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Kiev’s Russian Roulette

13 minute read

The cast of characters competing to decide Ukraine’s future could come from a fairy tale, or maybe an operetta: the blond, braided beauty freed from prison by people power; the heavyweight boxing champion turned protest leader; the thuggish President, now ousted, whose hidden estate included a personal menagerie of ostriches and peacocks; the billionaire confectionery mogul, known as the “chocolate king,” who cast his lot with the revolution; the Baptist pastor who had the reins of power pressed, temporarily, into his hands. The protesters themselves range from starry-eyed young idealists wielding modern instruments of dissent, like cell-phone cameras and Twitter accounts, to radical thugs brandishing older implements, like hunting rifles and Molotov cocktails.

But waiting in the wings is perhaps the most important character of all, the man who could decide where the story goes next: Vladimir Putin.

It is tempting to imagine Russia’s President as wounded by the ouster of his Ukrainian ally, Viktor Yanukovych. The protesters in Kiev’s Independence Square didn’t simply remove a corrupt leader. They explicitly rejected the political values Putin has championed on his side of the border in favor of a West European democratic model. This allows his critics, at home and abroad, to hold out hope for a similar uprising in Moscow, where political dissent, symbolized by the punk rockers of Pussy Riot, churns under the surface of state-enforced calm. “If I were Vladimir Putin … I’d be a little nervous,” U.S. Republican Senator John McCain said on CBS’s Face the Nation. “Because the people of Russia have watched this transpire, and they’re tired of the crony capitalism and kleptocracy that governs Russia today.”

On Feb. 24, the day after the triumphant closing ceremony of the Sochi Olympics, several hundred protesters gathered outside a central Moscow courthouse to demonstrate against the sentencing of eight anti-Putin activists; police arrested more than 400 people, a large number by Russian standards. It wasn’t enough to give Putin pause: the same day, his government re-arrested the Pussy Riot members it had released just before the Sochi Games. But even small eruptions of dissent at home must trouble a leader whose dream of establishing a Soviet-lite Eurasian Union–a loose confederation Putin hoped would rival the European Union, creating more formal economic ties between regional allies including Russia, Belarus, Armenia and Kazakhstan–has just suffered an embarrassing blow.

Putin’s loss in Ukraine could be Barack Obama’s gain. The U.S. President once sought to “reset” relations with Russia but more recently has found Putin a strategic rival on international issues like Syria and Iran as well as a personal antagonist who has critiqued Obama’s policies and harbored the former NSA contractor and whistle-blower Edward Snowden. “This is an opportunity for the President to really be unequivocal with Putin,” U.S. Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte told Fox News. “It’s time to reset the reset.”

But to turn the screws on Putin, Obama may have to assume more risk than he is willing to accept. Ukraine comes with a huge price tag, thanks to a succession of corrupt and inept governments that have left its economy in need of an estimated $35 billion by the end of this year to avoid bankruptcy. Neither Obama nor the E.U. is willing to dole out any largesse and instead urge Ukraine to borrow from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). That money would come with stiff terms, like the removal of subsidies, which would spark new protests against Yanukovych’s successor. If the Arab Spring has taught us anything, it is that the public square is fickle. (Yanukovych himself was denied office after a fraudulent vote by the 2004 street protests known as the Orange Revolution, only to be voted back into power little more than five years later.) Although at least 80 protesters died during the violence in Kiev, Obama’s appetite for involvement in the crisis will also be limited by the absence of a direct U.S. interest in the outcome–or at least one that he can easily explain to the American voter.

Putin, on the other hand, wants to own the Ukraine problem, and he is willing to pay the price. He has already agreed to give Kiev $15 billion in soft loans as well as cheap natural gas but has frozen the deal while the post-Yanukovych struggles play out. Should Ukraine’s next leader be to Moscow’s satisfaction, the purse strings will swiftly be loosened. And should Putin care to explain it to his voters, it’s an easy sell: a pro-West Ukraine would be anathema to most Russians, much as Americans would recoil at a pro-Russian Canada.

The Russian leader has been remarkably silent on Ukraine, but Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the street protests as the work of Western-backed “extremists” and “radicals.” Moscow has also played up concerns for the safety of ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine, especially on the Crimean Peninsula, a Russian territory until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev attached it to Ukraine in 1954. Pro-Russian politicians in Crimea have called on Moscow for protection from the same “fascists.”

