Why Putin Is Losing Ukraine
By Stewart Pollock
Last year, in an article discussing Ukraine’s worsening economy and dubious credit rating, I noted that “Ukraine has never been a country known for the stability of its political institutions or the accountability of its leaders.” At the time, there were fears that the “kleptocratic” government of President Viktor yanukovich lacked the necessary legitimacy to implement reforms in Ukraine’s economy. Now, it looks like bad credit is the least of Yanukovich’s worries.
The turmoil gripping the streets of Kiev is moving so rapidly that it has become all but impossible to predict what course events take next. What started as protests against Yanukovich’s government backing out of a trade deal with the European Union has rapidly evolved into a civil insurrection, as a vast coalition of protesters continue to square off with riot police in Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square). The images coming out of “Euromaidan” paint a surreal picture: grey phalanxes of riot police advance on Molotov-throwing rioters, while pop star Ruslana sings the Ukrainian national anthem to a crowd armed with cell phones and orange-blue flags. With Yanukovich pursuing a bipolar course, alternately denouncing and attempting to reason with the protesters, the situation does not appear to be cooling off. The dismissal of Nikolai Azarov, the quiet Prime Minister, seems to have had little effect on the protesters, who are gunning for Yanukovich himself.
So what is the underlying cause of these protests? The most superficial answer, and the one most circulated by the media, is that Ukrainians are sick of their president putting his own interests above those of the country. Instead of signing a deal that would move Ukraine closer to the EU, meaning more open-borders, reasonable regulation, and accountability, the president instead caved to pressure from Vladimir Putin, accepting aid from Russia in exchange for rejecting the EU’s offer. There is a great deal of truth to that, but it does not quite reach the heart of Ukraine’s current crisis, and the deep and strange links between that exists between Yanukovich and Mr. Putin.
Viktor Yanukovich is often cast as a Putin-style autocrat, mixing cynical nationalism with crony capitalism to create a potent political formula for the post-Soviet era. But in practice, the two men and their ideologies are very different. Putin, a former KGB agent, is a product of the Soviet system, acutely aware of the need to maintain a strong public image. Although his various publicity stunts over the years—riding a horse shirtless in Siberia, leading a flock of endangered cranes in a hang glider, and most recently, “unearthing” an ancient Greek urn while diving in the Black Sea—may seem absurd to many westerners, they are all carefully calculated to appeal to public sentiment, both at home and abroad. Controversies western critics often point to, such as the imprisonment of the Pussy Riot protest group and homophobic “anti-propaganda” laws, have done little to dent Putin’s popularity in Russia. As of December, 68 percent of Russians support- ed him and his United Russia Party; their closest opposition, the Communists, only garnered roughly 11 percent. Compared with his immediate predecessor, the bumbling, embarrassing, and economically inept Boris yeltsin, Putin is seen as competent and professional.
By contrast, Viktor Fedorovich Yanukovich is a product of Ukraine’s messy post-Soviet era and has never made much of an effort to hide this fact. An ethnic Russian, Yanukovich originally came from Donetsk Oblast, in the far eastern region of Ukraine, where he was a petty criminal and later a mechanical engineer. After serving as a regional governor for six year, Yanukovich was appointed Prime Minister in 2002. He ran for president two years later, but his party’s boldfaced attempt at election fraud resulted in a series of peaceful protests—the Orange Revolution— and the eventual election of his rival, the more west- friendly Viktor Yuschenko. Notably, the vote was along clear regional lines—the west favored Yuschenko, but Yanukovich still commanded broad support in his eastern heartland, where Russian is widely spoken and support for EU membership is much lower than in the west. In 2010, when faults emerged within the coalition government between Yuschenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, Yanukovich struck back. Now Tymoshenko is in prison, and yushchenko, his faced scarred in an alleged poisoning attempt, is out of power and has a popular- ity rating of around ten percent. Meanwhile, government jobs have been doled out to Yanukovich’s political cronies, mainly from his native Donetsk region. The name of this group, “The Family” reflects the widespread perception by yanukovich’s critics that the man is little more than a Mafia Don, whose interests are totally divorced from the country he rules.
