Russia’s Putin Uses Political Karate To Keep Ukraine from Moving West

Posted November 25th, 2013 at 8:11 pm (UTC+0)
18 comments

Young people in Ukraine see their future with the European Union and are providing the backbone for the mass protests.

Young people in Ukraine see their future with the European Union. They are providing the backbone for the mass protests.

German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once observed that the Russian cavalry are “slow to saddle up, but ride fast.”

In the case of Ukraine this week, the Kremlin’s cavalry cut off Ukraine’s move to the West last week, dealing the European Union its biggest defeat – and first geographical reversal — since the end of the Cold War.

Russia’s decisive action provoked on Sunday the biggest protest demonstration seen in Kyiv since the Orange Revolution, almost a decade ago. But, while Ukraine’s youth may be outraged, it may take years to reverse Moscow’s power play.

For five years, the Kremlin seemed to be sleepwalking while Ukraine conducted an increasing flirtation with the European Union.

President Yanukovych's abrupt decision to not sign free trade pact with European Union triggered the biggest demonstrations in Kyiv since the 2004 Orange Revolution. The first big protest, on Sunday Nov. 24, brought out 100,000 at its peak.

President Yanukovych’s abrupt decision to not sign free trade pact with European Union triggered the biggest demonstrations in Kyiv since the 2004 Orange Revolution. The first big protest, on Sunday Nov. 24, brought out 100,000 at its peak.


Waking up last summer, the Kremlin first tried soft power, reminding Ukrainians of their shared orthodox faith, their common cultural and linguistic roots. Pushing a hot button issue, Moscow warned that joining the EU would mean adopting Western Europe’s laissez faire approach to homosexuality.

Ukrainians reacted by asking: Where are Slavic bonds of brotherhood when Russia charges Ukraine some of the highest gas prices in Europe?

Then, the Kremlin toyed with hard power, playing with unilateral trade sanctions. But the longer the lines of trucks stretched at Ukraine’s border with Russia, the higher the European option grew in Ukrainian public opinion polls.

As the Nov. 28 deadline approached for Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych to sign a free trade pact with the European Union, Ukraine’s signature on the EU deal seemed to be guaranteed.

But this looming deadline focused the attention of one of the most ruthless and clever political leaders in the world today: Vladimir Putin

Two months after brokering a Syrian chemical disarmament deal, Putin pulled off his second strategic coup, inducing Ukraine’s leadership to switch directions, and move East, instead of West.

Reuters, the normally sedate financial news agency, wrote this screaming headline: “Russia steals Ukrainian bride at the altar.”

In Lviv, the largest city in Western Ukraine, this couple went from their wedding on Sunday to the pro-Europe demonstration. On Monday, 10,000 University students went on strike in Lviv, which is a one hour drive from Poland.

In Lviv, the largest city in Western Ukraine, this couple went from their wedding on Sunday to the pro-Europe demonstration. On Monday, 10,000 University students went on strike in Lviv, which is a one hour drive from Poland.


Yanukovych’s abrupt switch flies in face of Ukrainian public opinion polls. They indicate Ukrainians favor the European Union over Russia by a margin of 3 to 1. Indeed, on Sunday, 100,000 pro-EU protesters flooded central Kyiv, with many pitching tents for the long haul.

So how did Putin persuade Ukrainian president last week to shift course and not sign with Europe?

Putin analyzed Yanukovych’s vulnerabilities. Then, they hit him where it hurt most — his political power base in Eastern Ukraine. Bordering Russia, this region is economically dependent on Russia.

Russian sanctions targeted Eastern Ukraine companies – railroad wagon manufacturers, steel producers, a chocolate manufacturer, and suppliers for the Russian military. Due to the Russian boycott, Ukrainian exports dropped by 25 percent, the economy shrank by 1.5 percent, companies laid plans to lay off thousands of workers, and Ukraine’s foreign currency reserves fell to an amount sufficient to cover two months of imports.

In a direct threat to Eastern Ukraine’s energy intensive factories, Russia’s Gazprom threatened to cut off gas supplies unless Ukraine started to make payments on his back bill of $1.5 billion.

In American terms, this is comparable to an American president closing the border with Mexico to force a Mexican president to join Nafta. (Mexico voluntarily joined the North American Free Trade Association in 1994.)

A protester wrapped in a European Union flag confronts two riot policemen guarding Ukrainian cabinet of ministers building in Kyiv on Monday, the fourth day of protests. Photo: Reuters: Gleb Garanich

A protester wrapped in a European Union flag faces two riot policemen guarding Ukrainian cabinet of ministers building in Kyiv on Monday, the fifth day of protests. Photo: Reuters: Gleb Garanich


Last year, Russia joined the World Trade Organization, which severely restricts such unilateral barriers. But one year later, some economists say, Russia treats the WTO accession agreement like a scrap of power. In the last three months, Russia has bullied other neighbors, banning milk products from Lithuania, fish from Estonia, and wine from Moldova.

