Seen from the point of view of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Moscow’s foreign policy of late had been enjoying something of a purple patch. Putin has kept the West at bay over the conflict in Syria for three years and his client, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in power. Faced with the Russian veto in the UN Security Council, the doctrine of responsibility to protect and humanitarian interventions has been pushed back.
And for a brief period it appeared Russia had pulled off another coup — blocking closer integration of Ukraine and the EU, while pulling that country closer to his envisioned Eurasian Union, the key front in his effort to reunite as much as possible of the former Soviet Union in a political and economic bloc under Moscow’s tutelage.
However, as the Winter Olympics in Sochi came to an end on Sunday, it cannot be ignored that Putin appears to have tripped up in his latest machinations in neighboring Ukraine.
His ally, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, whom he had sought to prop up with a deal to provide cheap gas and US$15 billion in credit, is on the ropes after unleashing lethal force last week against protesters that saw 77 killed.
Amid the drama of the past few days, and the whiff of revolution, it is worth voicing caution, however, about what the future holds. Ukraine has witnessed revolutionary scenes before that failed to bring much political stability. The recent revolutions of the Arab Spring have shown that stormed palaces, packed squares, absent police and an intoxicating sense of liberation from an old guard do not necessarily deliver better political systems, at least in the short term.
What is clear is that with the withdrawal of Moscow’s patronage, Yanukovych looks badly exposed, even among supporters of his own Party of Regions. Following the tentative peace deal between the opposition and Yanukovych on Friday last week, the country’s parliament delivered a series of humiliating blows to the president, who had already been forced to agree to revert to the 2004 constitution limiting presidential power.
In quick order, it approved the sacking of the interior minister who led the brutal crackdown. It ordered reparations, too, for all the injured and ordered the release of former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, Yanukovych’s bitter rival.
Among those who voted were members of Yanukovych’s own party, boding ill for his prospects.
By Saturday afternoon, a special plenary session of parliament had voted by a massive majority to remove Yanukovych, even as the embattled president was in the eastern city of Kharkiv, rallying his support base and accusing his opponents in a televised address of being nationalist “Nazis” responsible for a coup.
None of which makes the solving of Ukraine’s problems any less acute in the months ahead. While much has been made of differences in Ukraine between its Ukrainian-speaking, largely Catholic west and its industrialized, Russian-speaking east, and between the idea that the west looks toward Europe and the east toward Moscow, Ukraine’s political discontents are more complex and messy.
Anger at the endemic corruption and cronyism, unaffordable gas subsidies and chronic inequalities is not confined to the west and center of the nation. The reality is that what “pro-Europe” means in the context of Ukraine’s recent political events is not necessarily a concrete or even realistic notion.