Putin vs. Pro-West Ukrainians

Massive show of force in Kiev puts Russia on its heels.

rThe massively attended Sunday protest in Kiev, highlighted by the toppling and smashing of the monument to Vladimir Lenin, has apparently forced Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's hand. Yesterday, he called for talks with former government leaders and opposition forces aimed at resolving the nation's political crisis. It is a crisis ignited by his decision to turn away from Europe and feed Russian strongman Vladimir Putin's dreams of a Eurasian Union, which is little more than a thinly-veiled effort to restore Russian hegemony over large swaths of Eastern Europe.

The current standoff is reminiscent of the Orange Revolution that took place in 2004, when a pro-democratic government was swept into power. Thus it was hardly surprising when government officials announced on Sunday that they would undertake an investigation against opposition leaders they accuse of attempting to seize power, and warned demonstrators that they could also be subjected to criminal charges. That investigation will be conducted by the Ukrainian security service SBU, formerly known as the KGB.

Yanukovych's conciliatory gesture, based on former President Leonid Kravchuk's call for an "all-national round table," that includes three former presidents of Ukraine who favor closer EU ties, was belied by threats of a crackdown. Pro-European demonstrators currently occupying a city government administration building claimed heavily armed riot police broke into their Fatherland Party offices. They reportedly entered  through doors and windows and seized computer servers. An additional cadre of riot police have also massed behind barricades erected by protesters to block off Independence Square, and metro stations near the area were closed due to a purported bomb threat.

Sunday's demonstration in Kiev, which may have been attended by as many as a million people, was buttressed by demonstrations in other cities around the country. These "EuroMaidan" protests in favor of establishing closer ties with the European Union have been ongoing for the three weeks following Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an agreement with the EU. And while that may have been the initial impetus for the uprising, the protests have become more anti-government in general. Opposition leaders have rejected calls for talks until the police who beat protesters at a demonstration November 30 are arrested, detained demonstrators are released, and the current cabinet is fired. Many are also calling for Yanukovych himself to resign.

Currently the protests remain peaceful, with both opposition party and protest leaders calling for calm. Yet there is differing opinion on what should happen next. Kateryna Kobko, a 19-year-old student, believes the protests should "get more radical" because Yanukovich's Party of Regions "is a malformed structure, and the system built on it must be fully destroyed." Twenty-two-year-old student Roman Bilan believes "the peaceful mass protest is the only way to go." Political consultant Taras Berezovets thinks Yanukovych will call for a state of emergency, despite the possibility that his support among the police is on the wane. "Yanukovych may through the parliament ask Russia to send peacekeeping troops," he speculated, adding that it would be unlikely absent an escalation.

It may take more than that. Yesterday Sergei Markov, Putin political advisor and vice rector of the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics conceded that the Ukrainian situation is currently "too explosive right now" and that any linkage between Putin's anticipated customs union and Ukraine could take years. But he noted that Putin believes it will happen eventually. “Putin believes that time is on his side and Russia will benefit in the end,” he added.

The newfound reticence seems surprising, given that Putin met with Yanukovych as recently as last Friday, in an effort to shore up the proposed "strategic partnership" between the two nations. It is a deal undoubtedly bolstered by Russian threats of trade retaliation against Ukraine, underscored by the reality that Ukraine is on the hook for $17 billion in debt repayments and Russian gas bills due next year. Despite being a key east-west energy transit route, Ukraine currently needs $10 billion to avoid possible default, even as the country remains mired in its third recession since 2008. Yanukovych has repeatedly rejected bailout terms offered by the EU's International Monetary Fund (IMF), but remains enticed by Russia's offer of financial aid and cheaper energy prices.

So why does Russia remain non-committal? Russian Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev, who yesterday insisted there are "no preliminary agreements" between the two nations, claimed that any agreement "assumes a massive amount of work and a clear desire to join on the part of a country that’s a possible candidate. We have seen no such clear desire,” he contended.

Nonsense. As The Atlantic's Brian Whitmore explains, protests in the Ukraine have galvanized Russian opposition to Vladimir Putin's autocratic rule. Protesters have gathered outside the Ukrainian Embassy in Moscow, and 30 high-profile Russians writers and poets wrote an open letter in support of their Ukrainian counterparts, noting that their demonstrations "would be a sign that in Russia we too can defend our rights and freedoms. We are with you!"

