What Putin Wants from Ukraine
He knows Russia can’t be a superpower without its “brother.”

Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych (left) and Russian president Vladimir Putin


George Weigel

The drama of Ukraine continues, with perhaps some glimmers of hope appearing. Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, a major obstacle to reform, has resigned. The Ukrainian Rada met in extraordinary session on January 28, and while some movement toward reform was evident –- most of the odious anti-civil-liberties laws of January 16, whose passage under duress triggered the latest wave of protests across the country, were repealed by a vote of 361-2 — there should be no premature rejoicing that the forces of civic renewal and political reform have carried the day.

The Rada will meet again in emergency session Wednesday to consider amnesty for prisoners arrested by the regime’s forces during recent protests. But there is no agreement between the reformers and the regime on an amnesty bill, with the regime saying it will accept an amnesty if the Maidan, the square in Kiev that has been the epicenter of the national political upheaval of the past two months, is cleared — a quid pro quo immediately rejected by the leaders of the reform movement. Their refusal reflects the universal view of the people of the Maidan, who are not fools and who are not about to give up their chief weapon in this struggle.  

There is also no agreement on constitutional reform. And while there are reports of an ad hoc commission on constitutional reform being created by the January 29 Rada session, it will take time for any such effort to produce acceptable results. Meanwhile, arrests and kidnappings continue; some activists remain unaccounted for; and Maidan protesters continue to pressure local and regional governments throughout the country.

Thus, while the immediate threat of a descent into bloody chaos seems to have abated, the steps taken thus far have been but the beginning of a long journey. It would be highly counterproductive for Western governments and NGOs to let up on whatever levers of pressure they can exert on the Yanukovych regime — which continues to hold more than a few face cards in its hand. And it would be even worse for EU governments or the U.S. to press for quick-fix compromises that do not address the crucial constitutional flaw at the source of Ukraine’s current crisis, which is the concentration of power in the president’s office. Late on January 28, concerns emerged that just such a deal was being pressed on both Yanukovych and the reformers from Washington, a deal involving a certain amount of power-sharing but no real constitutional change. Any such deal would be a serious mistake. There are no short-cuts to be found in getting to a resolution of the Ukrainian crisis that meets the morally and politically serious standards set by the civic reformers who have braved freezing temperatures, regime brutality, and sniper fire. And while political compromise is one thing, reform leaders should not be pressured by the West to make premature constitutional compromises that will impede the long-term project of building a civil, decent, prosperous, and democratic Ukraine.   

The breathing space that has been created in the past several days also affords an opportunity to look more closely at an often unexamined, but crucial, aspect of the Ukrainian drama, which is the Russian connection.

There have been persistent but unconfirmed reports from Kiev of Russian special forces or FSB agents being clandestinely involved in kidnappings, beatings, and even sniping against the Ukrainian civic-reform movement. But the lack of slam-dunk evidence for Russian involvement in the recent assaults on the Maidan movement should not raise any doubts on the larger issue: It is self-evident that Ukraine’s future looms large in the strategic master plan of Russian president Vladimir Putin, which involves nothing less than the reconstitution of the USSR, de facto if not de jure, in a reassembly of the former “Soviet space” as an exclusively Russian sphere of influence.

In advancing that grand design, Putin has not been fastidious about either his modus operandi or his partners. Armenia was cajoled, then threatened, then bribed and bullied into backing off its plans to pursue integration into the European Union. Those tactics having worked with the small fry, Putin then turned the screws on the biggest prize, Ukraine, threatening to wreak economic havoc in that country if the government of President Viktor Yanukovych did not retreat from longstanding plans to sign an association agreement with the EU at a summit in Vilnius this past November. Yanukovych’s cave-in to that pressure launched the Maidan movement, with all that has followed.

As to personalities, no one should imagine that Putin holds Yanukovych in any affection or regard. The Russian president is a clever, disciplined, and ruthless product of the KGB, which always regarded itself as a kind of aristocracy in the old USSR (despite its brutality and a pantheon of chieftains — Yagoda, Yezhov, Beriya, et alia — that constituted a horror show in its own right). Yanukovych, by comparison, got his start in life as a petty thief on railroad-station platforms, snatching a vulnerable handbag or two. To the Chekist Putin with his inbred sense of superiority, Yanukovych is a low-life who managed to bludgeon his way to the top of a country whose independent nationhood Putin doubtless denies (privately, if not publicly). Worse, Yanukovych has now revealed himself to be a low-life loser. Thus saving him is not a priority for Putin, any more than saving another dictator he despises — Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko — would be, should Lukashenko ever find himself in the trouble that Yanukovych is now in.  


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