Commentary Magazine


Topic: Viktor Yanukovych

How Rational Is Putin’s Threat Perception?

During the Ukrainian election of 2004, Angus Roxburgh sat down with Sergei Markov, who was helping the pro-Putin candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, at the behest of the Kremlin. Roxburgh, who describes the encounter in his book on Vladimir Putin, asked Markov what he thought of the opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko. He could hardly believe the answer. Markov told him that he believed Yushchenko was completely controlled by his wife, who was a radical Ukrainian nationalist in league with Nazis and with Polish instigators who, through his wife, were installing Yushchenko in order to most likely start a war with Russia.

This is, to put it mildly, not the most rational assessment. Roxburgh continues: “These are quite astonishing claims, but they are important, for it is highly likely that Markov’s apocalyptic view was shared by his masters in the Kremlin.” That is, Vladimir Putin probably believed this nonsense. Putin is nothing if not paranoid–that chapter of Roxburgh’s book is called “Enemies Everywhere”–and his policies are often based on these kinds of ludicrous conspiracy theories. It’s worth recalling at this point that Yushchenko was poisoned during the election.

This is a recurring problem for the West in trying to predict Putin’s behavior. I noted yesterday that the idea that NATO expansion can or should be blamed for Putin’s behavior is not only amoral–those nations should have a say in their own affairs independent of the Kremlin–but nonsensical. And yet, after Russia invaded Ukraine in order to seize the Crimean peninsula and destabilize Ukrainian politics, we heard this canard again from various quarters. Today’s New York Times contains an important response to that claim in what is one of the best articles on the Ukraine crisis yet. The Times writes about European self-delusion toward both Russia and Ukraine, and adds with regard to the expansion of the European Union:

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During the Ukrainian election of 2004, Angus Roxburgh sat down with Sergei Markov, who was helping the pro-Putin candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, at the behest of the Kremlin. Roxburgh, who describes the encounter in his book on Vladimir Putin, asked Markov what he thought of the opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko. He could hardly believe the answer. Markov told him that he believed Yushchenko was completely controlled by his wife, who was a radical Ukrainian nationalist in league with Nazis and with Polish instigators who, through his wife, were installing Yushchenko in order to most likely start a war with Russia.

This is, to put it mildly, not the most rational assessment. Roxburgh continues: “These are quite astonishing claims, but they are important, for it is highly likely that Markov’s apocalyptic view was shared by his masters in the Kremlin.” That is, Vladimir Putin probably believed this nonsense. Putin is nothing if not paranoid–that chapter of Roxburgh’s book is called “Enemies Everywhere”–and his policies are often based on these kinds of ludicrous conspiracy theories. It’s worth recalling at this point that Yushchenko was poisoned during the election.

This is a recurring problem for the West in trying to predict Putin’s behavior. I noted yesterday that the idea that NATO expansion can or should be blamed for Putin’s behavior is not only amoral–those nations should have a say in their own affairs independent of the Kremlin–but nonsensical. And yet, after Russia invaded Ukraine in order to seize the Crimean peninsula and destabilize Ukrainian politics, we heard this canard again from various quarters. Today’s New York Times contains an important response to that claim in what is one of the best articles on the Ukraine crisis yet. The Times writes about European self-delusion toward both Russia and Ukraine, and adds with regard to the expansion of the European Union:

“But once a country signs up, it is in Weight Watchers and, if they follow the regimen, they change,” she said. “Russia realized this and did not like it.” Indeed, she added, Russia had already been deeply alarmed by the transformation of countries like Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania after they entered the European Union in 2004.

Their joining the European Union was followed swiftly by their admission to NATO, a sequence that strengthened Moscow’s view that Brussels served as a stalking horse for the American-led military alliance.

In the case of Ukraine, Europe never offered even the possibility of it one day joining the European Union, and NATO dropped Ukraine as a potential future member back in 2008. This raised hopes in Brussels that Moscow might not object too strongly. Russia initially expressed little unease about Europe’s Eastern Partnership plans, lulling Europe into a false sense of clear sailing ahead.

After Mr. Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012, after a four-year stint as prime minister, previous talk of shared interests in free trade and close cooperation gave way to increasingly forceful calls for the establishment of a Moscow-dominated rival to the European Union called the Eurasian Union.

By last summer, Moscow embarked on a sustained campaign of pressure to dissuade former Soviet lands, including Ukraine, from siding with Europe.

The whole article is worth reading, especially for its portrayal of Brussels as hopelessly naïve to the point of negligence in its conduct of foreign affairs. But the point about economic ties throwing up red flags in the Kremlin is an important one. Russia had been “deeply alarmed” by the financial success of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. It proved, it seemed, that breaking away from Moscow in favor of the West was the way to improve life for your citizens.

Latvia, no matter when it was admitted to NATO, has no plans to invade Russia. And anyway the argument that Putin’s Russia reacts to perceived threats to its security is not one that should govern the West’s conduct, for two main reasons: first, Putin’s perception of risk is not rational, and second, Putin includes economic integration and improvement in his overall assessment of foreign security threats. Hence the Eurasian Union proposal. Putin sees countries as either collaborators or competitors. There is no such thing as neutrality, there is only loyalty and disloyalty.

