One factor widely overlooked in the breakdowns of Ukraine’s ethnic populations and territorial maps, is that it’s not just about territory. It’s also about the risks of allowing a friendly government to be overthrown by street protesters.
Not too long ago, Putin faced major street protests. The success of the protests in Ukraine spilled over into Russia.
It was a little over 48 hours since enraged protesters based at Kiev’s Maidan opposition camp had driven Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych from power, but the shockwaves were already being felt on the glitzy streets of central Moscow.
“If there is no freedom in Russia, there will be a Maidan!” shouted a middle-aged man, as some 1,500 protesters, angry at jail sentences handed down to fellow opposition activists, defied a police ban to gather opposite the Kremlin on Monday evening.
“Things can’t go on like this forever,” sighed Olga, a rosy-cheeked young woman sporting ear muffs and the white ribbon that is the symbol of discontent with “national leader” Vladimir Putin’s long rule, as police snatched another activist from the crowd. “The people of Kiev rose up to kick out Yanukovych, and we’ll do the same to Putin one day.”
The chanting of “Maidan!” was not the only indication that Russia’s 21st-century dissidents have been inspired by recent events in Ukraine. As opposition activists in Kiev burnt car tyres and erected barricades in the weeks and months before their final bloody showdown with state security forces, Russian anti-government protesters could only watch with a mixture of admiration and envy. Now, that admiration has turned to mimicry.
Following an online call by a well-known opposition journalist, some activists hauled tyres to this week’s demonstration in Moscow, where they were promptly nabbed by police. Other copycat tactics were also in evidence, such as the singing of the national anthem and the unfurling of the Russian flag, both clear nods to the rousing displays of patriotism by Kiev’s tenacious protesters.
While toppling Putin would be harder than toppling Yanukovych, the USSR, which was a good deal tougher than Putin’s mafia state, was overthrown in part by popular protests.
Behind the staged photographs of a bare chested Putin hunting tigers or spearfishing for alligators is a narrow coterie of corrupt businessmen and an equally corrupt police state whose only interests in support the existing system are financial.
Putin isn’t just playing at empire, he’s also protecting his own back.
What really keeps Putin up late at night isn’t the protesters themselves, but the fear of another Yeltsin, a brash maverick figure within the establishment who can rally support against the regime and turn protests into power.
The best way to dissuade any such alliance between the opposition and disgruntled insiders is to ruthlessly crush the opposition and to demonstrate the futility of such protests. In part, Putin’s Ukrainian adventure is about showing how weak such protests are and to dissuade any establishment figures from putting their faith in popular protests.