Tensions Grow Between Moscow and West, as the Situation in Kyiv Deteriorates

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 14

Anti-government protesters clash with riot police in Kyiv, January 23 (Source: AFP)

The escalating crisis in Ukraine is reverberating in Moscow, where the ruling elite is convinced the violent clashes in Kyiv between special police forces and protesters have been organized and financed by the West. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the European Union of supporting “pogroms” by the opposition in Kyiv, where the situation “is out of control.” Lavrov announced that Moscow supports a negotiated settlement of the Ukrainian crisis and would be ready to act as an intermediary, but “only if asked by Kyiv” (https://www.interfax.ru/print.asp?sec=1446&id=35332). The Russian Duma, in turn, issued a statement, condemning “foreign forces that, in violation of international law, are interfering in Ukraine and escalating the conflict by supporting the opposition extremists” (https://www.newsru.com/world/22jan2014/kyiv.html).

President Vladimir Putin has been mostly silent, as the situation in Kyiv has drastically deteriorated after the Ukrainian parliament (Verkhovna Rada), in a highly controversial vote on January 16, and without any discussion, approved a set of draconian laws severely curtailing democracy and civil rights (see EDM, January 22). Putin’s position was expressed by his press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, in an interview to Komsomolskaya Pravda: “We are hurt to see what is happening in Kyiv but are sure the Ukrainian leadership knows what to do. Ukraine and Russia are brotherly nations and partners, while any interference in Ukrainian internal affairs is impermissible.” Peskov expressed “regret and indignation” with the West, which is “obviously interfering in internal Ukrainian processes.” Peskov continued by accusing the West of doing its best to undermine the Winter Olympics, which will begin next month is Sochi, “because they do not like and envy Russia, since we are strong, successful, rich and healthy”  (https://www.kp.ru/daily/26184/3073444/).

Of course, Moscow is much more deeply involved in the Ukrainian crisis than the Russian authorities would like to publicly admit. The pro-Kremlin Moscow press is today (January 23) full of inflammatory comments that back up the Ukrainian prime minister, Mykola Azarov, who has described the Kyiv protesters as “criminals and terrorists.” Azarov supported the actions of the Ukrainian riot police force Berkut that has injured hundreds of protesters, while at least three (five by some reports) have been shot dead by snipers (https://www.ng.ru/cis/2014-01-23/1_ukraina.html). In its news broadcasts, Russian state TV Rossya-1 describes the Kyiv protesters as “terrorists and fascists,” while the pro-Kremlin daily Izvestya demands that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych “crush the vile serpent [the opposition].” If Yanukovych fails to come through with decisive action to “normalize the situation” by dispersing the protesters, Moscow may withdraw its political and financial support (https://izvestia.ru/news/564295).

Putin has, last month, promised Yanukovych to cut the price Ukraine pays for Russian natural gas and to provide Kyiv with $15 billion in emergency loans. The first $3 billion was provided in December 2013 by the Russian government buying a special issue of Ukrainian Eurobonds. The Yanukovych government has announced it wants Moscow to send $2 billion more this month. Russian government sources told Vedomosti that Moscow is ready to go through with payments, but its position may change, if the situation in Kyiv changes and there is a threat of regime change. At present, the Kremlin believes Yanukovych controls his police force, which is ready to suppress the protesters (https://www.vedomosti.ru/politics/news/21715421/kredit-ukraine-zavisit-ot-katapulty).

While the Moscow ruling elite seems united in its contempt of the Ukrainian protesters and in its belief that the protests are the result of Western subversion, the Yanukovych regime is seen with almost equal disdain, as corrupt and untrustworthy. Mikhail Leontyev, a Kremlin-connected TV journalist, who this month was appointed vice president in charge of public relations of state-controlled oil major Rosneft, told a Moscow radio station: “Ukraine is a failed state—a conglomerate of criminal clans.” According to Leontyev, there is little difference between Yanukovych and his opponents: “We support Yanukovych as legitimate, but it is disgusting to do business with people without a political backbone” (https://www.rusnovosti.ru/news/300706/). Vedomosti writes that it makes little sense for Russia to become involved in an escalating confrontation with the European Union and the United States over Ukraine—an increasingly irrelevant piece of land with a politically split population, a failed economy, a failed and corrupt ruling elite, and meek resources. The future of Russia is in the Asia-Pacific region where it can sell more natural resources—the backbone of Russia’s economy—in a growing market, while Europe stagnates. In Ukraine, the West and Moscow balance each other in an unending struggle that is senseless and harmful to both, Vedomosti concludes (https://www.vedomosti.ru/opinion/news/21715151/poslednyaya-bitva-uhodyaschej-epohi).

If Yanukovych fails to suppress his opponents, or the current unrest leads to regime change in Kyiv, the most popular solution, as seen in Moscow, could be to split Ukraine in half, with Russia taking the Russian-speaking eastern and southern parts of the divided nation, while the EU and US may have the rest. The east and south of the country traditionally see their capital not in Kyiv, but in Moscow, and there is a staunch belief in Russia that Ukraine will fracture, if the pro-Western forces prevail. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sees the possible breakup of Ukraine as a serious threat, but one which can be avoided by Russia and the West jointly mediating the Ukrainian crisis (https://izvestia.ru/news/564463). Whereas writer and nationalist opposition figure Eduard Limonov believes that Ukraine breaking up will be positive for all involved, especially if Russia takes control over Ukraine’s “better” half (https://izvestia.ru/news/564258).

The Ukrainian crisis has the potential to escalate into the worst East-West confrontation since the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Despite the Moscow elite’s vivid disdain of the Yanukovych administration, for Russia Ukraine is much more important than Syria, Libya, Iran, Serbia, the rest of former Yugoslavia or Georgia—with which Russia went to war in 2008, essentially to prevent the former Soviet republic from joining the North Atlantic Alliance and the West. There is a belief in the Moscow elite that if the West can successfully destabilize Ukraine by promoting a so-called “color revolution,” the same may transpire in Russia or in other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States—countries that Moscow considers to be its client states. According to General Nikolay Bordyuzha, the secretary general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led military pact of several CIS states, “color revolutions” are the main “nontraditional external threat facing the CSTO” (https://www.ng.ru/realty/2014-01-17/1_revolutions.html). While defending Kyiv against a perceived Western-sponsored takeover, Russia’s leaders believe they are fighting to secure their own political survival.