If Putin sees economic cooperation as a prelude to military cooperation, should the West also cease expanding economic ties with countries Putin wants to control? Ukraine is in Europe; should Europe not be permitted to trade freely with a European country if that’s what both want? What this saga (and the Times piece) makes clear is that Putin does not want to see his neighbors thrive economically or their living standard improved independent from Moscow’s direction.

In other words, what Putin wants is not a multipolar world but a bipolar world; he simply exploits the West’s desire for a multipolar world in order to draw the line as far from Moscow as he can. The Times suggests this whole incident is a wake-up call for Brussels. It should also be one for Washington, which has not been free of its own wishful thinking toward Putin’s Russia.

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Ukraine: What Comes Next?

“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/ But to be young was very heaven!–Oh! times.”

So wrote William Wordsworth about the commencement of the French Revolution. His words, no doubt, are echoed by many in Kiev today as they contemplate the sudden and shocking success of their revolution.

President Viktor Yanukovych has been chased from power. His opulent palaces are now open to the public to see the extent of his enrichment at public expense. His leading political opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, has been freed from prison. One of her allies, parliament speaker Oleksandr Turchynov, has assumed the powers of the president and a snap election has been called to elect a permanent successor. Remarkably enough there has been little violence or looting; this has been an unusually orderly revolution–so far.

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“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/ But to be young was very heaven!–Oh! times.”

So wrote William Wordsworth about the commencement of the French Revolution. His words, no doubt, are echoed by many in Kiev today as they contemplate the sudden and shocking success of their revolution.

President Viktor Yanukovych has been chased from power. His opulent palaces are now open to the public to see the extent of his enrichment at public expense. His leading political opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, has been freed from prison. One of her allies, parliament speaker Oleksandr Turchynov, has assumed the powers of the president and a snap election has been called to elect a permanent successor. Remarkably enough there has been little violence or looting; this has been an unusually orderly revolution–so far.

But we have seen just in the past week how dizzying can be the twists and turns of Ukrainian politics, and there is no reason to believe that they are at the end of the journey. Recall that as recently as Thursday, Kiev was the scene of bloody fighting, which was brought to a halt by a power-sharing accord reached on Friday between Yanukovych and opposition leaders. That accord, in turn, was rendered irrelevant by the president’s decision to flee his capital on Saturday.

Whatever next? No one can say, but one quarter from which we can expect the unexpected is Moscow. Vladimir Putin has been seen, rightly or wrongly, as the puppet-master pulling Yanukovych’s strings. It was Putin who convinced Yanukovych to forego closer ties with the EU in return for a $15 billion loan from Russia. This was seen as a masterstroke at the time, but it sparked a revolution which has cast Yanukovych from power, at least for now, and instilled, no doubt, deep dread in the Kremlin.

If an autocrat can be ejected from power by popular action in Kiev, why not in Moscow? In reality, of course, there are numerous reasons why Putin’s hold on power is more secure, but dictators are habitually paranoid and Putin is no exception: He knows that the example of Ukraine is likely to embolden his opposition in Russia.

We can expect a riposte from Putin before long, and from his allies in Ukraine who are down but not defeated. How the revolution will unfold no one knows, but Ukraine has had plenty of experience of thwarted upheavals.

This is, after all, the second popular uprising against Yanukovych, the first being the Orange Revolution of 2004-2005. Although thwarted in his attempt to steal that election, Yanukovych returned to power in 2010, managing to win a fair election after his political adversaries failed to show results while in office.

This is a second chance for the pro-Western parties in Ukraine to deal with the deep-seated malaise of the economy, the pervasive corruption, and all the other ills that afflict this troubled land. They had better do better than last time–and all the while fending off what are sure to be determined attempts at sabotage emanating from Moscow. Let us hope that the U.S. and the EU will throw their weight on the scales to help prevent Putin’s puppets from slinking back into power.

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A Good Deal for the Ukrainian Opposition

The agreement reached between President Viktor Yanukovych and Ukrainian opposition leaders is about as good as the anti-government forces can possibly hope to get.

It calls, inter alia, for a power-sharing arrangement with the opposition to be followed by a new presidential election no later than December. It also commits the government not to impose a state of emergency–meaning martial law–and to allow outside monitors from Europe and the opposition to monitor all investigations “into recent acts of violence.”

A sign of just how favorable this agreement is to the opposition: while it was signed by the foreign ministers of Poland, France, and Germany, all of whom are in Kiev, the Russian delegate pointedly refused to sign it.

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The agreement reached between President Viktor Yanukovych and Ukrainian opposition leaders is about as good as the anti-government forces can possibly hope to get.

It calls, inter alia, for a power-sharing arrangement with the opposition to be followed by a new presidential election no later than December. It also commits the government not to impose a state of emergency–meaning martial law–and to allow outside monitors from Europe and the opposition to monitor all investigations “into recent acts of violence.”

