Monday, February 24, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Ukrainian Revolution Defeated Putin’s Plan for ‘Community of Dictators’

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 24 – The Ukrainian revolution has delivered a powerful blow against Putin’s plan “to create a pan-Eurasian ‘community of dictators’” and called into question his own authoritarian rule at home, although he is likely to be able to maintain himself because of the strength of “the post-imperial syndrome” in the Russian Federation.

            In an article on today, Vladimir Milov, president of the Moscow Institute of Energy Policy and a former deputy energy minister, says that that conclusion arises from the fact that Moscow has been wrong on two points: the ability of Viktor Yanukovich to suppress the Maidan and the supposed interest of Eastern Ukraine in splitting off from the rest of that country.

            In fact, he writes, “efforts to forcibly disperse the Maidan were not crowned with success (and after them Yanukovich fell) and the prospects for a territorial split of Ukraine” are not nearly as great as many in Moscow and elsewhere think. Moreover, Moscow hasn’t prepared for either (

            Those who believed that it would be easy to disperse the Maidan by force “overrated the possibilities of the Ukrainian force structures.”  Yanukovich had some support for doing so among the top generals – he worked hard in recent months to find and promote such loyalists -- but almost none among the soldiery, and that wasn’t and isn’t enough.

            That should have been obvious to Moscow, Milov says, but it wasn’t. Nor, “despite numerous speculations on the theme of the splitting of Ukraine have we seen the formation of a single [and Milov stresses “a single”] serious political force which would prepare the institutions for the independence of the South and the East.”

            The South and East aren’t interested in such a split, Milov argues.  On the one hand, “the lack of love of residents of the South and East of Ukraine for the Westerners in no way mean that they have somehow been oppressed and forcibly Ukrainianized all these years and that they have suffered from ‘the Western yoke.’”

            Even under Yushchenko, the Ukrainian language was not imposed on them, and “power in these regions in general always belonged to local elites so that no one felt on himself any real ‘occupation,’” Milov continues. Instead, each region has led its own lie, even if “Ukraine is not de jure a federation.”

            And on the other, “the local elites, business and population [of the East and South] despite all its sympathies of Russia and antipathies to the Westerners is not burning with a desire to be trampled under the boot of the Putin dictatorship.” In reality, “many like Russia, but few like the Putin system,” something it is long past time Russians understood.

            “The fate of Abkhazia and South Osetia very instructively demonstrates to everyone else what will happen with those post-Soviet territories who decide to create their own ‘independent’ states under the flag of love for Russia,” Milov says. 

            The basic reason that Russian analysts have been wrong about Ukraine is that they have “extrapolated” Russian values and experiences and assumed that because the Putin regime can easily suppress the opposition, Yanukovich could do the same in Ukraine, and because their Russianness trumps citizenship, it must do the same in Ukraine. Those two ideas are wrong.

            All this does not mean that the road ahead for Ukraine is easy, the Moscow analyst argues. The right radicals in Ukraine are a problem because they are almost as opposed to integration into Europe as they are to subordination to Russia.  The economic situation is dire.  And divisions within the country’s elite are deep and will be exploited by Moscow.

                But Putin’s policies inside Russia have made the choice of Ukrainians easier. Had Russia presented a more attractive image to the world, more ethnic Russians in Ukraine and even more Ukrainians might have been interested in following its lead. But Putin has made that impossible. Instead, he has unintentionally raised the question of how Russia itself should change.

            Putin recognizes the threat and has taken steps to protect himself and his system.  In recent years, he has “quite effectively struggled with potentially opposed groups” in Russian society so that there will not be any organized group capable of challenging him and sought to tar them as representatives of an alien “’American threat.’”

            And what is far more immediately important, “Putin and company have been conducting a very serious ideological processing of the officer corps and ranks of the force structures,” suggesting that there is “an ‘American conspiracy’” abroad interested in “’seizing our natural resources.’” As absurd as this is, “people believe it.”

            As a result of this brainwashing, Milov continues, “many in the force structures who block street protests really believe that they are not defending the power of the cleptocracy but are ‘struggling with an American conspiracy.’”

            Nonetheless, the impact of the Ukrainian events on Russia is likely to be “extraordinarily strong.”  Putin has suffered a major foreign policy defeat and “in a country which is most similar to Russia historically and ethno-culturally.” And its defeat is all the greater because Russia has interfered and “Putin has underrated the Ukrainians,” something he now “understands.”

            “Putin’s idea of creating a pan-Eurasian ‘community of dictators’ has received a powerful rebuff, and Ukraine once again has shown that its statehood, although quite chaotic is stronger than that of a number of its ambition neighbors.” After all, unlike them, the Ukrainians have been able to prevent the rise of a dictatorship while maintaining their independence.

            That in turn means, Milov says, that the issue before Moscow is this: “Is Putin now capable of changing his views about the citizens” of Russia. That is “a big question.”  Russians delivered Putin “an enormous surprise” in the last election by not voting overwhelmingly for him.  And consequently, they may do even more in the 2016-2018 electoral cycle.

            But Milov adds, “everything is not to simple: the post-imperial syndrome which doesn’t exist in Ukraine is Putin’s ally.”  And he will for some time be able to use it to “mask his desire to preserve control over [his] corrupt billions by an invented struggled with ‘the pernicious influence of the West.’”

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