Call my bluff

There it is: the longer, more violent and potentially more dangerous version of the Orange Revolution turned Ukraine around and put Viktor Yanukovych out to grass for good. Partly because of Yanukovych tragically poor political skills but also because of his own miscalculations, Vladimir Putin faces an uneasy choice in Ukraine and he can only possibly choose the lesser evil. The problem is that he doesn’t seem to know what the lesser evil is going to be. 

Everything seemed to be fine at the end of 2013 for Vladimir Putin. He had a successful year: tightened the screws domestically, sidelined the opposition, extended his authority over the Russian elite, and, despite worrying economic forecasts, seemed to have found the guideline for his third presidential term: the Eurasian Union. Ukraine, the crown jewel, was bought for 15 billion USD and a gas price reduction, and the worrisome Euromaidan protests seemed to have lost their momentum.

And then came the storm.

Arguably, Putin still has a lot of levers to pull. He can stop the flow of gas; cut the economic lifeline Russia threw the country last year; or impose a ban on Ukrainian imports, for starters. In case this does not send Ukraine’s economy to the floor – Gazprom’s grip on Europe is less firm than it was 5 or 8 years ago, the EU and IMF are preparing a package to compensate for Russian money, and economic sanctions have (albeit on a smaller scale) ultimately benefitted Georgia after 2008 – Putin can still count on rising separatism in the East and the West and Russia’s military presence in Sevastopol, Crimea, the epicentre of anti-Maidan protests and Russian identity. Putin’s opportunities to use “heavy tools” against Ukraine are, however, very limited.

Bear hug

I have repeatedly blogged about the enormously high importance that Ukraine carries for Russia, and personally for Putin. Ukraine is a symbol to begin with, but in practical terms, it is an indispensable part of the Eurasian Union project. Without Ukraine, there is no Eurasian Union – without Eurasian Union, in turn, Putin’s third term is in serious jeopardy. If Ukraine as a whole is lost, it is a serious blow to Putin’s image and authority over the Russian elite. If “soft instruments” do not seem to work, he may be enormously tempted to play hard: push for the secession of Eastern or Southern territories, especially the Autonomous Republic of Crimea that hosts 26 thousand Russian troops.

However, as Alexander Moytl pointed out for RFE/RL as soon as 20 February, well before the decisive day in Kiev, Putin simply cannot play this card, even if he chooses to overlook the fact that Eastern Ukraine does not have a recognised border and both regions are ethnically (and, to some extent, politically) mixed. In 2008 already, the intervention on the basis of the “responsibility to protect” in Georgia produced mixed results at best: none of the former Soviet states, except for Russia, recognised the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, presumably for fears of similar interventions, should Russia deem it fit. An overt or only slightly covert Russian intervention supporting the independence of either the Crimean peninsula or Eastern Ukraine would make these states even warier of Russian intentions than before. Georgia started the armed intervention in 2008, therefore Russia was in the position to establish and defend some legitimacy for its armed intervention. This time, though, the picture would be clear: Russia would punish Ukraine for leaving the path leading to the Eurasian Union. Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Belarus, present or future member states of the Eurasian Union all have sizeable Russian populations, while Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have important Russian military bases on their soil. It does not take a full-scale armed intervention in Ukraine to create the perception in these countries’ elites that Russia will not respect their territorial integrity, either. Dangerous tendencies in a region where the other player is China, an emerging power with less diplomatic touch but more money and no apparent intention to grab territories.

There are, at least, two more constraints on Putin’s policy options in Ukraine. The first one is the economy; the second one is public perception – both delicate issues in Russia recently.

Money and public support on short supply

While the East of Ukraine is often lauded as the industrial powerhouse of Ukraine (and it is), the picture is mixed. According to a study by, the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk are, in fact, black holes when it comes to budgetary resources. Partly due to the way Ukraine has been governed in the past two decades, advocating divisive lines between regions to prevent the emergence of challengers, the strongest money flows are between Kiev and the regions, meaning that should the East become independent, it would also mean being cut off this life support. Eastern and Central-Eastern regions that presently get the bulk of foreign direct investment unrelated to Kiev, would face a considerable outflow of capital, and while a large part of the FDI invested here is Russian money, it is questionable whether Russia, facing economic deceleration or stagnation this year, would be able and willing to compensate for the loss of money – not to mention the cost of currency devaluation and the likely bankruptcy a separation like this would entail for the East of the country. Paradoxically, if there’s a region that a separation may as well benefit, it is the presently underdeveloped West that would, after the initial shock, would potentially see a surge of investments and experience less whacky politics. Of course, no one would, at present, consider calling for a separation in the West.

But this is not all of it. According to the public opinion researcher VTsIOM, 73% of Russians oppose any Russian intervention in Ukraine (ironically, supporters of the Liberal Democratic Party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky overwhelmingly support this opinion). While the opinion of the Russian political and business elite will be much more important to Putin than public opinion when contemplating the question of what to do with Ukraine, going against the opinion of almost three-fourths of Russian voters may still seem to be an unwise thing to do, especially as Putin is increasingly forced to rely on public support to stay in position.

Vladimir Putin surely is a skilled political operator, but even he cannot swim against the current, wearing a straitjacket. He could, of course, wait to make his step, as he did after the Orange Revolution. Except that now he does not have six years. He hardly has one, for that matter.

This creates a unique window of opportunity for the European Union, the United States and the new government in Kiev. It will be costly, nevertheless. If economic reforms are carried out quickly enough and aid is provided, if the EU avoids mistakes it made after 2004 and offers a membership path to Ukraine, if the West learns how to play elite politics, if Ukraine avoids sinking back into the foolish and destructive nationalism and centrifugal politics of the Yushchenko years, it may, together with its Western allies, crack Putin’s chief policy narrative, thereby also seriously affecting the Russian President’s domestic position.

If only there weren’t so many “ifs”.

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