A sign of just how favorable this agreement is to the opposition: while it was signed by the foreign ministers of Poland, France, and Germany, all of whom are in Kiev, the Russian delegate pointedly refused to sign it.

Yet, many protesters in the streets are not prepared to accept what is largely a victory. Many of them refuse to disperse from Independence Square until Yanukovych resigns. Their position is understandable but misguided. As Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski reportedly told demonstrators: “If you don’t support this [deal] you’ll have martial law, you’ll have the army. You will all be dead.”

Sikorski should know what he is talking about, having spent a good part of his life as a refugee from Poland, which saw the imposition of martial law in 1981.

It remains an open question, however, whether many of the people on the streets of Kiev will heed Sikorski’s wisdom and that of their own leaders. They should, because all too many revolutions have gone off the rails when the revolutionaries pushed for an absolutist agenda and refused to accept a compromise that would have given them 75 percent of what they wanted. The classic example is, of course, the French Revolution, which started off as a moderate, liberal movement in 1789 and soon thereafter was drenched in blood from one round of “terror” after another.

The most successful and revered revolutionaries are those, like Michael Collins and Nelson Mandela, who are willing to accept a negotiated outcome to avoid an all-out war. That is an example the people of Ukraine would be wise to heed.

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A Turning Point in Ukraine?

The horrific bloodshed in Kiev on Thursday, which left at least 70 people dead, was followed on Friday by a tentative accord between President Viktor Yanukovych and opposition leaders which mandates “early presidential elections, a coalition government and reduction of presidential power through constitutional reforms.”

It would be good if the accord sticks, in order to prevent further fighting, but at this point it is far from clear that it will do so. It was only on Wednesday, after all, that a previous truce had been announced, and then just as promptly broken. It is clear, however, that at least for now Yanukovych has temporarily disappointed his backers in the Kremlin by refusing to declare “emergency powers” and call in the army to clear out demonstrators from central Kiev after his police force failed to get the job done. Indeed, the rebellion has spread beyond the capital, with demonstrators seizing control of government buildings, including police stations, across western Ukraine–i.e., the mostly Ukrainian-speaking and Western-leaning portion of the country.

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The horrific bloodshed in Kiev on Thursday, which left at least 70 people dead, was followed on Friday by a tentative accord between President Viktor Yanukovych and opposition leaders which mandates “early presidential elections, a coalition government and reduction of presidential power through constitutional reforms.”

It would be good if the accord sticks, in order to prevent further fighting, but at this point it is far from clear that it will do so. It was only on Wednesday, after all, that a previous truce had been announced, and then just as promptly broken. It is clear, however, that at least for now Yanukovych has temporarily disappointed his backers in the Kremlin by refusing to declare “emergency powers” and call in the army to clear out demonstrators from central Kiev after his police force failed to get the job done. Indeed, the rebellion has spread beyond the capital, with demonstrators seizing control of government buildings, including police stations, across western Ukraine–i.e., the mostly Ukrainian-speaking and Western-leaning portion of the country.

Not only has Yanukovych lost control of the streets, he has lost, at least for now, control of parliament too, where opposition leaders and defectors from the pro-government party got together on Thursday to pass a resolution calling on interior Ministry troops and police officers to return to their posts and telling Yanukovych he did not have the power to declare a state of emergency without lawmakers’ approval.

It is far from clear that this crisis will have a good outcome–the best outcome being a negotiated transfer of power to a more pro-Western, democratic government committed to rooting out corruption, instituting the rule of law, and moving Ukraine into closer association with the European Union. But already it is clear that Yanukovych and his No. 1 supporter, Vladimir Putin, have suffered an embarrassing rebuke, which clearly demonstrates that Ukraine is no Russia. It is, in other words, not a place where people will gladly trade all hope of freedom for the false allure of “stability” and temporary prosperity. It is, instead, a land of heroes where many are willing, like America’s own Founding Fathers or like freedom fighters in lands from Egypt to Burma, to risk their lives and their liberty in order to make their country free.

The example of Egypt shows how easily such aspirations can be perverted and undermined. But sometimes, just sometimes, the wishes of the people for freedom and opportunity do result in the kind of government which can make those aspirations into reality. Let us hope Ukraine will be one of those places where revolutionary ferment produces lasting and positive change, but if it is to happen, the people of Ukraine will need outside assistance, if only to counterbalance the assistance that the forces of repression receive from Russia.

In recent days the EU and the U.S. have taken a positive step by instituting travel bans and other limited sanctions on those responsible for the violence in Kiev. But more must be done. As I have argued before, the U.S. and the EU need to present a financial package to Ukraine to make up some of the losses if it winds up rejecting Russia’s $15 billion bribe, er, subsidy. Of course the West cannot blindly shower euros or dollars on Kiev, but it should make clear that if Ukraine does the right things–if it sticks to the current accord for peaceful political change and if it moves into closer alignment with the EU–there will be more than good wishes delivered in return.

