I will specify: this is a viewpoint from liberal Moscow. It is the viewpoint of a Moscow which starts and finishes its day with reading Ukrainian news and takes Ukrainian Euromaidan to heart.
Of course, you won’t see all dramatic intertwinement from here, from Moscow. All the more so you cannot draw any conclusions confidently without knowing and feeling the subtleties of versatile Ukrainian political life.
Nonetheless, I want to risk sharing with you my impressions about the latest events in Ukraine, viewing them via the prism of logic of authoritarian power. Much has been written about the disparities between Ukraine and Russia. The Maidan has confirmed how much Ukrainian society is ahead of us, Russians, in possessing the feeling of dignity and readiness to defend it. But I don’t think that psychology and ambitions of our leaders, Putin and Yanukovych, who work in the format of autocracy and rely on their clans, are as much different. I can assume that their degrees of provinciality, greediness, vengefulness, ability to risk in their struggle for power, and presence of power resource under their control may differ. Probably, the level of superficial education, as well. But, by all appearances, they are united by something bigger: understanding of the laws of autocracy and that you cannot voluntarily leave it without suffering severest consequences. But if the latter is correct, here are my reflections concerning the current events in Ukraine which are probably reaching the point of no return.
Three factors determine the vector of further development of the situation in Ukraine: organization by the power of its own anti-maidan; suspending the negotiations about signing the Association Agreement, according to the statement of the main EU negotiator Stefan Fuele on December 15; Yanukovych’s negotiations in Moscow about the terms of his surrender (namely surrender!) and agreement to bring Ukraine to Russia’s orbit.
Creation of a support camp for Yanukovych in Kyiv and at the same time his refusal to fulfill the most important demand of the Maidan, dismissal of Azarov’s government, in my understanding, mean only one thing: Yanukovych is not going to lead a full-fledged dialogue with his opponents; neither is he ready to refuse from the struggle for monopolistic power. On the contrary, he is gathering his “people’s support” in Kyiv which is supposed to legitimize his rule and what he is going to do in the near future. The fact that he does not give up the key players of his team responsible for the use of force in Maidan only confirms the course he has taken, which can be defined as follows: “You wish!” The meeting of Yanukovych’s adherents, like the meetings Putin gathered in Moscow in 2012, is a sign that the leaders are ready for confrontation with the society, not for compromises. And preserving the team, correspondingly, the principle of loyalty as groundwork of personal power is very much in the manner of Putin.
The suspension of association negotiations in Brussels means that the EU’s patience has exhausted to play the game Yanukovych imposed on them. His actions and statements, which are sometimes too frank (in particular, about the “danger” of agreement between Ukraine and the EU) mean that he is not going to sign any associations with Europe. And the thing is not about the lack of compensation for the vector. The thing is he has been invited to play the game which is strange for him. Yes, I am speaking about only the free trade area. But Ukrainians perceive the association as something bigger and will constantly demand even more. Why then allow them to open the vent pane? It is better to shut it, like the Moscow tsar did.
I think Yanukovych was sincere when he said “we will gradually join the Customs Union.” Even the compensation Kyiv asks Brussels to give for the association (both 160 billion dollars, and 20 billion dollars) is only a way to prolong the delay with Brussels, which has turned into a smokescreen and allows the president to lead real negotiations with Moscow. And all the meetings Yanukovych had with Western envoys who are on duty in Kyiv almost every day and all the promises he made to them appear to be empty air. The game with the West has only one purpose for the Ukrainian president – to trade less humiliating conditions for surrender to the Kremlin. And the evidence of this is gradually growing. And if Western envoys still believe his promises, this is either naivety, or lack of understanding how the regime of authoritarian power works, especially at the stage when its bearer does not want to assume responsibility for what he has already done. The fact that Brussels is still trying to bring Yanukovych to his senses, and Barroso even promises an EU-Ukraine summit to the Ukrainian president, helps Ukraine continue the negotiations about surrender. Using the West in an anti-Western project is something very familiar for us in Russia. Putin has polished his skills in this, using cooperation with the West to discredit the West among the Russian audience, and liberals in the government – to discredit liberalism.
