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Ukraine

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Vladimir Putin’s Worst Nightmare

Why Russia Is So Worried About Ukraine

Why you should care

Because Putin has to buffer against a possible Russian Spring. And it’s not inconceivable that Russia would directly intervene in Ukraine, or even divide the country.

What’s going on in Ukraine is as much about Russia as it is about Ukraine. And it’s plenty about history, too.

The world has seen something like what we are now seeing in Kiev once before. I have, too, in my early years at the CIA, when I watched and analyzed the fate of the post-Soviet nations shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

At one level, the revolutions of 1989–90 and the Ukraine meltdown appear similar to those years. But the differences between then and now could mean the difference between a state that wobbles naturally on its new legs or one that never gets up off the ground.

Having freshly let go of the Eastern European satellite nations (with difficulty), the then Soviet leader Gorbachev was overseeing a nation on the ropes. (Today’s Russia, though in better shape, is weighed down by its own set of problems.) But there wasn’t much choice: Keeping these countries enslaved would have required clearing hundreds of thousands off the streets in Prague, East Berlin and Bucharest — streets that back then looked not unlike the streets of Kiev today.

BW image of protestors taking down the Berlin Wall

Source: Carol Guzy/Getty

People gather near a part of the Berlin Wall that has been broken down after the Communist German Democratic Republic’s (GDR) decision to open borders between East and West Berlin circa November 1989 in Berlin, West Germany.

Much like those former Soviet states, today’s Ukraine is witnessing a classic case of “street power” — massive numbers of people are hitting the streets, refusing to leave, even choosing their own leaders. In the face of that sort of power, most governments have trouble surviving. This was the case in what was then Czechoslovakia, Hungary and East Germany in 1989. And in Poland, in 1988, massive street strikes forced the government to negotiate openly with the opposition.

But there the similarity ends. Ukraine may be just around the block from those countries, but it is facing a new kind of opposition on its streets and a wholly different set of circumstances.

The trajectory will not be as predictable or as straight as it was in Eastern Europe.

For one, the Eastern European revolutions occurred with minimal violence — Romania being the sole exception. We already know that will not be the case in Ukraine. Ukrainian authorities have already fired on demonstrators, producing close to a hundred casualties.

Second, Ukraine, as watchers of the conflict are now well aware, is sharply divided between the Russian-oriented East and the Europe-leaning West. Most East European countries, on the other hand, were ethnically unified, allowing for more natural breaks and reformations into new states. (The one that wasn’t, Czechoslovakia, ultimately split in two.)

For Mother Russia, the Ukraine (like Belarus) is more like a younger brother than a sticky barnacle to be easily shed.

Coffin being lifted by many people in a crowd

Source: Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty

The body of an anti-government demonstrator who was killed in clashes with police is covered in flowers and carried through the crowd in Independence Square, February 22, 2014.

And lastly, there is the reality that for Mother Russia, the Ukraine (like Belarus) is more like a younger brother than a sticky barnacle to be easily shed. In comparison, many of the former satellite countries had already been heavily exposed to the West (as in the case of East Germany).

Ukraine, on the other hand, has yet to escape the Russian orbit. It is, after all, the birthplace of Nikita Khrushchev. While East European countries shared no cultural heritage with the Soviet Union, Ukraine, is seen (fairly or not) by many Russians as part of the motherland — making a split more painful for Mother Russia. (Kiev, after all, was the 9th-century capital of the first East Slavic state, Kievan Rus, the forerunner of modern Russia.)

Of course, this isn’t how everyone sees it, and the issue of identity in this part of the world is among the most complex — many Ukrainians share history and tradition with the Poles, with the Lithuanians. But whether deserved or not, to Russia, the Ukraine is part and parcel of the homeland.

In this way, the situation in Kiev differs most starkly and most dangerously from the Eastern European revolutions we witnessed not so long ago.

Which is why the battle in Kiev is as much about Russia as it is about Ukraine.

And now, seeing these complications, seeing their powerful resonance in the region, we must ask what this means for Russia. Two central facts loom:

  1. Putin has already had to deal with his share of protests in what many have regarded as the rigged elections of 2011.
  2. There is the contagion effect, an intuitive idea to many familiar with the Arab Spring: Protest has a habit of spreading.

There’s plenty adding up for this to be a nightmare for Vladimir Putin … many in Russia’s growing middle class will have to ask why they must accept Russia’s autocratic system when their cultural cousins next door in Ukraine do not.

There’s plenty adding up for this to be a nightmare for Vladimir Putin: the visual effect of out-of-control street demonstrations, a parliament in revolt, a president fleeing an arrest warrant, the scheduling of new elections, calls for democratic reform. And if significant reforms do take hold in Ukraine, many in Russia’s growing middle class will have to ask why they must accept Russia’s autocratic system when their cultural cousins next door in Ukraine do not.

Viktor left, towering over Putin right, facing each other shaking hands

Source: AFP/Getty

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovych before the official reception held on behalf of President Putin in honor of the distinguished guests of the XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, on February 7, 2014.

With this in mind, the fallout from Ukraine actually seems easier to predict in Moscow than in Kiev. In Russia, the outlook points to a further tightening on the opposition and media — and on any signs of protest. Which means that Putin will use every lever of influence he possesses to discourage liberalization in Ukraine, just as he did in the run-up to the 2010 election that brought his ally Viktor Yanukovich to power.

Or might Russia intervene directly? There would be enormous risks — and Moscow would likely contemplate it only as a last resort. But it is not inconceivable that Russia could find a pretext — particularly if ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine were violently suppressed in an uprising against decisions made by a new government. In such extreme circumstances, Moscow would probably prefer a partition that would install a Russian-friendly government in the East, arranged either by force or maneuvering behind the scenes.

What’s next for Ukraine is truly up for grabs. This is the third wave of attempted reform in Kiev — the first came after independence in 1991, the second in the so-called Orange Revolution of 2004.

Any new government will start out with a weak hand – Poland, after all, took several years to settle into stability. The Ukraine will have a harder time. The country is deeply in debt; its institutions are weak, and its business and political classes are permeated by corruption. Ukrainians also remain almost totally dependent on Russia for energy. The nation’s manufacturing economy is also based in the East; its trade remains about 60 percent geared toward the states of the former Soviet Union. Plus, the European Union is struggling with its own economic crisis, so Ukraine cannot expect much help from there.

Yet, even amid the maelstrom, what is happening in Kiev recalls a triumph of hope and vision over paralysis and stagnation. Would that the Ukrainian road ahead were smooth and straight. But regrettably, it is steeply uphill — and may have been paved with Russian brick.

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