On Nov. 9, Yanukovych flew to Russia for a secret meeting with Putin. Talks lasted until late at night. To finalize details, the Ukrainian and Russian prime ministers met in St. Petersburg last week. Details have not been made public. But gas pricing discounts may be part of the deal.

Russia’s damage to Ukraine’s economy was so severe, that Ukraine’s Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said that the main benefit from the deal will be simply to reestablish normal trade relations with Russian.

On Yanukovych’s return from Russia, the mood music from the Ukrainian government changed sharply — toward Euro skepticism. Yanukovych briefed his supporters well. When key pro-Russia votes were needed, his cabinet and Party of Regions voted unanimously.

On Nov. 21, Yanukovych let his prime minister make the surprise announcement of Ukraine’s return to the Russian fold. That day, the President was in Vienna, continuing to promise that Ukraine’s future is with Europe.

Protesters sing Ukraine's national anthem Nov. 25 in Kyiv. They vow to come out on bigger numbers on Nov. 29, the day that President Yanukovych was to sign a free trade pact at a EU Summit meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania. Photo: Reuters/Gleb Garanaich

Protesters sing Ukraine’s national anthem Nov. 25 in Kyiv. They vow to come out on bigger numbers on Nov. 29, the day that President Yanukovych was to sign a free trade pact at a EU Summit meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania. Photo: Reuters/Gleb Garanaich

Yanukovych still nurtures ambitions to win Ukraine’s presidential elections in March 2015. With or without Russian aid, Yanukovych has to find $17 billion in new credits for Ukraine next year. With the country teetering on the edge of default, alternative include jacking up household gas prices and devaluing the currency. Evidently, Yanukovych is banking of Russian aid to help his win reelection.

Back in Moscow, Putin, the cold master of political karate, did not waste capital on victory celebrations. Instead, he launched a pre-emptive attack on Friday against protest demonstrations that he knew were planned. He accused the European Union of paying to organize anti-Russia rallies. Once again, Putin used an aggressive offense to play defense.

So when 100,000 people marched Sunday in Kyiv, Russia’s state controlled media downgraded the turnout, and then quoted Putin predicting that the EU would organize anti-Russia protests.

Sharp reaction came from Europe’s top two leaders, José Manuel Barroso, European Commission president, and Herman Van Rompuy, European Council chief.

Victor Yuschenko, Ukraine’s former president, appealed for European aid, writing in The Financial Times: “Those who underestimated Moscow’s readiness to use whatever means to maintain a sphere of influence must draw lessons from this development and help overcome Russia’s imperialistic claims.”

But, in a review of Putin’s ruthless tactics, one European analyst conjured up the image of French baguette, a long loaf of bread that is slender and somewhat soft. He compared Brussels’ duel with Russia to a man brandishing a baguette in a knife fight.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

18 Responses to “Russia’s Putin Uses Political Karate To Keep Ukraine from Moving West”

  1. Don Walker says:

    …Putin is not going to help Yanukovych with any tanks.

  2. Emilio says:

    Where is Ukrainian Democracy? First, Julia Tymochenko made her personal decision to sign a bad pact with Gazprom and Putin, under “duress: compulsion by threat or force; coercion; constraint” , without consulting with the Parliament. Now, the power to make another significant decision to join either EU or Kremlin lies in the hands of two people, the Ukrainian President and the Prime Minister. I think that these critical decisions about Ukrainian Economy and Security must be decided democratically in a citizens informed REFERENDUM. These issues may be part of the coming political campaigns promises for Party leaders, and let the people vote..No need to rush into any unclear contracts.

    • JLNancy says:

      Democracy in Ukraine?? Pshaw! I only wish it could be so. Ukraine’s President Yanukovych’s fear of democracy and aversion to the rule of law is greater than any of his sense of fair play and referendum-planning/voting. Besides, most importantly, ,Russia spends billions in anti-democracy propaganda in Ukraine…..

      It’s all working out the way Putin wanted it to play out. The mass protests, the no-confidence voting turnout etc. just manageable glitches to downplay
      E.g.
      Yanukoych: Heads will roll (re those who were not loyal to him)
      Putin: Just another pogrom.

