Russia’s playing a long game over Ukraine


Self-defense activists stand guard in front of parliament during a session on Monday as EU leaders arrived in Kyiv. Ukraine has appealed for urgent international aid, saying it needs $35 billion over the next two years.


Sergei Supinsky

Although there’s no indication so far that Russia is doing what Western countries fear most by intervening with force in Ukraine, Moscow is showing no sign it’s willing to accept the new reality there.

After briefly pausing to recover from the shock of seeing the downfall of its ally, Victor Yanukovych, the Kremlin is resuming its old tactics by undermining the interim authorities.

The Russian authorities will almost certainly have to adopt a more pragmatic approach by dealing with Ukraine’s new leaders — something it’s currently refusing to do — but Western countries shouldn’t assume the weekend’s victory means the country has irrevocably turned a corner.

The Kremlin knows that time will work in its favor, just like after Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004, and that pro-Western politicians have a short time to enact institutional reforms to help resuscitate a failing economy and generate sustained public support.

For a regime that professes state sovereignty and territorial integrity to be inviolable, you’d think Russia’s would be more contrite. Since Ukraine’s political crisis began last fall, Moscow has issued dire warnings to Western countries to abstain from meddling in Ukrainian affairs while busying itself doing what it could to shore up former President Yanukovych, including urging him to use force to crack down against civilians.

The death of more than 80 people at the hands of riot police last week had the opposite effect by leading directly to Yanukovych’s ouster, but that hasn’t stopped Moscow from trying to undercut the interim leadership.

After Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel last weekend, Berlin quoted him as saying he wants Ukraine to remain in one piece — nevermind that the Kremlin initially helped push the country toward civil war by issuing bribes and threats aimed at pressuring Yakunovych to abandon a deal with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Moscow.

But some have hinted otherwise.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev said Monday that Ukraine’s new leaders had carried out an “armed mutiny.”

“The legitimacy of a whole number of official agencies there raises great doubts,” he said, although “some of our Western partners think otherwise.”

Sour grapes, perhaps, but his statements are dangerous because they may fuel the hopes of those Ukrainians in the Russia-looking east and southern Crimea that the country will split just at a moment the authorities in Kyiv are at their weakest.

A Ukraine tearing apart at the seams is surely not in the interests of Russia and its people, but it is in Putin’s. His overriding goal is for Ukraine to join a so-called Eurasian Union, an organization whose main purpose would be to oppose Western alliances. That would shore up his personal power as Russian leader.

He believes turmoil in Ukraine would show the world the country can’t function without Russia’s help.

Even if Moscow’s line becomes more pragmatic by beginning dialogue with the new leaders, that won’t mean the Kremlin’s attempts to undermine them will end.

Now Moscow is suddenly concerned about the wellbeing of dissenters in Ukraine — these ones in the mainly Russian-speaking eastern regions whom the Russian Foreign Ministry says are facing suppression. That’s a pattern repeated across the former Soviet Union in those newly independent countries whose leaders displease the Kremlin with their independence.

Nevertheless, Putin has displayed more pragmatic behavior in the past. In 2001, the Kremlin supported Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic until the last moment before his arrest by the authorities. Confronted by the new political landscape, Putin, then in his first term, quickly muted Moscow’s protestations.

Even after Yanukovych was sent packing the first time during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution after winning a fixed presidential election in 2003, Putin eventually found common language with Yanukovych’s great rival, Orange Revolution heroine and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

The two managed to sign a natural gas deal in 2009 that looked set to finally begin setting Ukraine free from Russian influence exerted through its wrangling over gas prices.

After he eventually won the presidency in 2010, Yanukovych immediately set about undoing the deal by agreeing to new Russian subsidies in exchange for extending Moscow a long lease on the port of Sevastopol, where the Russian Black Sea Fleet is based.

He also arrested Tymoshenko on charges she overstepped her authority by signing the deal.

Now his departure has dealt a death blow to the Kremlin’s hopes Ukraine will soon join a Moscow-led customs union that would precede the Eurasian Union.

More from GlobalPost: What happens next in Ukraine?

But Putin is playing a long game. He’s shown in the past that he can lie low and rely on energy deals and propaganda to try to influence events. Surely that will continue in Ukraine, which will remain Russia’s southern neighbor, an important trading partner where many people speak the Russian language and have relatives and other close ties to the old Soviet master.

For Western countries, extending immediate financial aid and political support to Ukraine’s new leaders won’t be enough.

The past several months should be a lesson about Putin’s motives and his capabilities. Keeping Ukraine on a path toward democracy and integration with the West will require a total, ongoing commitment from Washington and Brussels. 

Gregory Feifer is GlobalPost's Europe editor and the author of the recently released "Russians: The People Behind the Power."