This week, Russia has begun urgent military exercises and the Crimean parliament building, in eastern Ukraine, has been seized by pro-Russian demonstrators. Yet Russia may be extremely wary of direct intervention in Ukraine — just a few years ago, it did not hesitate to aid the separation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia, but the risk of intervention in Ukraine is immeasurably greater. How?
It could destabilize the situation in Russia itself. Although some observers draw a distinction between Vladimir Putin and Victor Yanukovych, the two men are actually quite similar: Both have used the resources of the state to enrich themselves and their close cronies. In Yanukovych’s case, the process was more visible, in part, because Ukraine is a smaller country and much of the corruption was centered on Yanukovych’s own family (in particular, his son, Olexander, a dentist who became a multi-billionaire only three years after Yanukovych took office).
But in both cases, the regime did not defend the interests of the country and the law, far from protecting the individual, was used to rob and disenfranchise him. In Russia and Ukraine, every person was aware that he could be locked up for no reason at any moment and his property and business could be taken away from him on the orders of a corrupt court.
In Ukraine, there was a vastly accelerated seizure of property with the help of corrupt law enforcement after Yanukovych took power; in Russia, this process has been ongoing since 2003 after the arrest of the president of the Yukos Oil Company, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. At present, thousands of businessmen are in pretrial detention in Russia on false charges and at the behest of their competitors.
When Yanukovych refused on November 30 to sign an association agreement with the European Union, he provoked a revolt because he eliminated any hope in Ukraine that his regime would move toward European standards and life would become more civilized. In December 2012, there were mass demonstrations in Moscow in the wake of the falsified parliamentary elections.
The demonstrations in Ukraine led eventually to Yanukovych’s overthrow, whereas the Moscow demonstrations appeared to fizzle out. But Russia may be less stable than many think, not least of all because of Ukraine’s example. Putin seems to understand this: According to diplomatic sources, it was Putin who prevailed on Yanukovych to end the bloodshed in Kiev and make concessions. He was wise to do so. The Russian regime is too fragile to engage in a fight with the Ukrainian people, which would have unknown consequences.
The greatest risk for Putin is that the Ukrainians are actually defending the interests of Russians as well.
— David Satter is a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute and adviser to Radio Liberty. He recently became the first U.S. journalist to be expelled from Russia since the end of the Cold War.