The failure of the U.S., the EU, and associated institutions, such as the IMF, to make good on such a pledge–to offer a conditional financial aid package to help rescue Ukraine from its immediate economic woes–is puzzling and shameful especially when you recall how the EU was willing to pump so much money into Greece, a much smaller and less important nation. The battle for Ukraine remains at a tipping point and it is up to Western leaders to show resolve and vision in helping the people of this impoverished and embattled country to achieve their highest aspirations.

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Losing Ukraine

The battle for Ukraine has resumed, more violently than ever. Riot police, assisted by “young men in jeans wearing medical masks and carrying pipes and baseball bats,” have broken through barricades in Kiev’s Independence Square. Demonstrators armed with rocks and Molotov cocktails are fighting back and preliminary reports are that at least nine people (seven demonstrators, two police officers) have been killed. Clouds of black smoke are said to be rising over the parliament building, the result of tires set alight by anti-government protesters.

So much for attempts to negotiate a peaceful end to the two-month showdown. President Viktor F. Yanukovych, after wavering a bit, appears to have been emboldened to take violent action, no doubt encouraged by Moscow’s decision to resume its subsidies to his government, worth a total of $15 billion, by buying another $2 billion in Ukrainian bonds.

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The battle for Ukraine has resumed, more violently than ever. Riot police, assisted by “young men in jeans wearing medical masks and carrying pipes and baseball bats,” have broken through barricades in Kiev’s Independence Square. Demonstrators armed with rocks and Molotov cocktails are fighting back and preliminary reports are that at least nine people (seven demonstrators, two police officers) have been killed. Clouds of black smoke are said to be rising over the parliament building, the result of tires set alight by anti-government protesters.

So much for attempts to negotiate a peaceful end to the two-month showdown. President Viktor F. Yanukovych, after wavering a bit, appears to have been emboldened to take violent action, no doubt encouraged by Moscow’s decision to resume its subsidies to his government, worth a total of $15 billion, by buying another $2 billion in Ukrainian bonds.

And where is the West in all this? While all this was going on in Kiev, two opposition leaders, Arseny P. Yatsenyuk and Vitali Klitschko, were meeting in Germany with Chancellor Angela Merkel. The reception they received is nice, but it’s no substitute for an economic aid package to convince Ukrainians that they can get a better deal out of the EU than out of Russia. Both the EU and the U.S. are said to have been working on such a package but behind-the scenes negotiations have produced scant results–which is perhaps why Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was heard cursing on an illicitly taped conversation, “F— the EU.”

But it is not just the EU that is failing to show leadership. So too with the U.S., with a president distracted by numerous crises at home and abroad, ranging from the birthing pangs of his health-care plan to the latest slaughter in Syria. Amid all these other problems, it is hard for Ukraine to get the attention it deserves. But don’t forget, this is a country of almost 45 million people, which was once the second-largest republic in the Soviet Union and today remains the biggest prize on the borderland between Russia and the West–between Putinism and freedom. The U.S. and its European allies have a major stake in making sure that Ukraine does not once again revert to de facto Russian control, but to avert that fate will require more political leadership starting in Washington.

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The West’s Opportunity in Ukraine

The most electrifying moment at the Munich Security Conference, which I attended this weekend, occurred during a panel discussion on Eastern Europe. (And, yes I know, “electrifying” and “conference” are not usually words that go together.)

After Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Leonid Koschara accused the opposition of harboring terrorists, opposition leader (and former boxer) Vitali Klitschko, who was sitting right next to him, got out of his seat. No doubt some were expecting the former professional pugilist to punch out the bespectacled and well-coiffed government apparatchik next to him. Instead Klitschko went over to an aide who gave him a stack of pamphlets illustrating, in graphic pictures, how security forces have attacked demonstrators. Klitschko then shared the pictures with his fellow panelists, including Koschara, who had to make at least a show of looking at the photos, much to his obvious discomfort.

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The most electrifying moment at the Munich Security Conference, which I attended this weekend, occurred during a panel discussion on Eastern Europe. (And, yes I know, “electrifying” and “conference” are not usually words that go together.)

After Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Leonid Koschara accused the opposition of harboring terrorists, opposition leader (and former boxer) Vitali Klitschko, who was sitting right next to him, got out of his seat. No doubt some were expecting the former professional pugilist to punch out the bespectacled and well-coiffed government apparatchik next to him. Instead Klitschko went over to an aide who gave him a stack of pamphlets illustrating, in graphic pictures, how security forces have attacked demonstrators. Klitschko then shared the pictures with his fellow panelists, including Koschara, who had to make at least a show of looking at the photos, much to his obvious discomfort.

This was a small sign of how the pro-Western opposition has outmaneuvered the pro-Moscow government of President Viktor Yanukovych. He sparked the protests with his November decision not to sign political and trade agreements with the European Union in return for a $15 billion aid package from Russia. This was widely seen as a victory for the wily Vladimir Putin, but it has been a hollow victory because it has brought large numbers of Ukrainians into the streets to protest. They have not been deterred by thuggish police attempts to disperse them, nor by Yanukovych’s attempts to pass Russian-style legislation that would have curtailed freedom to speak out or protest and that would have forced civic groups that received foreign funding to register as “foreign agents.”