  3. […] blocking nearly all imports from Ukraine and cutting energy supplies to the country. In turn, this reduced Ukrainian exports by 25 percent and shrank the economy by 1.5 percent. As the Wall Street Journal reported, “Ukrainian officials […]

  4. […] to a different set of rules. Unlike the European Union, Putin has sticks: He has imposed a trade boycott since August. Unlike the European Union, Putin offers carrots: He has hinted at lower gas prices, […]

  5. […] exports subsequently plummeted by 25 percent, long line-ups of lorries formed at the Russian border and currency reserves shrunk to cover just […]

  6. […] exports subsequently plummeted by 25 percent, long line-ups of lorries formed at the Russian border and currency reserves shrunk to cover just […]

  7. JLNancy says:

    I am ever so grateful to you for your marvelous postings. Not only do you connect the dots so articulately (and often so humorously), you know most specifically what-where-,when-how-and-why the *dots* really exist! I often share a link to your *blog* w/others because IME ppl are usually clueless as to the real story behind world current events.

    Re your article on Ukraine,- political karate it IS indeed…and yes, Putin is “one of the lost ruthless and clever leaders in the world today.”

    Unfortunately, IMHO,, the internet is so rife w/ Kremlin apologists and propaganda brainwashed dupes who.spew half-truths nee lies mixed w/ vicious Ukrainophobia (nurtured by Putin idolizers/admirers and, yes, Ukraine’s *anti-Ukrainian* Party of the Regions, et al) . Combine that w/ Putin’s et al mafia mentality and it is more than evident that it is just hard for Ukraine (esp eastern Ukr) to break free from the world-wide image that is portrayed of her, instead of the accurate picture of her truly being victimized by the various Russian disinformation-media-strategies.- Half-truths just get lapped up by a curious, uninformed public audience that believe they’ve gotten *educated*, about a *world issue* (in this case, a major Ukrainian protest) when, it reality, its just all info they’re getting channeled in from Kremlin’s smoke & mirrors.

    Thank you for all of your insights and the reality-behind-it-all postings.

    • alex says:

      So, you believe that Germany, EU, US, are all about Ukraine people’s living standard, democracy, rule of law, and not about how to exploit it’s natural resources, turn it against Russia? The west doesn’t care about people of Ukraine, except, maybe, the Vatican who is always eager to spread it’s influence in ortodox christian countries. And why intervention in Syria? Why not in Bahrain? Is Saudi Arabia a democracy? Was Chile a democracy during Pinochet’s rule, or Spain under Franco? No, but it didn’t matter, they were on the right side.

  8. JLNancy says:

    oops – typo in my post > Putin > “one of the MOST ruthless and clever leaders in the world today” (Please correct.. TIA)

  9. Diana says:

    People all over the EU are screaming for their governments to get out of the EU. Going east may be the lessor of the evils.

  10. JLNancy says:

    A compelling point re EU.

    BUT

    “…Going east may be the lesser of the evils” ^ ^

    SAID THE SPIDER TO THE FLY. (AHAHAHA)

    (If you mean that Ukraine should become part of the new & revised Great Russian Empire, like Byelorussia )
    - Millions of Ukrainians already live in poverty, corrupt institutions from education to medicine to government, the persecution of independent media outlets, and the lack of protection from law enforcement or the courts…

    • Diana says:

      No. It would be like jumping from the pan into the fire, although I think people worldwide are like the preverbal frogs in a slow-boiling pot now. God help them.

  11. Putin is not the type of man that comes up with lukewarm measures. He knows that in order to win he has to play coldly so as not to lose valuable assets. that is the sheer reality of commerce however you may want to look at it.

    • JLNancy says:

      Yes, no likewarm measures.

      Looking at his *cold ,sheer-reality games…errr..I mean…achievements this past year:

      – STICKING IT to the West by giving temporary asylum to Snowden (I do hope you have read James Brookes’ blog-article on Snowden as *the* prize)

      – STICKING IT to the West again by preventing an intervention in Syria and bringing forward a “diplomatic” solution ( You read James Brookes’ blog article re the real story?)

      – Getting Ukraine out of her drift towards the EU by BLACKMAILING her into a treaty binding her closer to Russia

      – An amnesty for political prisoners only for a public relations coup to gain more trust and popularity for the upcoming Olympics.

      – Dismantling his-tightly controlled Russian News Service and creating a new one headed by an individual who has neither any professional journalistic integrity nor any professional objectivity who also says “..the Cold War is not over” (a sign of extreme DEGRADATION of the Russian media open to disseminating more lies and nonsense around the world) and doing his entire media reorganization WITHOUT even informing the news staff.

      These are just a few of the Machiavellian ways Putin *plays* to win.
      Ethics? Moral integrity? Fuh-get-about-it.

      • sorry for my poor comments done without examining any of the blogs you mentioned, but overwhelmed by the volume of atrocities this man has done to his own people, to the syrian and to people like you who still believe in justice, and who are rightly angered because you live in a democracy and are beacons to us who live in the dark not knowing which way to go, just choosing fake” héroes” like putin

  12. Natalya says:

    Please, healp. Any financial assistance activists on Maidan:
    WMZ-кошелёк-Z646883238706
    WME-кошелёк- E751762665149
    Thanks, all.

About

About

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.

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