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.
Instead, it has come to represent a convenient shorthand to encapsulate everything the Yanukovych government is not: embracing ideas such as rule of law; a fairer society where wealth is not simply appropriated by the president’s inner circle including his dentist son; political freedoms and legal accountability.
It represents a rejection, too, of what was becoming an increasingly autocratic system modeled on Putin’s own “illiberal democracy” — as some have called it — whose features are kleptocracy, intolerance and a crackdown on protest and freedom of expression.
It is perhaps this that was most significant in the deal and parliamentary votes last week — a widespread agreement that those features of the Ukrainian political system most like Putin’s Russia should be dismantled.
All of which still leaves many risks ahead. A feature of Ukraine’s crisis is how protest and violence have become part of a political bargaining process that has seen a cycle of clashes followed by negotiations, purported deals that fall apart and more violence.
Most pressing is whether the country can hold together amid declarations on Saturday from political figures in both the east and the Crimea that they now represent the government’s constitutional legitimacy and calls in some quarters for the establishment of militias.
Equally critical is how Ukraine’s mainstream opposition will deal with a newly empowered — if small — hardline nationalist movement, not least Pravy Sektor, whose members were prominent in the fighting in Independence Square and elsewhere and which claims to have armed itself.
Another problem is one of leadership. While Tymoshenko’s ordered release is to be welcomed, it should also be recalled that the two-time prime minister is a flawed figure whose relentless squabbling with her former Orange Revolution ally and former president Viktor Yushchenko opened the way for Yanukovych’s election in 2010.
Then there is the fundamental issue that Ukraine must negotiate: How does a nation with political and trade links to both Europe and Russia find a balance between the two forces pulling on it from outside? While the promise of early elections is welcome, they need to be conducted in a less charged atmosphere to avoid more conflict and violence.
In part, that will depend on whether Moscow is honest and allows the country’s divided electorate to determine its own future. An ominous indication of Moscow’s unhappiness with the EU-negotiated deal is be found in the remarks of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday afternoon accusing the opposition of being led by “armed extremists and pogromists” threatening the country’s “sovereignty.”
A final question is whether Putin’s stumble in Ukraine will have any ramifications for him closer to home in a Kremlin that draws lessons for Russia from the fate of the post-Soviet order in Ukraine.
Moscow will have been deeply unsettled both by the prominent role played by the troika of EU foreign ministers and by the perceived challenge to Moscow’s authority in the region.
All of which, taken together, promises fraught months ahead.