Those laws have now been repealed by Ukraine’s parliament, and the pro-Russian prime minister, Mykola Azarov, has been forced to resign. In dismay Putin has suspended further aid payments to Ukraine after having delivered just $3 billion. Yanukovych was reported last week to be on a leave of absence due to “illness.” He has now returned to Kiev, vowing not to use force to clear out the demonstrators. His confusion is palpable.

There is now a prime opportunity for the U.S. and its European allies to step into the vacuum, deal a major defeat to Putin, and pull Ukraine into the Western orbit where most of its people clearly would like to go. This will not be easy to do. It must require high-level attention from American and European officials to keep the heat on Yanukovych not to stage a reprise of the Tiananmen Square massacre while offering attractive financial incentives for Ukraine to align with the West. Reportedly, Western officials are plotting to do just that.

I would feel more confident about the outcome, however, if President Obama were personally involved rather than delegating this matter–along with so many other crucial foreign-policy issues–to Vice President Biden, whose track record has not been one, as Bob Gates pointed out, to inspire much confidence. Obama claims to admire President George H.W. Bush, but he has been unwilling to engage in the kind of intensive presidential diplomacy or to form the kind of close relationships with foreign leaders that were Bush hallmarks. In essence this is another issue on which the U.S. is “leading from behind.” We can only hope that Angela Merkel and other European leaders can fill the vacuum and save Ukraine from Moscow’s machinations.

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Did Putin Outsmart Ukraine’s Protesters?

Der Spiegel opens its piece on how Vladimir Putin “outfoxed” Western powers in 2013 with a seemingly curious but in fact quite revealing scene. Putin and Patriarch Kirill are at a ceremony celebrating Russian nationalism when the country’s religious leader honors Putin with a certificate and the following praise: “We know that you, more than anyone else since the end of the 20th century, are helping Russia become more powerful and regain its old positions, as a country that respects itself and enjoys the respect of all others.”

National self-respect may or may not be as important to the Russian people as the patriarch suggested, but he certainly knew just what Putin wanted to hear. Yet because of the role Putin’s ego plays in formulating policy, it’s just as important at times to know what he doesn’t want to hear. It may have come across as petty when President Obama added insult to injury by avoiding a conference in Russia and dismissing Putin as having “that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom.” But the president was speaking Putin’s language. Case in point: the New York Times reported on Putin’s reaction to the comment, which he seemed to take far more personally than Obama’s decision to cancel his trip to St. Petersburg.

The more Russia struggles domestically the more effort Putin appears to expend to burnish Russia’s image as a great power. The bored schoolboy taunt threatened to turn Putin’s carefully crafted image against him: the stoic, detached leader with a casual air of superiority and boredom suddenly looks like the lonely misfit. And Obama has now done it again. Following the French and German presidents’ announcements that they will not attend the upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, Obama was widely expected to abstain from joining the American delegation as well. But the president’s choice for the delegation’s roster is somewhat inspired:

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Der Spiegel opens its piece on how Vladimir Putin “outfoxed” Western powers in 2013 with a seemingly curious but in fact quite revealing scene. Putin and Patriarch Kirill are at a ceremony celebrating Russian nationalism when the country’s religious leader honors Putin with a certificate and the following praise: “We know that you, more than anyone else since the end of the 20th century, are helping Russia become more powerful and regain its old positions, as a country that respects itself and enjoys the respect of all others.”

National self-respect may or may not be as important to the Russian people as the patriarch suggested, but he certainly knew just what Putin wanted to hear. Yet because of the role Putin’s ego plays in formulating policy, it’s just as important at times to know what he doesn’t want to hear. It may have come across as petty when President Obama added insult to injury by avoiding a conference in Russia and dismissing Putin as having “that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom.” But the president was speaking Putin’s language. Case in point: the New York Times reported on Putin’s reaction to the comment, which he seemed to take far more personally than Obama’s decision to cancel his trip to St. Petersburg.

The more Russia struggles domestically the more effort Putin appears to expend to burnish Russia’s image as a great power. The bored schoolboy taunt threatened to turn Putin’s carefully crafted image against him: the stoic, detached leader with a casual air of superiority and boredom suddenly looks like the lonely misfit. And Obama has now done it again. Following the French and German presidents’ announcements that they will not attend the upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, Obama was widely expected to abstain from joining the American delegation as well. But the president’s choice for the delegation’s roster is somewhat inspired:

The United States’ delegation to the upcoming Winter Olympics in Russia won’t include a member of President Barack Obama’s family or an active cabinet secretary, but it will include openly gay athletes – a clear jab at Russia’s recent anti-gay laws.

Billie Jean King, the tennis legend, will join figure skater Brian Boitano at the games’ opening ceremonies on February 7, the White House said Tuesday.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, White House aide Rob Nabors and the U.S. ambassador to Russia will round out the delegation to the Sochi games.

