Putin is on record saying that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. It was a key part of his annual state of the nation address to the Russian Parliament back in April 2005. And with that one sweeping comment, it has unequivocally shaped his politics, posturing and scare-mongering for the years that have since followed.
It’s no secret that Putin’s idol is Joseph Stalin. Kind of ironic really, that the man Putin idolises and who was responsible for ruling the Soviet Union with an iron fist, hails from Georgia, a country whom Putin went to war with in 2008.
And he has been hell-bent on recreating a modern-day Soviet Union ever since returning as Russia’s President. Sure, it’s wrapped up in a nice neat package masquerading as an economic union of sorts, something that can go toe to toe with the EU or NAFTA, but we all know the real end game Putin’s working towards….bring all the ex-Soviets states back under his single sphere of influence. And it was looking good…..for a while. That is until his perennial indignant, Ukraine’s President, Victor Yanukovich, told him to go fuck himself, and was looking increasingly likely to sign an association agreement with the EU.
Worried about the fall-out if such an agreement were to be signed, Putin pulled out all the stops. He arranged a not-so-secret meeting with Yanukovich the weekend before the Vilnius summit (where Ukraine was expected to sign) and did what Putin does best…intimidated Yanukovich into not signing.
Or perhaps that’s what he’d like the West to believe. I however have a slightly different opinion. I have no doubt that Putin threatened Yanukovich. But the reality is that Putin needs Ukraine more that Ukraine needs Russia.
Economically speaking, the EU is Ukraine’s biggest trading partner and Ukraine’s largest outside investor. 78% of foreign investment in 2012 originated from the EU compared with a paltry 7% from Russia. As for the balance of trade, if energy is excluded, then only 19% of Ukraine’s 2012 trade was done between Russia, versus 30% with the EU. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Given Russia’s lower quality requirements, Ukraine is currently missing out on BILLIONS more in exports to the EU because they’ve traditionally only focused on the lower common denominator i.e. manufacturing to poorer Russian standards. With businesses focussing more on product and manufacturing improvements, Ukraine is aiming to sell more of its goods and raw materials to the EU.
Russia already began its strong-arming tactics about a month before the Association Agreement date. Trucks were stuck at the border for weeks whilst Russian customs officials prevented millions of tons of exports from entering the country. They even went and banned a Ukraine sweet company from exporting one of Russia’s most loved candies into Russia. That’s how petty they got.
But as much as I revile Yanukovich, I will say this….he knows how to play politics. Which brings me to my original point. Yanukovich is no stranger to playing both sides of the fence. And whilst Putin would have you believe that he’s got the Ukrainian President over a barrel, I very much doubt it. After all, if a trade agreement with Russia was so much better for Ukraine, then why didn’t Yanukovich sign up to it from the very beginning? He has a history of giving Putin short shrift in the past, and is quite happy to be master of his own destiny, rather than becoming a puppet for “Kremlin masters” back in Russia. He knows that if he were to cave in to Russia’s demands, he’d be Putin’s bitch from now until eternity, or at least until Putin replaces him with another puppet.
No, Yanukovich is working on getting a slightly better deal from the EU. Ukraine is already nearing bankruptcy. They’ve received bailout after bailout from the IMF, who have become increasingly frustrated with Ukraine’s belligerence and lack of implementing anti-corruption laws and policies. But rather than offering up the money to help Ukraine out, Russia has instead taken a line out of the movie “Goodfellas” when it comes to paying the bill for gas imports from Gazprom. The words “give me my fucking money” have no doubt been expounded on numerous occasions, without much success, $1.3 billion still unpaid by Ukraine, and much to the chagrin of both Gazprom and Putin.
Instead, Yanukovich knows he’d get a much better deal from the EU and the IMF, with far more favourable terms and a lot fewer albatrosses around his neck or monkey’s on his back that Russia would likely force upon him, were he to grovel to Moscow, cap in hand.