But Yanukovych’s dialogue with Moscow is the crucial stroke in this wonderful picture. In Brussels the Ukrainian delegation is carrying out an operation, which is aimed to distract attention. In Moscow, the experts of two countries are indeed working on agreements against which Ukraine is rebelling. And there is no need to jerk around, like some observers do, and say that the thing is allegedly about Moscow and Kyiv’s attempts to find a compromise which will enable Ukraine to sign an Association Agreement with the EU and at the same time enter the Customs Union. Don’t be ridiculous! Brussels and Moscow offer different formats of life to Kyiv and they have nothing in common!
However, I admit that Russia’s offer to Ukraine is quite definite and clear, while Brussels’ is rather vague for now...
Perhaps Viktor Yanukovych is still trying to bargain with Moscow to try and get concessions for himself and his clan, so as not to become a Ukrainian jester at the Kremlin court. Still, it has stopped to be that important. What is important is the Kremlin talking to him from a position of strength and it is clear why they are able to do so, for Yanukovych is weak and looks weak, whatever his physical size. It is so because Vladimir Putin sees him as a leader unable to regain power in his own capital. He is unlikely to be respected by the master of the Kremlin, as Putin does not like weak people. He was heard saying contemptuously: “The weak get beaten...” I am almost sure that the Kremlin strategists believe Yanukovych to be a spent force... I would agree with them on that. While continuing to speak to Yanukovych, the Kremlin is, of course, looking for a new partner in Ukraine. Will they find one? It depends on other considerations, on how the Euromaidan story will develop. Meanwhile, Russia wants Yanukovych to perform the role of “cleaner” who does all the dirty work.
What options has Yanukovych left in this situation? Go cap in hand to the West? It would mean accepting the demands of the opposition. But then, why did he assemble this anti-Maidan of his own? Ukrainian observers know better if he can get beyond limitations of the logic of power under which he is operating now. In this case, he will need to prepare for departure from the scene and look for guarantees from prosecution. Whether he is ready for this? Ukrainian analysts know better. I do not know a modern leader who would suddenly give up power voluntarily having achieved it with persistent efforts and used it to their full personal advantage. On the contrary, I see examples of how lame duck leaders in their twilight hour frantically clung to power by resorting to violence...
If Yanukovych continues to operate in the way that I discuss here, he will continue negotiating his surrender with Russia. Yes, this means the Kremlin’s open and formal entry into the Ukrainian game as the most important political and economic factor. However, it is far from necessary for it to be shaped as Ukraine’s accession to the Customs Union (CU). Putin has evidently decided not to irritate the Ukrainians and he downplayed the issue of Ukraine in his address to the Federal Assembly. This means that for now, we are more likely to see a package of agreements that would tie Ukraine to Russia despite lack of the CU membership. Putin’s “Ukraine tsar” Sergei Glaziev spoke openly about it, noting that Russia can (and will?) negotiate with Yanukovych on implementation of the already ratified Treaty on the Common Economic Space. When it comes to protocols appended to an already signed agreement, the president can avoid putting them for ratification to this obstinate Verkhovna Rada. Or can he?
The most important thing is that Russia will not accept Yanukovych as a partner who can meet his obligations while he has to contend with a strong opposition and Euromaidan. Thus, Yanukovych will have to solve this issue. The sooner he does it, the larger the bonus that he will receive from Moscow. Yanukovych has already got from the Kremlin all possible excuses to solve it and an indulgence to justify all his future actions to that effect. After all, it was not for nothing that Sergei Lavrov said in a recent interview: “We have a street protest on such a scale and with such fierce slogans, as if Ukraine declared war on a peace-loving nation against the will of the Ukrainian people. It does not fit into the framework of normal human analysis. I have no doubt that provocateurs are behind this.” This statement, of course, was designed for the Russian audience, too, to prepare it for the Ukrainian government solving the “provocateurs” issue. It contains a message for the West, too, accusing it of supporting provocateurs.
Should the Ukrainian government be successfully pushed into crackdown on Euromaidan, under whatever pretext (terror attack has become so trite), Yanukovych will have nowhere to go then. He will become a hostage of the Kremlin. However, it is unlikely that the Kremlin will need him as a cleaner...