King was one of the first professional athletes to come out as gay in the 1980s.

Two weeks later, a group led by Deputy Secretary of State William Burns will attend the closing ceremony. Speed skaters Bonnie Blair and Eric Heiden, as well as openly gay hockey player Caitlin Cahow, will also attend.

Of course, it shouldn’t be insulting to send gay athletes to the Olympics, but Putin has created a situation in which it makes a statement. Not only has the Russian government made it dangerous to be openly gay in Russia, but the Duma’s anti-gay-propaganda law was explicitly designed to equate homosexuality with pedophilia in spirit and, to a certain extent, in law.

Yet Putin seems to have outmaneuvered the pro-Western elements in his neighborhood once again. Kiev has been swamped with a vigorous protest movement ever since Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych spurned a trade deal with the European Union a week before the two sides were expected to seal the deal. It was widely understood that Yanukovych had buckled to pressure from Moscow.

Yanukovych appeared to have misplayed his hand, because the EU deal gave Ukrainians an opening to protest against the government itself. Yanukovych was backed into a corner, caught between East and West and with the protesters demanding far more than a trade deal; they wanted resignations and they wanted justice for police violence against them. Putin, however, saw this as an instance in which the protesters themselves overreached. And he may be right:

On Tuesday, Ukraine’s president, Viktor F. Yanukovich, and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said that Russia would come to the rescue of its financially troubled neighbor, providing $15 billion in loans and a steep discount on natural gas prices.

The announcement seemed to have a deflating effect on the protesters, a tired and haggard group after spending more than three weeks encamped on Independence Square. A church choir sang. Protest leaders asked for patience as they scrambled to devise a new strategy.

The protests were ignited by the government’s last-minute failure to sign political and free trade accords with Europe, which had been seen as an alternative to the Russian deal. Their demands, though, had expanded to seeking punishment for the police, accused of violently attacking demonstrators, and the resignation of Mr. Azarov, the prime minister.

It’s easy to see why Putin saw the expansion of the protesters’ demands as an opportunity. What Putin wants is for Ukraine to stick with Russia and keep itself separate from the West. When the protesters brought Ukrainian politics to a standstill over the EU deal, it revealed that Putin and Yanukovych’s interests had diverged. Yanukovych could, possibly, keep his job by shifting back in Europe’s direction.

But once the protesters moved beyond the trade deal, Putin understood that the issue–which was all he really cared about–had lost its resonance as a rallying cry for the public. The protesters made it clear that they hated Yanukovych, not that they were dedicated to the free flow of commerce in a globalized trading system. That is a more fundamentally troubling situation for Yanukovych, but it means Putin could bail Ukraine out without sparking any wider outrage.

He may have also been betting that if Ukraine actually inked a deal with Russia, it would weaken the protesters somewhat since the original issue would be off the table and thus they might lose their center of gravity, if not their dissatisfaction with Yanukovych. That appears to be the case. If it is, Putin will indeed have “outfoxed” the West again, and the American Olympic delegation will seem a futile consolation prize for Washington.

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Did Yanukovych Relent? Does it Matter?

EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton made news today by declaring that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych “intends” to finally sign a free-trade agreement with the European Union after weeks of protests. It’s unclear, however, if Yanukovych can end the standoff.

If the message was intended to get the protesters to back off, it might not be nearly enough. As the Washington Post reports, “protesters weren’t buying it and spent the day bolstering the five formidable snow and ice barricades that protect their long-running encampment.” No surprise there: Yanukovych has been too fickle to be trusted, having spent years gesturing toward Europe and working toward an agreement only to bail at the eleventh hour. Yet that’s exactly what his government is asking for: trust. As the Post reports:

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EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton made news today by declaring that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych “intends” to finally sign a free-trade agreement with the European Union after weeks of protests. It’s unclear, however, if Yanukovych can end the standoff.

If the message was intended to get the protesters to back off, it might not be nearly enough. As the Washington Post reports, “protesters weren’t buying it and spent the day bolstering the five formidable snow and ice barricades that protect their long-running encampment.” No surprise there: Yanukovych has been too fickle to be trusted, having spent years gesturing toward Europe and working toward an agreement only to bail at the eleventh hour. Yet that’s exactly what his government is asking for: trust. As the Post reports:

“This is real, this is absolutely real,” Ukraine’s foreign minister, Leonid Kozhara, told the Interfax news agency Thursday, adding that Ukraine might sign on with Europe as early as next spring.

That suggests a long winter ahead for the opposition, which has shown no signs of flagging. “Both sides are playing on time and trying to wear the other side down,” Jan Techau, an analyst with the Carnegie Europe think tank in Brussels, said during a conference call Thursday.

In fact, the climb-down from Yanukovych shows just how much trouble he found himself in when he spurned Europe seemingly for Putin’s Eurasian customs union. To wit: if his agreement to sign with the EU some time next year was intended for Putin as a hardball negotiating tactic, he’s probably not scaring anyone in the Kremlin. Ukraine is heading into the winter now without a deal with either side and in debt, still dependent on Russian gas. Where’s Yanukovych’s leverage with Russia?