And how does all this threaten Russia? Well, just look at what’s going on in Kiev, right on Putin’s doorstep. The masses of people, openly demonstrating and defying bans on public gatherings, voicing their opposition to the incumbent President, calling for his impeachment. Sure, there were clashes with the police…show me ANY demonstration where the police never clash…remember the riots across Britain or the One Percent demonstrations in New York a few years back?
Instead of coming down hard, the way Putin did when ordinary Russian’s objected to his fraudulent re-election in March 2012, Yanukovich has called for calm and restraint on both sides. Even his own Prime Minister apologised for the beatings meted out by the police. And he’s taken this approach whilst the opposition have been calling for his impeachment. Can you imagine Putin standing by and letting something like this happen? In fact it would be a cold day in hell before you’d ever see a Kremlin official publicly apologise for police brutality towards its citizens? He’d in fact have gone the exact polar opposite and would have called in the Spetznaz to disperse, jail and beat anyone they could lay their hands on.
And there’s the rub, for Putin at least. Ukraine has traditionally aligned herself with European values and history, far longer than the creation of the Soviet Union. And during the Soviet era, Ukraine lost millions of her people through Stalin’s forced famines, with peasant Ukrainian farmers summarily shot in the head for such abominable crimes like poaching rabbits just to feed their starving family, instead of sacrificing everything for the fatherland, so the fat cat Politburo Bourgeoisie in Moscow could stuff their communist faces.
For a nation who prides herself on having her own culture, history, philosophy, language and values, openly protesting and defying a government’s mismanagement and attempts to reinstall elements of the old dictatorial Soviet regime, a regular occurrence that ordinary Russian’s experience on a daily basis, must be sending shivers down Putin’s spine. Because any revolt would be smacked down, all dissenters thrown into gulag’s, such as the girls of Pussy Riot. But all this positive vociferation is happening right on Putin’s doorstep.
The Kremlin did not waste any time last summer preparing for the next wave of protests. Putin’s latest invention is a real political perversion. Law and justice have been abused as an instrument of personalized power. His team has been desperately endorsing a new package of repressive legislation to legitimize future coercion. Putin has now made servile courts the foundation of one-man rule.
In 2003, the arrest of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky signified Russia’s turn toward authoritarian capitalism. Last year, the trial and sentence of three members of the punk group Pussy Riot showed how authoritarianism transformed and gave way to personalized power with not-so-subtle nuances of a modern-day dictatorship.
Putin has consistently shown over the past decade that he believes in macho rule and will resist at all costs being viewed as a weak leader. This suggests that Putin’s Kremlin will not be willing to surrender power peacefully. It also explains why he has been quite vociferous of Ukraine’s opposition and the tactics deployed in this latest protest. Why would a foreign leader be so concerned about what’s going on in a neighbouring country. Especially if said foreign leader is quick to denounce ANY interference from the west when it comes to its own domestic policies – Chechnya, the Caucasus and Gay Rights to name but three.
To prevent the opposition movement from spreading and gaining force, the Kremlin has had to increase its use of force. If the threat of force is not followed by the actual use of force, this will be viewed by the opposition and hardline members of the ruling elite as the regime’s weakness. Thus, both the increase of force, as well as its softening, could trigger a new wave of protest. The fact that Yanukovich has so far been soft (when compared to Putin) on the opposition movement is another reason to give Putin cause for concern.
In the end, Putin’s repressive rule, combined by a more relaxed approach by the Ukrainian government, could easily speed up Putin’s demise.
My hope is that Yanukovich does work the back channels with the EU. That either he gets the deal he’s been after all along, or the opposition are ultimately successful and Ukraine eventually signs the agreement and begins the path to full accession. And that Ukraine as a country finally shakes off the shackles of centuries of Russian dominance and be her own self, ridding herself of Russia’s conniving, despotic and oppressive shadows, along the way showing ordinary Russian’s the true path to political and democratic enlightenment, no longer willingly acting as a mere pawn of the Kremlin.