Russia slams Ukraine upheaval as illegal 'armed uprising'

The Russian prime minister attacked the legitimacy of Kiev's government, which ousted President Yanukovych over the weekend. But Moscow is waiting to see what happens next before acting.

Dmitry Astakhov/RIA Novosti/Reuters
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev voiced grave doubts on Monday over the legitimacy of the authorities in Ukraine after President Viktor Yanukovich's ouster. Mr. Medvedev criticized Western states for recognizing officials he said came to power in an 'armed uprising.'

While Moscow is outwardly calm, anxiety is seething just beneath the surface over the disorderly, rapid-fire changes in Kiev that ousted a government the Kremlin had carefully courted and ushered in new politicians who are a largely unknown quantity.

Although President Vladimir Putin, who has been busy with the Olympics closing ceremonies in Sochi, has yet to address events in Ukraine, the Kremlin has begun to voice its worries about the transition – which it says is of dubious legality, if not out-and-out "dictatorial."

“Strictly speaking, there is nobody to speak with over there. The legitimacy of a whole range of organs of power working there raises substantial doubts,” Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said today, reports Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti.

“Some of our foreign partners think otherwise. I don’t know what constitution they have read, but it is something of an aberration of consciousness when you describe as legitimate something that is the result of an armed uprising,” Mr. Medvedev said.

And the Russian Foreign Ministry warned in a statement on its website, reports state broadcaster RT, that Ukraine's "dictatorial" parliament is using “revolutionary justifications” to “virtually forbid the use of the Russian language entirely, encourage a [purge of members of the prior government], liquidate parties, shut down certain media, and remove the limitations on Neo-Nazi propaganda.”

"There is a feeling among our political class and experts in Russia that Ukraine is entering yet another stage its ongoing political, economical, and social crisis," Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the Duma's international affairs committee, told the Monitor by phone Monday. "The political turbulence will continue," and it's too soon to predict what course it will take, he says.

Russia's 'red lines'

Experts say Moscow's "Plan A" is probably still to hope that a government may emerge in Kiev that will take Russian interests into account in return for the financial aid, subsidized energy, and trade preferences that have constituted the Kremlin's main instruments of pressure. A $15 billion package of Russian financial aid, of which only $3 billion has been disbursed, was suspended last week but, Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov told journalists Monday, has not necessarily been canceled.

But they warn that might change if the Kremlin perceives a Kiev leadership taking shape that is determined to cut the cord with Russia and bolt into the Western camp. The "red lines" would include the new parliament moving to rescind critical decisions by ousted former President Viktor Yanukovych such as the Kharkov Agreement, which extended the Russian Navy's lease on the Crimean port of Sevastopol until 2042, or the 2010 order to shelve Ukraine's bid to join NATO.

"For Russia, a lot depends on what the new government in Kiev will do next," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal.

"But altering decisions about Sevastopol or Ukraine's membership in NATO would be game-changers. It is unimaginable for the Russian elite to see Ukraine join NATO, and any move toward it would activate the most negative options" for blocking sweeping changes in Ukraine, he says.

Call that "Plan B." Russia probably does not need to intervene militarily in deeply divided Ukraine in order to pull the country apart, and ensure that its most economically developed regions remain within Moscow's orbit.

Mr. Lukyanov says that Russia is so far doing little to encourage separatist moods in eastern Ukraine and the Russian-majority autonomous region of Crimea. Russian officials have publicly insisted that they fully support Ukraine's "territorial integrity." But a Ukraine seeking to break ties with Russia might find itself shorn of Crimea, and perhaps other parts of the Russian-speaking, heavily industrialized and Moscow-oriented eastern Ukraine – much as Georgia lost its own breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia following its 2008 summer war with Russia.

'Coup d'etat'

The Ukrainian turmoil coincided with the gala finale of the Sochi Winter Games, which may explain why Mr. Putin has remained silent on the subject.

But, in a clear sign of consternation, Russia ordered its ambassador to Kiev back to Moscow for "consultations" Sunday, while Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov complained by telephone to US Secretary of State John Kerry and other Western leaders that Ukraine's opposition had breached an agreement reached between Mr. Yanukovych, opposition leaders, and representatives of Russia and the European Union on Friday.

Pro-Kremlin analysts say they blame the West for not trying to hold Ukrainian protest leaders to that deal, which would have kept a greatly diminished Yanukovych on as president until fresh elections by year's end. Instead, they argue, the effective overthrow of Yanukovych has caused a complete break with constitutional continuity and created a crisis of legitimacy in Kiev.

"How can we possibly feel positive when participants of an agreement that was signed by three different foreign ministers violated it?" says Konstantin Zatulin, director of the Kremlin-funded Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow.

"Now everyone is in a state of euphoria. But I personally consider what happened in Ukraine was a coup d'etat. The upshot is that no one can believe either opposition leaders, nor Western mediators. Their signatures mean nothing," he says.

However, one factor that appears to be restraining Moscow and could work in the favor of any new government in Kiev, is that the Russians completely lost faith in Yanukovych in recent weeks and would likely have no interest in seeing him return to the presidency even if it were in Moscow's power to make that happen.

"Moscow is extremely angry at Yanukovych, whom Putin believes created all this mess with his own hands," says Lukyanov. "His behavior has completely destroyed any opportunity to defend him as the legitimate president of Ukraine."

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