukrainian people: “We are interested in Ukraine being part of the European family, in all senses of the word,” Lavrov said.
None of this means that Russia will simply stand back and do nothing. Though its application of soft power is often ham-handed, it is no stranger to the craft, and it is already using various measures to pile more pressure on Ukraine’s economy. “The new authorities in Ukraine have canceled the status of the Russian language in the regions and then complain that they have no money in their coffers,” the Russian diplomat and lawmaker Alexei Pushkov tweeted on Sunday. “Let them turn to their Western patrons.”
Going forward, that will likely be the only place Ukraine can turn for financial help. The West has promised to help compensate for the $15 billion loan that Russia gave Ukraine in December and then revoked in January. But Ukraine’s interim government said this week it needs $35 billion to avoid defaulting on its debt, a figure likely to strain the charity of its Western partners. And Russia seems intent on making that strain as intense as possible.
Most recently, on Tuesday, Russia’s state food-safety watchdog announced that it would not be able to certify pork imports from Ukraine, citing the risk of African swine fever among Ukrainian pigs. That added pig farming to the growing list of industries — from chocolate to heavy machinery — that are calling on their leaders to make Russia open the borders to trade. Particularly in the East of Ukraine, the country’s economic engine, that trade underwrites thousands of businesses and millions of jobs.
These Russian-speaking regions are some of the country’s most populous. “They are a major political force that cannot be written off,” says Vladimir Litvin, the former speaker of Ukraine’s parliament who now heads a minority faction sympathetic to the revolution, though not directly involved. “If their economic woes continue, the ones taking the blame will now be the new leaders, and it won’t be easy for them to deal with that growing unrest.”
In the pro-Russian outpost of Crimea, many of the locals are already calling for a Russian intervention, but officials in Moscow have so far been careful not to stoke any expectations. Even the notion of handing out Russian passports to Crimean citizens was “a question too subtle” to address without “special preparations” from the Kremlin, said Leonid Slutsky, who heads a parliamentary committee in charge of relations with former Soviet states. “We should not approach such processes, which may cause extremely strong reactions, including in Kiev, in a poorly thought-out manner,” he added. “Ukraine is like a gunpowder barrel, and any provocations could lead to bloodshed,” Slutsky reportedly said.
In December, when Ukraine’s uprising had not yet turned into a violent insurrection, Putin was asked whether it was even hypothetically possible for Russia to send in troops to defend the Crimea. His answer was unequivocal. “None of this means that we are going to go in there and wave our saber around and send in our troops,” he said at his annual year-end press conference. “That’s total rubbish. That is not happening and cannot happen.”
Nor does it need to happen in order for Russia’s fortunes in Ukraine to improve. Putin knows that from experience. After the Orange Revolution first turned Ukraine away from Russia in 2004, it took less than a year for the leaders of that revolt to turn on one another. Their bickering led to five years of political gridlock and economic stagnation, and by 2010, the people of Ukraine grew so fed up that they voted into power the very man the Orange Revolution had overthrown — Yanukovych.
Now history is repeating itself. Yanukovych has again been overthrown, and Ukraine is again veering sharply toward the West. But there is little reason to think Putin will act any differently this time. His current term as Russia’s President only runs out in 2018, and after that, he will legally be able to stay in office at least until 2024. Within that time frame, Ukraine’s revolution may wind up looking like a temporary setback, albeit a dramatic one, in Russia’s dream of gluing its old Soviet alliances back together. As history shows, Putin is a patient man, and he has plenty of time to wait and watch.