TIME Viewpoint

Russia’s Game in Ukraine

Rising tension Pro-Russian protesters storm a regional police building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Horlivka
Rising tension Pro-Russian protesters storm a regional police building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Horlivka Alexey Kravtsov—AFP/Getty Images

Putin does not want to risk a takeover. But he does want another pliant leader in Kiev

Earlier this month, as residents of Kiev celebrated the opening of an annual festival of French culture and, days later, the start of one of the country’s largest book fairs, their compatriots in the eastern Ukrainian city of Lugansk were on edge. Armed pro-Russian separatists had seized a regional security-service building and reportedly taken more than 50 people hostage. Though the hostage situation was resolved, there were other instances of separatists causing trouble near the country’s eastern borders with Russia, as the Kremlin began to exert pressure beyond Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula it seized in March.

Moscow might deny a role in stoking the unrest, but the fear inside Ukraine was that the tensions in Lugansk and elsewhere in the east would be followed up by a wholesale influx of Russian troops, tens of thousands of whom remain massed at the border. But that did not happen—or at least, it hasn’t happened yet.

Why? Perhaps Russia was put off by the re­inforcements that appeared on the Ukrainian side—Moscow would prefer a Crimea-style takeover, instead of risking a bloody fight, even one that it would be likely to win, given its relative military strength—or maybe it was simply posturing, geared to keep Ukraine preoccupied as Kiev tries to get on with the important business of holding national elections and restructuring its struggling economy. Whatever the Kremlin and Russian President Vladimir Putin might be planning next, one thing seems clear: Moscow wants Kiev to know that an attack is possible at any moment.

We know this not only because of the troops at the border, or the separatists whipping up trouble inside Ukraine, but also because of the goings-on inside Russia, where it seems that every last nationalist is being encouraged to visit Lugansk, Donetsk and other cities in eastern Ukraine to take part in pro-Moscow demonstrations.

In mid-April, there was further unrest in Sloviansk, where a Ukrainian policeman was killed in a battle with armed separatists. Problems with pro-Russian gunmen also arose in other parts of the east, the country’s industrial heartland.

Besides fear, the developments have also sparked black humor. One story doing the rounds concerns the town of Alchevsk in the Lugansk region, where, it is said, some 150 not very sober people got together for a demonstration, proudly waving French flags instead of Russian ones—an easy mistake to make for outsiders, what with the colors being the same. But there is nothing funny about a crowd of around 2,000 people storming public buildings—which is what happened in Donetsk in early April.

In Crimea, meanwhile, a Russian sergeant shot an unarmed Ukrainian officer who was preparing to transfer to a Ukrainian base on the mainland. No charges have been filed against the sergeant.

All of the above underlines the fact that Russia is not content with annexing Crimea, nor will it simply sit back and allow ordinary Ukrainians to choose a new leader in the upcoming presidential election planned for May 25.

That does not mean Putin wants to seize the whole country. The risks of bloodshed and a more serious—and economically ruinous—confrontation with the West are too great for the Kremlin to march on Kiev. That said, the recent troubles in the east suggest that Putin is not about to let go of Ukraine and walk away either. For Moscow, the goal is another pro-Russian government in Kiev, giving it clout over a former Soviet state without the risks attached to a full-scale military invasion.

Against this backdrop, the May presidential election will be critical in determining what happens next in Ukraine. If the interim government in Kiev can hold a free and fair election, with the new government winning a mandate from the eastern regions, Putin will not be able to continue calling Viktor Yanukovych the country’s “legitimate” President. A successful vote will force Putin to reconsider his strategy. But if Russia succeeds in disrupting the polls, Ukraine would face the prospect of greater unrest.

Kurkov is a Ukrainian writer and the author of the critically acclaimed novel Death and the Penguin

TIME Viewpoint

What the West Doesn’t Understand About Ukraine’s Politics

A demonstrator stands on a balcony overlooking Independence square in Kiev, Feb. 20, 2014 Bulent Kilic / AFP / Getty Images

Behind the divisions in today's Ukraine is a post-Soviet oligarchy rooted in the industrial East

American or European news broadcasts about Ukraine, sometimes even those involving specialists and political scientists, tend to include phrases like “In Ukraine there is a struggle between the Eastern pro-Russian part and the Western pro-European part of the country.” People hearing this could be forgiven for thinking Ukraine consists only of two regions: the West and the East, animated simply by their pro-European or pro-Russian views.

This cliché is nothing new and, indeed, 20 years ago it was a reasonably accurate picture of things. The far east of Ukraine had more affection for Moscow than it had for Kiev, while the West had no love for either Kiev or Moscow, considering itself self-sufficient and part of Europe. Western Ukraine, once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Poland, became part of the USSR only in 1939, unlike the East, which had long been a key source of Soviet industrial wealth, the site of mines, metal-working plants and barrack towns for the workers and their families who had come from all over the Soviet Union. There, almost all significant posts at the provincial, district and town levels were given to men and women from Russia or Soviet Ukraine.

In 1991, Ukraine celebrated the unexpected gift of independence. But in the East—in the coal-rich Donbass region—there was a frightened hush. While western Ukraine and other areas of the country happily started developing small businesses and embraced Ukrainian statehood, the East followed the model of post-Soviet Russia, with a criminal “carving up” of the region’s factories and the development of its own school of oligarchs driven first by a desire to keep Donbass for the use of the Donbass elite alone. In 2004, this elite decided to put forward its own candidate in the presidential election: Viktor Yanukovych.

Although his initial ascent to power was interrupted by the Orange Revolution, Donbass’s representative became the master of the whole country in 2010, and he repeated the policies of 1939.

Russian-speaking inhabitants of Donetsk, the largest city in Donbass, and surrounding mining towns were sent out to be chiefs of police, customs officials and heads of the justice system throughout the country. In Donetsk, a new joke went around: “The people of Donetsk are afraid to go out at night for fear of being grabbed and sent off to be a boss in some other region.” But the inhabitants of many other areas of Ukraine could find nothing to laugh at in the tough, unsmiling manner of their new bosses from Donbass.

The result was a complex national political picture—more complex than the simple division between East and West—and one that, I believe, defines Ukraine today.

Donbass became the shop floor and counting house of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, a place for coal mining, metal smelting and unimaginably corrupt schemes that allowed state funds and taxes from the region’s businesses to disappear into thin air. Civil society was strangled, and this densely populated area couldn’t produce a single public figure of national importance, not one writer who engaged with the most pressing issues of the day.

The central and western regions had less money but, free from an oligarchy, more ideas and discussion. They became the arts-and-humanities department of the country, with a more active civil society and nonpolitical public figures.

Then there was Crimea, the only area of the country with a large percentage of pro-Russian inhabitants, though there also exists in this region a fast increasing Crimean Tatar population, which is generally anti-Russian. To my mind, the central-southern area and Zakarpattia area make up another region, the commercial region, with seaports like Odessa and Mykolayiv and the tradition of cross-border commerce with Romania, Hungary and Slovakia. There you notice more ideas and more discussion; they too have no time for Donbass.

With these forces ranged against him, Yanukovych finally fled from Kiev. But it is too early for the opposition to celebrate victory. The surviving Donbass elite will try to reassert itself on the national arena once it has caught its breath.

Kurkov is a Ukrainian writer and the author of the critically acclaimed novel Death and the Penguin

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser