Ukraine's Threat to Putin

Why the protests in Kiev could deal a major blow to official corruption in Russia
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A man throws a flare in the direction of Interior Ministry members during a rally held by supporters of EU integration in Kiev. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

The latest threat to Vladimir Putin's autocratic rule may be coming not from the Russian opposition but from the Ukrainian street. 

As tens of thousands continue to protest in Kiev against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's decision to scuttle a pact with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Moscow, and with mass rallies scheduled this weekend, many in the Russian opposition seem to get this.

"We support Ukraine's course toward European integration," Boris Nemtsov told Interfax recently. "By supporting Ukraine, we also support ourselves." 

Nemtsov was among the handful of protesters detained on December 1 outside the Ukrainian Embassy in Moscow. They had gathered under the banner "Ukraine, We Are With You" to show solidarity with those taking to the streets in Kyiv. A day earlier, 30 prominent Russian writers and poets penned an open letter in support of the Ukrainian protesters. 

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"Your struggle for the right to choose your own path is going to be difficult—but we hope you are successful," they wrote. "This would be a sign that in Russia we too can defend our rights and freedoms. We are with you!"

Putin, who also grasps the significance of the Ukrainian uprising for Russia, was predictably less positive in his assessment. The protests, he said, resembled "a pogrom." 

And it was perhaps with the events in Ukraine on his mind that the Kremlin leader announced this week that he would not be granting amnesties to the defendants in the so-called "Bolotnaya case" against those detained during anti-Kremlin demonstrations that turned violent on May 6, 2012. 

The mass protests in Kiev are taking on additional symbolic value because they are taking place almost exactly two years after Russians staged the largest anti-government protests since the fall of the Soviet Union—also on Bolotnaya Square—on December 11, 2011.

Nemtsov noted the mass nature of the Kiev protests, which dwarfed even the largest Moscow demonstrations. "What we saw in Kiev last weekend, when by various estimates between 400,000 and 800,000 people came out, speaks for itself," Nemtsov said. "And by the way, the population of Kiev is four times less than that of Moscow." In a sarcastic post on Slon.ru, blogger Arkady Babchenko implored the Ukrainian opposition not to repeat the "success" of their Russian counterparts. 

"The success of any human endeavor depends at least in part on the ability to imagine an outcome. The Westernizers in Russia have had so few successes in the last decadeor the last centurythat they have a hard time imagining anything but failure," Moscow-based journalist and author Masha Gessen wrote in The New York Times.

"But now the Ukrainians are showing the Russians that there might be another way. If they succeed, they may change the future of not one but two of the largest countries in Europe."

But the significance of the events in Kiev, of the Maydan, is larger than the lessons they offer to Russia's Bolotnaya opposition. They are larger than the precedent that a democratic revolution in culturally similar Ukraine could set for Russia.

This is about more than contagion. True systemic change in Ukraine would have practical consequences for its northern neighbor. It would deal a significantif not mortalblow to the corrupt political and economic model Putin has fine-tuned in Russia and sought to export to the rest of the former Soviet space.

In a 2012 briefing paper for Chatham House, James Greene wrote that a key part of the Putin model was to use corrupt business schemes to "capture" elites and make them compliantboth in Russia and in other parts of the former USSR. 

"Putin used the carrot of corruption in conjunction with the stick of 'compromat' to establish patron-client political relationships," Greene wrote.

"By broadening this approach to the corrupt transnational schemes that flowed seamlessly from Russia to the rest of the former Soviet spaceand oozed beyond itPutin could extend his shadow influence beyond Russia's borders and develop a natural 'captured' constituency for maintaining a common Eurasian business space."

As growth slows and Russia faces an increasingly dire budgetary crunch, projects like Putin's Eurasian Union will become increasingly vital for the Kremlin. And as New York University professor and longtime Kremlin-watcher Mark Galeotti said in a recent Power Vertical Podcast, Ukraine is a key piece of that puzzle. 

"Ukraine performs a vital role for the not-so-open elements of the Russian economy," Galeotti said.

"Ukraine is an initial pre-wash venue for dirty Russian money. We've seen the port of Odessa being used for all kinds of dubious arms deals.... Losing that would affect not only the Kremlin but also the profitable opportunities of a large number of people whose opinions matter to the Kremlin."

Likewise, in his column in the Financial Times, foreign affairs commentator Gideon Rachman noted that "events in Ukraine are profoundly threatening to the personal interests and ideology of President Putin and his circle."


This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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