Although it remains to be seen whether the political accord brokered on February 21 will actually bring an end to Ukraine’s crisis, it is hard not to conclude that President Yanukovych’s regime is all but dead. Whatever this means for Ukraine’s future, it is also leading to some serious recalculations in Moscow, Yanukovych’s closest ally and backer.
There is no fear of an imminent spread of “Euramaidan-style” opposition activism to Russia. Not only was it rooted in a very different political experience in Ukraine—which included genuine contested elections in the past, as well as a strong equation of nationalism with anti-Russian sentiment—but Yanukovych played his hand badly, alienating the oligarchs (who ensured the protesters had positive TV coverage) and failing to take a strong, early stance, only then to overcompensate too bloodily, too late.
VISUAL CONTEXT: Putin’s popularity, courtesy of Mark Adomanis at Forbes.com:
Nonetheless, for the Kremlin events in Ukraine pose a series of challenges to which they must respond. The first is geopolitical. To Moscow, Ukraine is part of its natural—and necessary—sphere of influence and if the new government takes a more westward-leaning approach, then the Russians will have to balance efforts to reverse this drift with the risk of worsening relations with the European Union. Although the E.U. appeared willing to accept Yanukovych’s earlier repudiation of a trade deal and closer ties, the violence of recent weeks has forced key member states including Germany into taking Ukraine’s future much more seriously. Although Moscow has options ranging from supporting Crimean calls for secession through to leveraging its oil and gas supplies to Ukraine, these could prove expensive and counter-productive.
The second is to discern what lessons there may be for its domestic management of dissent. While the circumstances may be different, the sight of a broad-based opposition movement able to challenge what seemed a powerfully-entrenched government is in many ways the Kremlin’s worst nightmare. The crucial factor was the defection of elements of the economic, political and security elites; once some started either actively changing sides or else withdrawing their support from the government, then this snowballed, prompted others to do the same.
On the one hand, Putin may decide that he needs to respond through administrative change, tightening his grip on the elite and strengthening the so-called “power vertical.” Alternatively, he may adopt a more nuanced perspective and focus instead on rebuilding his—damaged and brittle—public legitimacy. This may well involve reasserting his claim to be the man keeping the elite in check in the name of the country as a whole, with a renewed anti-corruption campaign and similar high-profile measures.
Of course, the Kremlin’s are not the only Russia eyes on Kiev today. The opposition movement is drawing comfort from Euromaidan, even as the conviction on questionable riot charges of 8 participants in the Bolotnaya protests helps provide a focus for renewed activism. Although there is no prospect of a similarly explosive rise in opposition in Russia at present, if the new Ukrainian government proves able to balance radical demands from the street and the interests of the majority of the elite, it might provide a useful model for political change in the future.