Whitmore further explains that the timing of the current protests is significant in that they are occurring almost exactly two years after Russians engaged in the largest anti-government demonstration since the fall of the Soviet Union. Writing for the New York Times, Moscow journalist Masha Gessen illuminates the significance of Ukraine's unrest. "Russia is using every kind of pressure--from threatening economic sanctions to declaring tens of thousands of Ukrainians persona non grata--all in order to drag Ukraine back into the Middle Ages with it," she writes. "Western Europe, which has many demands of its own, promises a future of openness and progress." She further notes that if the protests succeed, "they may change the future of not one but two of the largest countries in Europe."

Putin is keenly aware of the consequences of such success. Eight days ago, he characterized the demonstrations as a "pogrom." “This internal political process is an attempt by the opposition to destabilize the existing legitimate rule in the country,” he said during a visit to the former Soviet nation of Armenia. Yesterday he upped the ante, dissolving the state news agency RIA Novosti. It will be replaced with an entity called Rossiya Segodnya, which will be tasked with the mission of promoting Russia's image around the world. It marks Putin's second effort in two weeks to accomplish what RIA described as "a series of shifts in Russia's news landscape which appear to point towards a tightening of state control in the already heavily regulated media sector."

Unsurprisingly, Radio Free Europe reveals that Russian media coverage of the protests in Ukraine have been "odd" and "misleading" and have "spared no efforts to portray the protesters as a horde of hooligans funded by the West to topple Yanukovych and sow chaos in Ukraine." Leading the effort is Dmitry Kiselyov, tapped to lead the newly-created Rossiya Segodnya. He has accused protestors of ruining Christmas, surviving on lard, and using "ancient African military techniques" against Ukrainian police. Kiselyov, who has  publicly stated that homosexuals should be banned from donating blood, sperm and organs, described Ukrainian boxing champ and opposition leader Vitali Klitschko and his brother, Vladimir, as gay icons.

Klitschko demonstrated why he's a target. "We call on people to stand their ground, and peacefully, without using force or aggression, to defend their right to live in a free country," he said according to Reuters. "We are expecting the break-up by police of peaceful demonstrators. If blood is spilled during this dispersing, this blood will be on the hands of the person who ordered it: ...[President Viktor] Yanukovych."

Larger forces remain in play. In the West, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso emphasized "the need for a political" solution. Toward that end he has sent EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to Kiev for a two day visit beginning today. She is tasked with mediating a solution between the two factions. Vice President Joe Biden has spoken with Yanukovych by phone. "He noted that violence has no place in a democratic society and is incompatible with our strategic relationship," said the White House in a statement explaining Biden's objective. Barroso also spoke with Yanukovych by phone. “I’ve asked him to show restraint in the face of the recent developments, to not use force against the people who are demonstrating peacefully,” Barroso said.

The Russian side of the equation is illuminated by Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman. He explains that the demonstrations are "both a humiliation and a threat to Mr. Putin," because his "main foreign-policy goal is the construction of a sphere of influence for Russia, covering most of the old Soviet Union" and Ukraine "is meant to be the jewel in the crown." He further notes that because the highly nationalistic Putin views Russia as a unique civilization, he finds the idea that Ukrainians could be more attracted to Europe "offensive."

There are darker motives at work as well. "Ukraine performs a vital role for the not-so-open elements of the Russian economy,"  New York University professor and longtime Kremlin-watcher Mark Galeotti contends. "Ukraine is an initial pre-wash venue for dirty Russian money. We've seen the port of Odessa being used for all kinds of dubious arms deals.... Losing that would affect not only the Kremlin but also the profitable opportunities of a large number of people whose opinions matter to the Kremlin."

Late yesterday, police began moving against some of the demonstrators, dismantling camps set up in front of government buildings. Prosecutor-General Viktor Pshonka issued a warning, telling the demonstrators to cease creating "anarchy and lawlessness" by blocking the buildings. As of now, no action has been taken against the crowds occupying Independence Square. How long it will stay that way remains to be seen.

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