Why a new Ukraine is the Kremlin's worst nightmare

The domino effect of democracy on Russia's border threatens the entire system Putin has built since 2000 - and he will not let it go lightly

Share

The details still need to be decided, but the revolutionaries have won in Ukraine. Some elements of the old regime may survive, but that is precisely why the protesters on the “Maidan” (Kiev’s main square) don’t trust the mainstream politicians who claim to be negotiating on their behalf.

The politicians in suits can do the donkey work – writing a new constitution to improve on the old one they have just restored, and trying to save the collapsing economy. But the Maidan leaders in the fatigues and helmets will set the agenda on justice – dismantling the militia and reworking the corrupt legal system, so that the many guilty end up behind bars. And there are credible reports that the snipers who killed more than 70 on Thursday were based in the government buildings that are  already being occupied by protesters combing for evidence. Once the world knows who gave the deadly orders, justice will decapitate the old regime. And the “official”  opposition will be radicalised by the need to compete with the moral authority of the Maidan.

All of which is the Kremlin’s worst nightmare. When the protests started back in November they were about a trade deal with the EU. Russia was ecstatic that it had persuaded Ukraine to walk away from that deal, and was picking off the other states in the EU’s “Eastern Partnership” programme (Armenia caved in September, Georgia and Moldova were  expected to come under enormous pressure in 2014). Russia hoped to drag them into its alternative Eurasian Union instead, which is due to be launched in January 2015.

But this is 10 times worse than Brussels expanding its bureaucracy to Russia’s borders. A real democracy in Ukraine is an existential threat to the entire system that Vladimir Putin has built since 2000. Ironically because Putin is right – most Russians regard Ukraine as a kin state, or not really a different state at all. They are used to stepping in tandem; so if something changes in Ukraine, why not in Russia too? And now the dominoes might fall in the other direction. Other Maidans might appear in other neighbouring states – maybe first in Moldova where the Russia-backed Communist Party was hoping to return to power in elections due in November.

Latest:

Country is descending into a chaos of warring extremist groups
EU aims to woo new leadership with aid deal
Comment: Too simple to describe this as a case of East vs West
Putin promises to work with Merkel and keep crisis-hit country ‘intact’

Putin marginalised his own protest movement after the last Russian election cycle. He does not want to see that flare up again. So far, the Russian opposition has been quiet. Few have supported the Ukrainian Maidan, even fewer sound inspired to copy it – for now. But Putin will need to come up with something more convincing than the scattergun propaganda the Russian media has pumped out to date.

None of the favourite Russian myths – the protesters are all crazy nationalists, which is why they are also backed by the Americans, the young guys throwing rocks are really only interested in promoting gay rights – make much sense in the long run.

So the new government in Ukraine, however it’s made up, will be given the briefest of ritualistic honeymoons before Russia uses every instrument at its disposal to try to make it fail. Unfortunately, Russia holds most of the economic cards. Ukraine’s coffers are almost empty, and the old guard is busy looting what is left. It has less than $18bn (£10.9bn) in hard currency reserves, its currency is dropping and immediate debt-repayment needs are more than $10bn.

Russia tied Ukraine to a $15bn bailout deal in December, which is parcelled out by the month to maximise leverage, and periodically suspended whenever the opposition looked like getting the upper hand. But Russia’s real aim was to provide just enough money to support the old semi-authoritarian system (helping Viktor Yanukovych pay the police) and keep Ukrainian society post-Soviet, that is, still dependent on government. So Ukraine’s new leaders will have to be honest and say their aim is to dismantle both. They cannot declare victory now, but will have to plead for popular support during what will be two or three difficult years.

 

And if the West is serious about an alternative deal, Ukraine needs a lot of money fast. Fortunately, the West would no longer be throwing it down the black hole created by the old regime. Instead the money would support the kind of kamikaze leader Ukraine has never had in the past. Politicians were reluctant to make difficult choices and lose elections, because they’d never get back into power. Now Russia and the old regime will back any populist who promises to keep government subsidies flowing; but an honest kamikaze might just win the long-term credit and at least write his place in the history books.

Russia has talked a lot about its “soft power” in recent years. It isn’t particularly soft. The new Ukraine will pay more for gas, which will be regularly cut off for “technical reasons”. Russia’s crazy “food safety” agency will declare that everything that comes out of Ukraine is radioactive. Ukrainian migrant workers will be sent home now they have finished helping to  rebuild Sochi.

Worst of all, Russia will work hard to try to re-corrupt the  political system. The Kremlin used to boast that it could exploit Ukraine’s old-style “democracy” – meaning that, just like Yanukovych, they could launch their own puppet parties and buy agents of influence in the honest ones. The Ukrainian Front, a bizarre alliance of hooligans and bikers with a vaguely pan-Slavist ideology that appeared in the eastern city of Kharkiv two weeks ago, was backed by the Russians. Skinheads and sportsmen with the money to spend on propaganda are not a natural combination. Similar groups may pop up in Crimea and elsewhere, where the last elements of the old regime may try and regroup.

But Russia’s ultimate problem is the same as Yanukovych faced. The Kremlin simply can’t understand that protesters would be motivated by ideology rather than by money or foreign support. The Russians were good at manipulating the old system, but dealing with real revolutionaries is a different matter. Ukraine is starting a very bumpy ride.

Andrew Wilson, Reader in Ukrainian studies at University College London, is author of 'Ukraine's Orange Revolution'

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
Queen Elizabeth II with members of the Order of Merit  

Either the Queen thinks that only one in 24 Britons are women, or her Order of Merit is appallingly backward

Janet Street-Porter
Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...