It’s easy to see why the streets of Kiev are in flames while those of Moscow and St. Petersburg (and so far, Sochi) remain relatively quiet. Yanukovich is a master of political mudslinging and creating division, while Putin is effective at presenting an image of a united Russia. Both men are often described as nationalists, but I think this label is misleading in both cases. yanukovich is more than happy to exploit regional tensions in Ukraine, especially between the “European” west and “Russian” east, but this strategy has serious limits—half the country hates him, and the support of the other half, already dwindling, remains highly conditional on his ability to negotiate economic aid with Russia. The “true” Ukrainian nationalists like the far-right Svoboda party see Yanukovich as a pawn of the Kremlin, as well as western and Jewish interests. They are more likely to be found in Maidan, doing their best to subvert or hijack the legitimate protesters.
Putin, for his part, has tried to cast himself as a moderate balancing Russia’s self-interest as well as a more assertive foreign policy on one hand, with the need to present a relatively non-threatening face to the West (and East) on the other. To accomplish this, he has consistently followed the tried-and-true strategy of pointing out all the extremist bogeymen that he is singlehandedly holding at bay. On the right is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a bombastic populist who makes Pat Buchanan look like Joe Lieberman. Even further to the right are a thuggish assortment of neo-Nazis and Slavic nationalists who happily emulate the ideology which killed twenty million of their countrymen. A more legitimate danger to which Putin can point are the Islamic radicals operating from Chechnya and Dagestan, who last month killed 34 people in Volgograd and who have waged a guerilla campaign in the caucuses during the lead up to the Sochi Olympics. His tough and plain faced rhetoric, calling for all terrorists to be “destroyed” plays well with Russians who have endured decades of marginalization.
Putin is not above vicious abuse of power, as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Leonid Nevzlin, and Aleksei Navalny can attest. Oligarchs and activists who get on the wrong side of the president have a tendency to get arrested, exiled, or killed. But recently, Russia’s president has been much
more conscious of his image abroad. What is surprisingly is how successful this campaign seems to have been. Part of this has been luck—the arrival of Edward Snowden in a Moscow airport gave the Kremlin a practically unprecedented opportunity to point out American hypocrisy over surveillance and civil liberties. But Putin has shown himself to be effective at creating the appearance, if not the substance, of conciliation. His September op-ed in the New York Times assured the American people that Russia was committed to a peaceful resolution to the Syrian civil war, as Russian ships sailed down the Mediterranean carrying guns, grenades, and rockets for Bashir al-Assad’s loyalists. Putin’s soft propaganda war has been successful in improving the image of Russia and himself almost everywhere—except, of course, Ukraine.
Whether Ukraine is on the verge of another Orange Revolution or a period of violent unrests remains to be seen. Viktor Yanukovich is nothing if not resourceful, although it is hard to see how, with an approval rating of around 20 percent, he can hold on to power for much longer. The protesters in Maidan, despite attempts at infiltration by extremists and brutality by the police, have shown tremendous willpower. If they can find leadership to match their enthusiasm, then they may be able to succeed where Yuschenko and Tymoshenko failed—in bringing real reform and accountability to Ukraine’s politics, independent of Moscow. For his part, Putin has responded to the protests with uncharacteristic awkwardness, and like Mohammad Morsi, Recep Erdogan, Nicolas Maduro, and countless others has blamed unrest on “outside agitators”.
Perhaps Euromaidan represents the limits of Putin’s strategy of outreach. For all of his posturing and political savvy, Putin is still essentially a despot—one who rules over a vast and troubled country, where oligarchs, crimi- nals, and extremists still run wild, despite his assurances of order and accountability. Although Russia’s natural re- sources have allowed him to claim responsibility for a decade and a half of relative prosperity, Putin still captains a very leaky (and faintly radioactive) ship. Last September, Putin urged Americans to abandon the myth of national exceptionalism and acknowledge that nothing good would come of forcing one’s will on other nations. He might do well to heed his own advice.