Russian interests down but not out in tumultuous Ukraine

Uprising toppled pro-Russian government, but chaos and economic crisis could steer new government into Russia's hands

A bus driver adjusts the Ukrainian and Russian flags on the windshield of his bus in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine.
Darko Bandic/AP

With Ukraine's Russian-backed former President Viktor Yanukovich on the lam and the capital city, Kiev, under fragile opposition control, Russia has lost a key battle in what many view as President Vladimir Putin’s modern-day Cold War to stave off Western encroachment in the region.

As the gateway for the nearly 30 percent of Europe’s natural gas supply that comes from the Russian energy giant Gazprom, and a major trading partner to Russia, Ukraine was the linchpin in a Kremlin-led customs union that sought to draw former Soviet states back into Russia’s sphere of influence. But mass protests erupted in November after Yanukovich signaled support for that alliance and rejected a conflicting European offer of association.

“Russia views Ukraine as a geopolitical fight with the West. It's the top concern on Russia's foreign policy agenda,” said Wojciech Kononczuk, with the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw and a visiting scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. 

But as Ukraine slides into chaotic instability just days after mass protests forced Yanukovich out of power amid calls for greater European integration, Russia understands that the war for Kiev is far from lost.

Ukraine's finance minister on Monday revealed that the country needs $35 billion to avoid economic collapse, and all week thousands of protesters on both sides of Ukraine's east-west divide continued to clash in tense standoffs around the country.

Analysts say Russia could be poised for an abrupt resurgence of influence in the former Soviet state if it can capitalize on Ukraine’s dire straits by leveraging its economic clout and the separatist aspirations of Ukraine’s pro-Russian contingent.

“The Kremlin wants some revenge, so there is no doubt Russia will do something," said Kononczuk.

On Wednesday, Putin highlighted that prediction in fearmongering fashion, ordering a test of combat readiness for Russian troops along the country’s central and western borders. The exercise underlined fears that Russia might go so far as to stage a military intervention in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian sentiment is strongest.

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Though the Kremlin has vehemently denied any possibility of military intervention, tensions are understandably high. Upheaval in Kiev — termed a democratic revolution by its supporters — presents a twofold challenge to Russian foreign and domestic policy not seen since Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004 briefly turned the country away from Moscow before collapsing. 

As it did in 2004, Ukraine has shunned long-standing ties with Russia, which many activists accuse of meddling in domestic Ukrainian affairs. But Ukraine has also moved to restore democratic freedoms in this latest revolution, and in doing so leapfrogged past Russia in that department. Russia’s political dissidents could find inspiration in Ukraine’s protesters and attempt to shake off Putin’s authoritarian stranglehold, analysts say. 

“Putin is always looking for lessons from history,” said Clifford Gaddy, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the co-author of “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin." “So the idea that a precedent of street protests — or any sort of extraparliamentary action — is an infection that can spread is something he is taking very seriously.”

But the opportunity for Putin to rectify the anti-Russian streak in Ukraine on two levels is also apparent.

For one, Russia might be best equipped to bail Ukraine out of its economic crisis. As Ukraine’s most important trading partner, Russia buys nearly a quarter of its exports — valued at about $17.6 billion annually. It's a relationship that has bolstered ties between Russia and Ukraine’s industrialized east even further. Last fall, on the eve of the uprising, the Kremlin struck a deal with Yanukovich to reduce gas prices for Ukraine and promised a debt relief package of $15 billion, widely viewed as a move to pressure Ukraine into joining the customs union and to shun a conflicting offer from the European Union.

That deal will be honored, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on Monday, though his ambiguity about the future suggested things could change if Ukraine’s new government is hostile toward Russia. The agreement "has concrete time periods for implementation. What will happen after these expire is a question for discussion with the leadership of Ukrainian companies and the Ukrainian government, if one emerges there," Medvedev told Reuters.

Ukraine will undoubtedly explore its options for debt relief in the West, but previous International Monetary Fund offers have carried undesirable stipulations. And there is no indication that the United States, despite Ukraine’s pleadings, will have the impetus to pass billions in debt relief through Congress. Ironically, Russia may be the new Kiev government's only lifeline.

Analysts also suspect Putin may seek to drive a wedge along Ukraine’s separatist divide, fears that were exacerbated by Wednesday's military exercise. As Ukraine's new leaders wrangle to construct an interim government by Thursday, speculation has already begun that the price for failure in Kiev could be a civil war that splits the country in two — between the pro-European west and the Russian-speaking east.

The Kremlin has large pockets of support in the east and south, where pro-Russian protests have erupted. Nowhere is that support stronger than in the Crimean Peninsula, a semiautonomous region of 2 million people — 60 percent of whom are ethnic Russian — that juts into the Black Sea.

On Tuesday, Sevastopol, the peninsula’s largest city, elected a Russian citizen as its mayor and replaced the Ukrainian flag atop the City Council building with a Russian one. On Wednesday, thousands of demonstrators from the two sides of Ukraine’s divide faced off in competing rallies on the peninsula.

It is unclear exactly how Russia might leverage that influence in Crimea — or in the broader pro-Russian half of Ukraine, for that matter — but last week, an unidentified Russian government official added fuel to the separatist fire by telling the Financial Times that if war broke out, Ukraine “will lose Crimea first (because) we will go in and protect (it), just as we did in Georgia,” when Russia intervened on behalf of the South Ossetian separatist movement in the former Soviet state.

Sevastopol is also the site of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, and therefore an opportune launching point for a Russian intervention.

But Putin is a pragmatist at heart, and some analysts believe he will be cautionary with regard to Ukraine — contrary to the pervading narrative that he is pursuing some grand imperialist scheme to restore the Soviet Union.

For their part, Russian officials have explicitly ruled out military intervention in Ukraine and insisted Russia would stay a “noninterventionist” course in the country, despite their repeated calls for the opposition "extremists" to end their “armed mutiny."

When queried about Wednesday’s military exercises close to the Ukrainian border, Valentina Matvienko, the speaker of the upper chamber in the Russian parliament and a Putin ally, said the prospect of military intervention in Ukraine “was impossible.”

"We are for Ukraine as a united state, and there should be no basis for separatist sentiments,” she said, echoing similar statements from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Gaddy of the Brookings Institution takes such statements at face value, saying that Putin’s policy in Ukraine has in fact been more defensive than imperialist. Even the customs union, he said, was a defensive economic maneuver in response to the global economic crisis and the more prolonged eurozone crisis.

“I don’t think Putin looks at Ukraine as a prize to be won. He sees the events in Ukraine as instigated by the West, an orchestration by Europe and the U.S. to trap Russia into a situation where it’s forced to hurt itself,” he said. 

“My guess is that he doesn’t have a grand strategy for how to deal with Ukraine — he’s going to play this by ear, and be careful not to get lured into doing something counterproductive. If he’s forced into a more overt, coercive intervention, that will be a defeat for him.”

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