If, on the other hand, the pronouncement that he’s ready to deal with Europe was intended for the West in general and the United States in particular to ward off American sanctions, it won’t matter much either. The U.S. raised the issue of sanctions (with the State Department’s Victoria Nuland conspicuously on the ground in Kiev) in response to Yanukovych’s heavyhanded deployment of riot police to attempt to clear the protests. If he wants to avoid sanctions, he should resist the use of force against the opposition. If he doesn’t, vague promises to one day sign a deal with the EU won’t change anybody’s mind.

Similarly, if he was trying to get Ukraine a better deal from the EU, his sudden determination to reopen negotiations reeks of desperation and will most likely be greeted with the reminder that beggars cannot be choosers. One suspects that Yanukovych knows all this, and that the prevailing explanations for Yanukovych’s behavior are just a bit too pat. Maybe it’s not really about Russia, or Europe, or the U.S., or even Ukraine; maybe it’s about Viktor Yanukovych.

Now you’re getting somewhere, says the Kiev-based Andrey Slivka:

With Yanukovych, it’s always best to assume the worst. Ukraine has always been a kleptocracy, but “the family,” as it is known, has raised the thievery to new heights. The President’s older son, Oleksandr, a dentist, has become one of Ukraine’s richest men since the start of his father’s Presidency. Yanukovych himself—an actual ex-con, who did jail time in his youth for robbery and assault—has built himself an estate the size of Monaco on the outskirts of Kiev; access to the area is now restricted. “Raider” attacks, in which regime-connected businessmen deploy extortion to literally steal other people’s businesses, are notorious. Leery of mixing with the population, Yanukovych has taken to helicoptering into work from his estate, landing at a helipad he built in one of Kiev’s lovely riverside parks.

None of independent Ukraine’s earlier Presidents were prizewinners, but Yanukovych has been particularly brazen in his provocations. In addition to the theft, he’s centralized power according to a system that one political scientist has termed “sultanism,” and he has harassed the media. So when the beatings on the Maidan gave Ukrainians an excuse to come out on the streets, the protests turned from a cry against the loss of the “European choice” into something far more visceral: an expression of hatred for Yanukovych and everything he represents—basically, the mean reality of life in a post-Soviet strongman state.

Yanukovych’s decision to spurn Europe wasn’t a betrayal so much as a confirmation. Ukrainians did not think they were being governed by European-style democrat. Yanukovych’s reversal was simply a product of what Ukrainians who didn’t like him already didn’t like about him.

In that light, a new turn back to the EU won’t change much. It may help the country–though if a deal doesn’t happen until mid-2014 at the earliest it will first come at great cost. Yanukovych has misread his country’s mood–as Slivka notes, Kiev’s statue of Lenin survived the Orange Revolution, but didn’t survive this populist outburst. Perhaps Yanukovych will have better luck, but he increasingly can’t count on being thrown a lifeline from abroad.

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Governing Ukraine

With popular protests shaking governments from Bangkok to Kiev, after previously having toppled regimes from Cairo to Tunis, it is a wonder that anyone bothers with guerrilla or terrorist tactics to seize power. Insurgent campaigns are much less successful than popular uprisings. The reason why they are not more widespread, of course, is that guerrillas often do not champion a particularly popular cause. The Taliban, for instance, have no hope of bringing millions, or even thousands, of people out into the streets of Kabul to demand a reimposition of their tyrannical rule. They can only aspire to power by the gun.

The problem that all anti-government movements confront–whether they employ violence or peaceful protests–is what to do if the government actually falls and they manage to seize power.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood already flunked the test of governance and odds are the military, which displaced the Brotherhood with popular support, will fare little better once the subsidies from the Gulf countries run out. In Ukraine, the Orange movement which toppled Viktor Yanukovych in 2004 had equally little success in jump-starting a moribund economy or eliminating rampant corruption. The result: Yanukovych managed to stage a come back and win a democratic election.

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With popular protests shaking governments from Bangkok to Kiev, after previously having toppled regimes from Cairo to Tunis, it is a wonder that anyone bothers with guerrilla or terrorist tactics to seize power. Insurgent campaigns are much less successful than popular uprisings. The reason why they are not more widespread, of course, is that guerrillas often do not champion a particularly popular cause. The Taliban, for instance, have no hope of bringing millions, or even thousands, of people out into the streets of Kabul to demand a reimposition of their tyrannical rule. They can only aspire to power by the gun.

The problem that all anti-government movements confront–whether they employ violence or peaceful protests–is what to do if the government actually falls and they manage to seize power.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood already flunked the test of governance and odds are the military, which displaced the Brotherhood with popular support, will fare little better once the subsidies from the Gulf countries run out. In Ukraine, the Orange movement which toppled Viktor Yanukovych in 2004 had equally little success in jump-starting a moribund economy or eliminating rampant corruption. The result: Yanukovych managed to stage a come back and win a democratic election.