Such alarm raising is reminiscent of the run-up to Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, which Putin framed as Moscow riding to the rescue of Russians in the enclave of South Ossetia. In Ukraine, Putin’s forces wouldn’t have a long distance to travel. The Russian navy has a massive base in Sevastopol, on the Black Sea, and on Feb. 26, Putin ordered military exercises near the border to prepare for a potential “crisis situation.”

Scramble for Spoils

Kiev is now in a state of Barely contained chaos, and it’s unclear who will assume control. Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a woman Yanukovych jailed on dubious charges but who is a deeply divisive figure among Ukrainians, is now free and is said to be mulling a run for President in elections set for May 25. Another likely candidate: Vitali “Dr. Ironfist” Klitschko, the former heavyweight boxing champion, whose appeal in a country with a discredited political class may lie in the fact that he’s a neophyte. There’s also talk of a government role for chocolate king Petro Poroshenko, who made his fortune in confectioneries but has recently served as Trade and Foreign Affairs Minister and won admirers for joining the protests in Kiev. The dark horse in the race for power is the ultra-nationalist Dmitro Yarosh, leader of the revolution’s militant wing, who is now preparing for a career in politics.

Meanwhile, a patched-together government headed by Baptist pastor turned interim President Oleksandr Turchinov is trying to restore order before the elections while a multitude of reformers, nationalists, secessionists and corrupt politicians fight for their own interests. Turchinov has already warned against the threat of Crimean separatism, convening a meeting of security chiefs to discuss the anti-Kiev protests on the peninsula. If a referendum were held, the Russian ethnic majority would likely choose an alliance with Moscow and independence from the rest of Ukraine. But the interim government must balance the fear of a Russian-engineered partition with the very real likelihood of financial collapse. “Ukraine is now in a pre-default condition and sliding into the abyss,” Turchinov warned in an open letter to the people.

Help is being offered from the West, but with heavy strings attached. IMF boss Christine Lagarde says the fund will help Ukraine if it “wants to actually undertake a reform of its economy,” a vow the country’s leaders have made repeatedly but never observed. Yanukovych turned away from the E.U. during negotiations in November in part because he feared the austerity measures required in exchange for aid would torpedo his prospects for re-election.

But there’s also the nettlesome question of whether the E.U. really wants Ukraine in its orbit–the dream for which protesters in Kiev fought, died and bled. The debt-laden economies of European countries like Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland nearly brought down the E.U. Some Ukrainians wonder why Russia or the West would even want to take on another basket case. “Ukraine is now a ruined country, a charity case,” says Anatoly Ponomaryov, a retired major general of the Soviet air force, who heads a local veterans’ association in Sevastopol. “Why would Russia take that burden on its shoulders? Same with Europe. It’ll be a headache lasting decades.”

Eastern Anxieties

Ukrainians are divided into two distinct political camps, broadly along ethnic and linguistic lines. The industrial east, the engine of the nation’s economy, is filled mainly with Russian speakers, many of them still nostalgic for the days of the Soviet empire. The agrarian northwest is composed mainly of Ukrainian speakers influenced in their culture and politics by Poland and Eastern Europe, who are at best suspicious of Russian intentions toward their country.

The revolutionaries of Independence Square were mostly westerners, and many of the police ranged against them were from the east. For the victors, Yanukovych’s ouster represents triumph and hope for integration into Western Europe, which they see as the silver bullet that will fix Ukraine’s culture of economic corruption and political thuggery. That’s why Anastasia Monzhara, 24, a store clerk, joined the protests in December: Yanukovych’s embrace of Russia, she says, was retrograde. “People got used to the idea that we were moving forward in a new direction, toward Europe finally, not backward again to Russia,” she says.

For many easterners, even those who were no fans of Yanukovych, the collapse of his government represents tragedy and threat. Born and raised in Sevastopol, Vlad Roditelev, 21, joined the police force in 2012. When the government called reinforcements to Kiev in December, he considered the assignment a noble calling. Russian TV networks popular in Sevastopol were calling the revolutionaries Western-funded Nazi sympathizers, pointedly reminding viewers that nationalist fighters in Ukraine’s west initially sided with German invaders in World War II, believing the Nazis would grant their country independence from Russia. “I felt pride,” Roditelev says. “We were protecting our city from fascists.”

