Vladimir Putin has had a very good year, and one of his crowning achievements is that he appears to have successfully bullied Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych into halting Ukraine’s march towards the European Union. Russia closed the border to Ukraine’s products, backing up traffic for miles (possibly costing Ukraine billions). Russia froze entire industries: banned cheese; stopped Ukranian chocolate, cake, cookies and candy from one major Ukrainian company; meat from another two; and eventually threatened to throw Ukrainains, or anyone with an accent, out of Russia. Finally, at the start of winter, Russia threatened to turn off Ukraine’s gas, perhaps the final straw for Yanukovych.
In the weeks and months previous, Russian liberals said that it was time for Ukraine to divorce Russia. All indications were that Ukraine would spurn Russia and move to the EU. Then, there was a strange twist. Yanukovych met Putin in secret (and claimed he got lost on the way). Some speculated at the time that he was trying to beg Putin to let up on the pressure, but wanted to do so in secret in case he failed. Some speculated that he was secretly negotiating with Russia and might be rethinking the EU deal, something he would want to keep secret because they would be unpopular. It seems that regardless of what happened, Yanukovych gave in. Russia won. Putin gets one last trophy in a year that has arguably been the crowning achievement of his political career.
But this latest victory is extremely fragile. Hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in Kiev to protest against Yanukovych and the decision to stop the pursuit of the EU. As a recent pro-Kremlin editorial points it, these protesters are a threat to not only Yanukovych, but also to Putin. If the protesters drive Yanukovych from power in the upcoming elections, the reaction from the Ukrainian public could be as anti-Russian as it is anti-Yanukovych. And furthermore, the consequences for Ukraine’s economy could be minimized, as the decision to slow the move towards the EU buys time for Kiev to further disentangle its economy from Moscow’s.
Putin’s recent statements clearly illustrate that he knows that Ukraine’s protests are a threat. Though protests have been largely peaceful, and protest leaders have warned against violence, Putin dismissed the crowds as rioters. Kiev’s protests have been solely focused on the EU, and have largely been apolitical. According to observers, opposition candidates are trying to claim the protests for their own, and they may now be organizing the efforts, but initially the opposition parties were not in control of the crowds. In contrast, Putin suggested that the protests were not about Russia or the EU, but were about the opposition party trying to win the 2015 elections.
“This internal political process is an attempt by the opposition to destabilize the existing legitimate rule in the country,” Putin said during a visit to the former Soviet nation of Armenia.
“These actions are, in my opinion, prepared not in view of current events, but for the 2015 election campaign.”
But Putin’s most peculiar, controversial, and revealing statements suggested that these were not political protests at all. They were pogroms:
“The events in Ukraine seem more like a pogrom than a revolution… It has little to do with Ukraine’s relations with the European Union,” he said.
Putin may or may not know about what’s really happening at the “Euromaidan” rallies, but he knows all about pogroms. Russia has seen an epidemic of anti-minority pogroms, sometimes with the police taking orders from neo Nazis to crack down against immigrants. Ukraine, too, is not unfamiliar with pogroms. By trying to brand the protests as riots and pogroms, Putin is simply employing a dirty trick to discredit the crowds and dismiss their anti-Russian sentiments.
Because Putin is also familiar with rebranding crowds of legitimate protesters as crowds of rioters. In fact, it is one of his favorite tactics. More than a year and a half after anti-government protests in Bolotnaya Square, seemingly random protesters rot in prison as they face trial for a crime, when even their supposed victims cannot say for sure that they are guilty. It doesn’t matter. The strategy is that if you can brand activists as radicals, protesters as rioters, and angry leaders as political opportunists, then you can control the spin and turn public opinion in your favor. That’s been Putin’s approach since he took office, and one need only look at the results to see that it has been somewhat effective.
But it will not work this time, not in the long run. Putin has had many victories lately, and this may be another, but it is only a pyrrhic victory. Putin’s branding carries a lot more weight in Moscow than it does in Kiev. If the protesters in Ukraine maintain the moral high ground and refrain from significant violence, then they will nudge public opinion even further towards the EU and away from Russia than it already is. Other former Soviet republics, like Lithuania, will be looking at what’s happening in Ukraine and learning. In the end, the Eurozone is far more appealing that the neo-Soviet Customs Union, and more and more countries will eventually slip away from Russia and towards the West. This does not have to be an “East vs. West zero-sum game.” Putin’s tactics here are turning Eastern Europe’s choices into a zero sum game. And in the long run, Russia is playing with a weaker hand.
Putin has had a very good year. As Ukraine goes, however, so too does Putin’s hope for a repeat in 2014.