But for Yanukovych, old authoritarian habits die hard. He jailed his political adversary Yulia Tymoshenko and cozied up to Moscow. His rejection of an association agreement with the European Union, which would have benefitted Ukraine economically, was widely seen to have been done under pressure from Vladimir Putin. But while this was a momentary victory for Putin and Yanukovych, it has spurred massive resistance in Kiev that recalls the Orange Revolution. The results are unpredictable and could range from a bloodbath among the demonstrators to the toppling of Yanukovych (again!) or, more likely, some kind of muddled compromise that would allow him to serve out his remaining 16 months in office.

The West has a clear stake in blocking Yanukovych’s attempt to cozy up to Moscow. Secretary of State John Kerry is right to skip an international meeting in Ukraine and instead head to Moldova, another embattled state in Eastern Europe that is resisting Russian pressure. EU ministers should follow suit. But whatever happens with the current crisis in Ukraine, its intractable political and economic and social problems will remain intact. That is why it is so important for Ukraine to affiliate with the EU, which will open up a brighter economic future long-term along with more political transparency. But EU affiliation is no panacea and whoever rules in Kiev will have to make tough political choices, which so far have not been forthcoming from either side.

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Ukraine Facing Crossroads

As Tim Garten Ash notes, the victory of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine’s presidential election is not good news — but neither is it necessarily a cause for despair. Granted, Yanukovych is a buffoon with a record of violent crime (as a young man) and more recently, of electoral crime — his attempt to steal the 2004 election ignited the Orange Revolution. However, the courageous Viktor Yuschchenko, who was poisoned for having the temerity to contest electoral fraud, turned out to be a lousy president, allowing Yanukovych to make a comeback by narrowly defeating the beautiful, if divisive, prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, whose refusal to concede defeat bespeaks a lack of class. Still, as Ash notes, while “Yanukovych will seek a close relationship with Russia,… there is no evidence that the oligarchs behind him want Ukraine to cease being an independent country.” In fact Yanukovych is committed, at least rhetorically, to continuing Ukraine’s integration into Europe. The problem is that it takes two to integrate and the EU, suffering from enlargement fatigue, has shown a real lack of enthusiasm for admitting Ukraine. That attitude needs to change; otherwise the gains of the Orange Revolution could easily be undone.

The broader picture is that the global march of freedom has been stopped and partially reversed over the past few years. Freedom House reports: “For the fourth consecutive year, global declines in freedom outweighed gains in 2009, as measured by Freedom House’s annual survey of political rights and civil liberties, Freedom in the World 2010. This represents the longest continuous period of decline for global freedom in the nearly 40-year history of the report.”

Such reversals are to be expected: the path of progress is never smooth or easy and there will be zigzags en route. But they are certainly a cause for concern, especially because President Obama has not made the advancement of human rights and freedom a priority for his administration. Today, even while brave Iranians are protesting against the brutal dictatorship under which they live, the administration is refusing to adopt tough sanctions on Iran’s imports of refined petroleum and is not doing much publicly to support the demonstrators. It is not only the EU that needs a bigger commitment to the advancement of liberty; so does the U.S. under our neo-Realpolitiker president.

As Tim Garten Ash notes, the victory of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine’s presidential election is not good news — but neither is it necessarily a cause for despair. Granted, Yanukovych is a buffoon with a record of violent crime (as a young man) and more recently, of electoral crime — his attempt to steal the 2004 election ignited the Orange Revolution. However, the courageous Viktor Yuschchenko, who was poisoned for having the temerity to contest electoral fraud, turned out to be a lousy president, allowing Yanukovych to make a comeback by narrowly defeating the beautiful, if divisive, prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, whose refusal to concede defeat bespeaks a lack of class. Still, as Ash notes, while “Yanukovych will seek a close relationship with Russia,… there is no evidence that the oligarchs behind him want Ukraine to cease being an independent country.” In fact Yanukovych is committed, at least rhetorically, to continuing Ukraine’s integration into Europe. The problem is that it takes two to integrate and the EU, suffering from enlargement fatigue, has shown a real lack of enthusiasm for admitting Ukraine. That attitude needs to change; otherwise the gains of the Orange Revolution could easily be undone.

The broader picture is that the global march of freedom has been stopped and partially reversed over the past few years. Freedom House reports: “For the fourth consecutive year, global declines in freedom outweighed gains in 2009, as measured by Freedom House’s annual survey of political rights and civil liberties, Freedom in the World 2010. This represents the longest continuous period of decline for global freedom in the nearly 40-year history of the report.”

Such reversals are to be expected: the path of progress is never smooth or easy and there will be zigzags en route. But they are certainly a cause for concern, especially because President Obama has not made the advancement of human rights and freedom a priority for his administration. Today, even while brave Iranians are protesting against the brutal dictatorship under which they live, the administration is refusing to adopt tough sanctions on Iran’s imports of refined petroleum and is not doing much publicly to support the demonstrators. It is not only the EU that needs a bigger commitment to the advancement of liberty; so does the U.S. under our neo-Realpolitiker president.

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