The story from Ukraine is heartening, even inspirational, with protesters braving indiscriminate barrages of police bullets to force a corrupt president from office and give their nation hope for a more representative government based on Western values.
Yet no one is forgetting that lurking over the eastern horizon are Russia and President Vladimir Putin, a ruthless former KGB boss who harbors ambitions of building a “greater Russia” to restore the power and prestige of the Soviet Union.
The ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor F. Yanukovych is a humiliation for Putin and the direct result of his meddling in Ukrainian affairs. Putin exerted economic pressure and dangled billions in aid to strong-arm Yanukovych into rejecting a trade-and-aid pact that would have brought the country into the European Union’s orbit. That set off the protests that led to Yanukovych, with Putin’s encouragement, to escalate the crisis by having police open fire on protesters. When police and members of his party abandoned him, Yanukovych fled Kiev.
This drama is playing out over a complicated backdrop of Ukrainian history. Kiev occupies a vital place in Russian culture as the capital of the medieval state of Kievan Rus. Ukraine is divided between the Ukrainian-speaking western part and the east where the Russian language is dominant. The east includes the Crimea, where Russia has a Black Sea naval base.
We’ve seen a hopeful scenario in Ukraine crash and burn before. After its 1991 independence from the Soviet Union came the pro-democracy Orange Revolution in 2004 that unseated the Russian-leaning Yanukovych for the first time. But the new regime had its own corruption scandals, and Yanukovych was returned to power in 2010 elections.
Ukraine has strong economic ties with Russia, which is both a market for Ukrainian exports and a source of natural gas. Policy analysts say a good outcome for Ukraine requires the West to provide economic aid to boost the country’s ailing economy and for Russia not to intervene.
That last part is a tall order. Russia called Yanukovych’s ouster a coup. President Barack Obama may insist America isn’t in a Cold War-type rivalry with Moscow, but Putin doesn’t see it that way. Consider the record. Putin gave sanctuary to Edward Snowden, the leaker of U.S. national security secrets. He supports dictator Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war and connived to help Assad escape U.S. military strikes for using chemical weapons. Putin gave a cold shoulder to Obama’s effort to “reset” Washington-Moscow relations.
Putin has options for mischief. Military intervention is one, but a tanks-in-Prague scenario seems far-fetched in this day. A limited incursion into the eastern region to “protect” Russian speakers can’t be ruled out despite the Obama administration’s warning against it. Putin could exploit the east-west divide to try to break up the country. Are the east’s Ukrainians more Russian than Ukrainian? Or do young people in the east yearn for a Western lifestyle?
Almost certainly Putin will try to use Russia’s economic clout to influence events in Ukraine during the country’s fiscal turmoil. For certain it’s hard to imagine Putin will abandon his dream of a greater Russia.