Commentary Magazine


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:

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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