Things were going so well for Vladimir Putin. He’s fixed himself another ten years or so in the Kremlin. He’s getting the Russians back in the Middle East, arming Iran and Syria and most likely Egypt too, all the while making child’s play of outsmarting President Obama. The intention is to put in place a modernized Soviet Union, that is to say a Russia without Communism but obtaining what it wants by throwing its weight about as it used to do. It’s vital to regain control of Ukraine, the huge country that is Russia’s Near Abroad. In old days an armored division or two would have rolled. Now trickery has to serve. Putin has come so close, putting Viktor Yanukovych in as president of Ukraine; tucking Yulia Tymoshenko, the leader of the opposition, away in prison for years; and practicing some neat commercial and financial blackmail. So close!
Putin and Yanukovych rely on the ethnic Russians who settled in the country in the Communist era. Ethnic Ukrainians are first and foremost nationalists. For them, membership in the European Union appears to offer an escape route from the new aggressive Russia and a safeguard of identity. Rejecting the EU option, Yanukovych has brought huge numbers of Ukrainians out into the street in most cities. In Kiev, the capital, an attack on the statue of Lenin shows that they’d got the point.
This isn’t a demonstration, said one of the leaders, it’s a revolution. Sure enough, barricades are up, government buildings are under occupation, riot police are beating people up though so far nobody has been killed. President Obama and the EU have no idea what to do, except to utter pro forma condemnations of violence. Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, is a new convert to the idea of the EU, and he and his Swedish counterpart are backing Ukrainian membership, no doubt seeing this as a way to block Russian expansion. At the moment, an international issue is shaping and there’s no good resolution in the offing. There’s irony too! Away in the background, Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front in France, is only one politician among others describing the EU as the old Soviet Union in disguise, and predicting its collapse.