Ukraine protests: Why Moscow played hardball with Kiev

Ukraine's decision to spurn close ties with the EU has sparked massive protests for more than a week. Did Moscow overplay its hand in pressuring the Kiev?  

Sergei Chuzavkov
Protesters warmed themselves around a fire in Independent Square in Kiev, Ukraine, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013. As thousands of antigovernment protesters kept their vigil in Ukraine's capital, officials sought to reduce their anger with assurances that Russia's and Ukraine's leaders didn’t discuss Ukraine joining a Russian-led customs union at a meeting this week.

Four days before voting began in the 2004 presidential election in Ukraine, one of the leading candidates received a resounding endorsement from an unusual source: Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Ukraine has in the last few years— especially the last year—made very serious, fast progress in its economic development, about 13 to 14 percent,” Mr. Putin, on a personal visit to Kievsaid in a question and answer session that was televised live on Oct. 27. “And I want to note that it's not just growth, but under Prime Minister Yanukovych they have managed to do more, to achieve growth of high quality.”

Mr. Yanukovych – a former governor from Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine who could barely speak Ukrainian before he became prime minister in 2002 – lost the vote, amid massive protests that came to be known as the Orange Revolution. Still, the significance of a head of state traveling to another country and campaigning for a presidential candidate was lost on no one: Moscow expected to have a say in how Ukraine ran its affairs and was willing to play hardball to make sure it happened.

Fast forward nine years.

Yanukovych, who came back to win the 2010 election, is again facing massive protests, this time sparked by his decision to reject closer ties with the European Union. Behind that decision was Russia, which made clear that Ukrainian membership in the EU was a red line not to be crossed.

“It’s a geopolitical contest,” says Jan Techau, director of the Carnegie Europe Center. “Mr. Putin wants to regain some of the Russian influence in the post-Soviet space. This is important for him, it reestablishes some sort of glory, it has nationalistic overtones.”

Russia has clearly learned some lessons from 2004, when Putin’s visible backing of Yanukovych backfired. Buoyed by unprecedented protests over blatant election fraud, his Ukrainian-speaking opponent, Viktor Yushchenko, went on to win the presidency, and forge tighter relations not only with the EU, but also with NATO

This time, Russia has given mixed signals of noninterference. On Wednesday, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev met with a high-ranking delegation, including Deputy Prime Minister Yuriy Boyko.

"We're watching what's happening in your country," he was quoted by the Russian state-owned news agency RIA-Novosti as saying. “It's an internal affair of Ukraine, though it's really important to have stability and order there.”

Earlier this year, Russia had, at least publicly, stayed out of the discussion of Ukraine moving closer to the EU. Then over the summer, Yanukovych’s political allies began making moves to put forward legislation demanded by the EU as a condition for signing an "association agreement," which would have deepened ties between Kiev and Brussels. 

Moscow responded accordingly. In July, imports of chocolates from Ukraine were banned, due to “quality concerns.” A few weeks later, lengthy traffic backups started appearing along the two countries’ border, as Moscow imposed tough new inspections on Ukrainian goods ranging from steel to beer to railway cars and locomotives. In October, Prime Minister Medvedev said Moscow might demand advance payments for delivering Russian natural gas, a threat that raised the specter of a cutoff as the winter heating season began.  Putin’s top economic adviser linked the tighter rules to Ukraine’s consideration of what he called the “suicidal step” of signing the EU deal.

In early November, just weeks before the EU summit, Yanukovych reportedly held a secret meeting with Putin, as well as Medvedev. On Nov. 20, Yanukovych called Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė, as host of the summit, to complain that Moscow was blackmailing him into not signing.

“He said Ukraine could not withstand the economic pressure and blackmail,” Jovita Neliupšienė, President Grybauskaitė’s chief adviser, told the Monitor.

 “All of sudden, it becomes clear to the Kremlin that there was a possibility that the Ukrainians might sign this ... thing, and the Kremlin elevated it to a geopolitical competition,” Mr. Techau says.

Where Ukrainians are directing their anger

The vast majority of protesters in Kiev are targeting their ire at the Yanukovych government, not necessarily Russia, according to Oleh Kotsyuba, online editor of the literary journal Krytyka. However, the perception that the Putin government strong-armed Yanukovych is definitely present;  some are calling for a boycott of Russian goods.

For many Ukrainians, “it is this neo-imperialist attitude on the part of Putin and his government… and his government has become the embodiment to keep Ukraine where it is, it’s this post-Soviet, or neo-Soviet attitude," Mr. Kotsyuba said.

From the Kremlin’s perspective, the narrative couldn’t be more different. The political goals of the European Union are increasingly indistinguishable from those of NATO, which many in Russia’s military and security establishment consider to be a threat.

While Moscow acquiesced as Soviet bloc countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, and the three Baltic states joined NATO and the EU, Russia has drawn the line at countries like Ukraine, which it has called part of its historical sphere of influence. Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia served as a warning: Moscow won’t tolerate the Western military alliance along another border because it looks suspiciously like encirclement.

“This is not a Communist policy, not a Putin policy, this is a thoroughbred Russian policy…. It gives you a bit of the key of the understanding to why they look at this this way,” Mr. Techau says.  

Despite substantial bilateral trade, Russia’s distrust is potent enough that, in an effort to counterbalance the EU, Moscow has sought to set up a rival customs union, threatening, cajoling, and rewarding former Soviet republics into joining. Ukraine has been reluctant to join. 

In Moscow, press reports reflect the Kremlin’s narrative, the patronizing attitude many Russians have toward Ukraine, and allegations of a Western conspiracy. The government-run Rossisskaya Gazeta asserted that Ukrainians were unprepared to make a "civilized" choice between their two geopolitical options; that the EU tried to force Ukraine into signing; and that now Washington was secretly funding the protests. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has called the EU and Western reaction to Yanukovych’s decision “hysterical.”

The question now is how far Russia will go to pressure Ukraine, and how aggressive the EU will be responding to Russia’s methods.

On Friday, Yanukovych flew to the resort city of Sochi to meet with Putin to negotiate a new agreement on trade and economic cooperation, according to the Ukrainian presidential Web site. Prime Minister Mykola Azarov later told journalists Yanukovych would visit Moscow soon and sign a number of agreements, what many in Kiev are already perceiving to be a wholesale buckling under to Kremlin pressure. 

“Putin’s blackmail has exposed his methods. He now looks more worried, uncooperative and anxious to contain European attraction in what he claims to be Russia’s natural ‘sphere of privileged interests,’” Marie Mendras, a fellow at the British-based think tank Chatham House, wrote in an opinion piece published Friday. “He is repeating the same mistakes again.”

Anna Kordunsky contributed reporting to this article. 

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