What he saw from his side of the barricades reinforced that narrative. The protesters often carried the black-and-red flag of the Ukrainian nationalist movement, and neo-Nazi imagery–a variant of the Celtic cross, or the number 88–cropped up too. Roditelev was reminded of Russia’s antigovernment protests in 2011–12, which were swiftly stamped out. “Putin keeps everything under control,” Roditelev says. “In Russia you’ll get thrown in jail for waving a fascist flag. But here it’s all allowed.”

The triumph of the protesters has left Roditelev despondent as he braces for retribution. “Now they’ll choose a new prosecutor general, and then what? They can come after all of us.” It is time, he says, to close ranks around his own, the ethnic Russian majority of Sevastopol. “It’s a civil war now,” he says. “We just have to defend our own city. The country is lost.”

If it does come to civil war, Crimeans know where they can turn for help. On Feb. 19, three days before Yanukovych fled, Tatyana Yermakova, a prominent pro-Russian activist in Sevastopol, sent an urgent plea for help to Moscow. The email was addressed to Putin, his Minister of Defense and the chairman of the defense committee in Russia’s parliament. Yermakova, 59, warned of civil war, nefarious NATO intervention and even genocide. “On behalf of the residents of the city of Sevastopol,” she wrote, “we appeal to Russia with a request to intervene in the unfolding situation and come to the defense of the Russian population of the Crimea.”

Will Putin ride to Yermakova’s rescue? The Obama Administration thinks it likely enough that National Security Adviser Susan Rice issued a warning on Feb. 23: it “would be a grave mistake,” she said, one that could become a full-blown international crisis. But some analysts believe Putin has no interest in seeing a nasty civil war next door, one that could set a precedent for separatist movements within his own borders in places like Chechnya. “It is very much Putin’s preference to keep Ukraine together,” says Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Try telling that to Yermakova, though. She clutches a bullhorn at a rally she organized on Feb. 22 in Sevastopol’s central square. “This is Russian land. Russia doesn’t even need to invade. They’re already right here,” she says, pointing in the direction of the frigates and submarines stationed at the naval base. By some estimates, there are more than 13,000 Russian naval personnel in Sevastopol.

Time on His Side

Putin has other weapons at his disposal that may prove far more effective than warships and soldiers. Chief among them are time and geography. “If you take the short-term view, the situation is of course very unstable,” says Andrei Klimov, a Russian diplomat who has been involved in talks with the E.U. over Ukraine. “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 decades, that tradition will live on.”

Whoever rules Ukraine next, and whatever the level of support he or she can get from the West, there will be no turning away from Russia. The countries share a 1,426-mile (2,295 km) border. Russia is Ukraine’s biggest trading partner and the source of much of its energy. An angry Moscow could bring Ukraine to its knees by choking its gas exports to drive up prices, as it did in 2009. Putin could also permanently cut off financial aid.

Or he could simply sit back and watch Ukraine’s opposition leaders pull one another apart in public, as they have so often in the past. The figure most likely to cause friction is Yarosh, leader of Pravy Sektor, a coalition of right-wing ultra-nationalist groups, many of which openly call for violence toward members of the old regime and pro-Russian “occupiers.” While he jockeys for a key role in a new government, his fighters are manning checkpoints around Kiev and guarding its government quarter, including the secret-police building. If Yarosh hates Russia, he has no love for Europe either. “On the whole, I do not favor any processes of integration,” he says. “We no longer want to be the plaything of geopolitics. For the last two decades, we have been kicked around like a football from the West to the East. We’ve had enough.”

But there will be much more kicking to come after Russia and the West have sized each other up and calculated their options. For now they’re mainly trading insults and innuendo–and if the rhetoric is more intense in Moscow than in Washington or any West European capital, that’s because the stakes are so much higher for Russia. “The Russians are prepared to go to the mat on this in a way that we just aren’t,” says Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. “We do not have the political will or the attention span.” Not so in Moscow. “Putin takes the long view,” says Klimov, the Russian diplomat.

At least the two sides are still talking. On Feb. 21, Obama called Putin for what one senior U.S. official described as an hour-long “constructive and workmanlike conversation.” But should Ukraine fall deeper into crisis, the conversation may yet turn to confrontation. Putin won’t remain in the wings much longer.

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