Is Putin pushing for a crackdown in Ukraine?

The Kremlin has said that it will not intervene in Ukraine, but the escalating violence in Kiev may force their hand.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
A woman lights candles in memory of the victims of clashes between police and protesters in Kiev, at the Ukrainian Embassy in Moscow Wednesday. Tuesday's violence in Ukraine, in which at least two dozen people were killed, has the Kremlin worried that the country's pro-Russia government could lose power, threatening Russian interests.

Moscow's mask of worried-but-not-intrusive concern over the unraveling events in Kiev is beginning to slip.

Russian leaders Wednesday repeated previous assurances that they will not intervene in Ukraine. But experts say the Kremlin is using all its leverage behind the scenes to convince Ukrainian authorities to forcibly restore order, and may be rethinking its options if beleaguered President Viktor Yanukovych loses power to his outspokenly anti-Russian opponents amid an increasingly violent standoff in downtown Kiev.

Experts say a late-night telephone conversation Tuesday between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mr. Yanukovych presumably focused on the deteriorating situation and that Mr. Putin's advice isn't hard to guess at. 

"It seem absolutely clear that the three attempts Yanukovych has made to bring harsh pressure on the protesters occupying Kiev's Maidan square over the past three months, with the toughest being last night, were discussed and agreed in advance between Putin and Yanukovych," says Nikolai Petrov, a professor at Moscow's Higher School of Economics. "Unlike most Ukrainian players, whose interest is mainly in maintaining the status quo and muddling through without any radical breaks, Putin wants to win. He is absolutely interested in the scenario we see unfolding, with the opposition being crushed by force."

In a televised address to Ukrainians Wednesday, Yanukovych argued that he had no choice but to clear protesters by force after opposition leaders "crossed the line" by calling people to arms. He insisted that he still favored a negotiated settlement and urged opposition leaders to return to constitutional political methods ahead of presidential elections due next year. 

The Kremlin has explicitly accused Ukraine's opposition of trying to stage a Western-backed coup d'etat, using armed militants to provoke police and wreck Ukraine's fragile political institutions. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that Putin was giving advice to Yanukovych, but added that Russia expects an early resolution of the crisis.

"[Putin] believes that the ongoing situation in Ukraine is the fault of the extremists," he said. "Their actions can be treated and are treated in Moscow solely as an attempt at a state coup."

Russia's interests

No Russian leader has yet been caught on tape expressing preferences about the composition of Ukraine's government, as US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland recently was. Nor has the Russian State Duma openly discussed proposals for Ukrainian constitutional reform, such as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton presented to the European Parliament last week.

Experts say Russia has so far mainly relied on its material advantages to sway Yanukovych and Ukrainian public opinion, primarily a $15 billion line of credit that Putin extended in December. Though Putin insisted at the time that the aid was without strings, and regardless of who's in charge in Kiev, it was suspended late last month after Yanukovych removed pro-Moscow Prime Minister Mykola Azarov as a concession to protesters. The aid resumed this week just before Yanukovych launched his crackdown. 

Pro-Kremlin analysts say that there are some unpublicized conditions attached to Russian aid, but insist that the International Monetary Fund and Western governments do the same. 

"The [$15 billion] agreement between Ukraine and Russia is a package ... with rather tough conditions, as is normal everywhere," says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the Kremlin-funded Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow.

"Russia doesn't care who will be the Ukrainian leader, as long as he follows the agreement. The problem is, will the next Ukrainian government be willing to do so? We really don't have ideological preferences. We don't see much economic difference between Yanukovych and [opposition leader Arseniy] Yatseniuk ... and we don't care what they say about Russia as long as they keep to the deal."


In the longer term, Kremlin planners are considering their options in case of four possible outcomes to Ukraine's crisis, according to a recent blog posting by Andrei Illaryonov, a former economic adviser to President Putin.

The first, and preferred, scenario would be the imposition of Russian-style authoritarian government in Ukraine. The leader of that Ukraine, whoever it may be, would be totally dependent upon Moscow's economic and political support. "Extra points for Putin," Mr. Illaryonov writes.

The second outcome would be that intense civil strife leads to a permanently divided Ukraine, with a pro-EU west joining Europe, while the more Russified east in Moscow's orbit.  a dependency of Moscow. Also quite acceptable to the Kremlin, he suggests.

If Ukraine's opposition emerges on top, Russia could play the Crimea card. The Crimean peninsula, which was part of Russia for 200 years until it was "gifted" to Ukraine by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954, has an almost two-thirds ethnic Russian population whose pro-Moscow sympathies are overwhelming. Though part of Ukraine now, Crimea is an autonomous republic with its own parliament and constitution.

In recent weeks, Crimea's parliament has asked Moscow "for protection" and separatist movements are reportedly coming out into the open. Illaryonov says that Russia could effectively dismember Ukraine by annexing or granting "independence" to Crimea, much as it did with two breakaway territories of Georgia, Akhazia and South Ossetia, following the 2008 Russo-Georgian war.

The fourth option, which Illaryonov considers historically inevitable, is the full victory of pro-European political forces and Ukraine's ascension to the EU.


Yet another option, aired last week by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a newspaper commentary, might be for Russia and the West to negotiate the "Finlandization" of Ukraine.

Mr. Lavrov did not use that cold war-era term, which refers to Finland's unique status as a neutral country belonging to neither Eastern nor Western blocs but with doors open on both sides. But experts say he was floating the idea of such a deal, which would give Ukraine time to solidify its independent nationhood by removing the current pressure from both directions to make a definitive choice.

"That's a very good idea," says Alexei Pushkov, chair of the State Duma's international affairs committee. "But, unfortunately, I don't think it's realistic in the current atmosphere."

"We are witnessing an intense geopolitical struggle, one that's highly emotional, and one in which our US and EU partners seem completely unwilling to compromise. We believe that we're seeing an attempt at yet another political seizure of an independent country," Mr. Pushkov says.

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