The Ukrainian Maidan is one the most remarkable events of the past year. In Kiev’s Independence Square, hundreds of thousands Ukrainians have gathered, and there they remain, demanding that the regime respect their dignity. Their actions have demonstrated more than just the courage and resilience of the Ukrainian people. They have allowed us to see the cowardice and treachery of the ruling regime. They have laid bare to the world Vladimir Putin’s new doctrine and his attempts to create a new version of the USSR—this time without Communist ideology. And they have showed us that the West’s leaders, whether out of naivety or indifference, have played right in to President Viktor Yanukovych’s game, thus facilitating his anti-Western turn.The saga now underway in Ukraine has brought a troubling clarity to our perception of the situation. One cannot help but be disgusted and sickened to realize that the entire nation has become a bargaining chip in a game played by two authoritarian leaders intent on solving their personal problems of political survival, without a single developed democracy managing to stand up in opposition to this state of affairs. History repeats itself, apparently, because we are always in such a hurry to forget it.Meanwhile, in the past few days before Yanukovych presented Ukraine to the Kremlin, the Ukrainian regime’s choice became obvious to all but perhaps the most careless or indifferent observer. And that choice was not in Europe’s favor.Yanukovych has demonstrated his lack of commitment to a genuine dialogue with the Maidan in a number of ways. His supporters were bussed into Kiev en masse. He refused to honor one of the Maidan’s central demands: dismissing the Azarov government. He remained unwilling to prosecute those responsible for the attacks on the protesters. Finally, there was the electoral fraud in Ukraine’s recent parliamentary elections (elections of the additional deputies to the Verchovna Rada), which testified to Yanukovych’s real intentions. Instead of talking to the Maidan, Yanukovych assembled his “popular” support intended to prop his regime and plans. Much like the Putin-organized Moscow rallies in 2012, the anti-Maidan, pro-Yanukovych rallies point to the leaders’ readiness to confront society rather than compromise.True, Yanukovych continued to play his game with Brussels at the same time as he was doing all of these things. But as it turned out even his requests for financial aid from Brussels were simply a ploy to prolong the negotiations over the Association Agreement. These “negotiations”, which made absolutely no sense to the European negotiators, acted as a smokescreen allowing President Yanukovych to continue his bargaining marathon with Moscow without missing a beat. All of the promises Yanukovych made during his meetings with Western emissaries, we now know, were nothing but hot air! It was an imitation strategy calculated to secure a less humiliating conditional surrender to the Kremlin while placating and misleading the Maidan at the same time. The fact that European emissaries and many experts accepted his promises at face value reveals either their naivety or lack of understanding of the inner workings of personalized regimes—especially ones whose personifier wants to shirk responsibility for the mess he created. One can imagine Yanukovych deriding Europe’s leaders in secret as they tried to cajole him into signing the Association Agreement at the Vilnius summit. After all, his visit to Vilnius was just a decoy; he no longer cared about his standing with the likes of José Manuel Barroso, Angela Merkel, or the rest of those nice but simple-minded people. These people lived in a world that seems totally foreign to him, one which he holds in contempt.What would the turn to Europe have meant for Yanukovych? It would have been a compromise with the Maidan. It would have forced him to dismiss part of his team and saddled him with an uncertain future heading into the next presidential elections. Had he taken this turn, he would have had to prepare to exit the political stage and seek immunity from prosecution. I have not yet heard of any modern-day political leader who has voluntarily given up his power after working so tenaciously to attain it and to use it to advance his interests. In fact, the opposite is generally true: At the final stage of his rule, the injured leader frantically tries to hold on to power by resorting to violence.Anyway, if one looks at the Ukrainian regime from the personalized-power perspective from which Yanukovych has operated in recent years, it should appear obvious that he could not have chosen closer relations with Europe even if it had supported him financially. The plain truth is that the game he was invited to play is foreign to him. True, the reward for playing was a mere free trade agreement. But the Ukrainian people had begun to think of association with Europe as their civilizational choice; they would eventually have demanded that the regime do more to recognize and implement that choice. Then why open the door to change in the first place? It would have been better to slam it shut, as the Moscow tsar had done. Besides, the agreement with Brussels didn’t provide Yanukovych with the money he needs to generously finance his upcoming election campaign.To be sure, we should avoid oversimplifications. Yanukovych relies on his conservative base of mostly Russian-speaking Ukrainians, which is completely dependent on the state. It is a remnant of the Soviet Union, afraid of any kind of change, and the regime is taking full advantage of these fears. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian opposition did little in the way of attempting to understand these people and alleviating their fears. (Incidentally, the very same archaic segment of population allows the Putin regime to survive in Russia.)Thus, Yanukovych had been working on this political stunt for months. While the Ukrainian delegation was on a decoy mission in Brussels, Russian and Ukrainian officials in Moscow were drafting the agreements that the Ukrainians are protesting against. Certain pundits are now trying to claim that Moscow and Kiev had been working out a compromise that would allow Ukraine to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union and enter the Customs Union with Russia at the same time. But let us not be deceived here: Brussels and Moscow offered Kiev two frameworks that have nothing in common with each other.In short, Yanukovych apparently decided a while ago to surrender to Putin and ask him for help, thus validating the personalized power logic. An authoritarian leader generally has an easier time associating with someone of his ilk rather than with democratic governments. The catch is that agreements between two authoritarian leaders of different stature always translate into the language of coercion and subordination. This is exactly the kind of relationship with Moscow that Yanukovych agreed to. He offered up his country’s sovereignty (and his own independence) as the price for staying in power. Some of my colleagues believe that Yanukovych will try to trick Putin in the end. I doubt it; such a trick could cost him dearly.For the time being, anyway, these two fellows have taken the West for a ride. First of all, by signing the agreements with Kiev, Moscow has legitimated the weakened Yanukovych regime, turning the relations between the two countries into those of ruler and protectorate, or semi-colony, since Russia is financing the Ukrainian budget and saving the country from default.Second, although Ukraine did not enter the Customs Union (why anger the Ukrainian people even more?), the deal struck by the two leaders contains implicit understandings that may create an even stronger alliance than that of the Customs Union. Moscow is trying to guarantee for itself the status quo in Ukraine (with or without Yanukovych as leader). In exchange, Moscow will gain access to Ukraine’s economy and political control over its central economic decisions (through the regulation of gas prices and loan disbursements).Third, the Kremlin has already factored in Yanukovych’s weakness and tendency to break promises. It will thus keep him on a short leash, making its loyalty payoffs contingent on Yanukovych’s performance and disbursing them in quarterly installments.Fourth, I think the Kremlin strategists may very well believe that Yanukovych will not be able to play his part successfully; thus they will need to consider his possible replacements. For the moment, Yanukovych must act as a sweeper: His job is to sweep the Maidan clean of the protestors and force the opposition into a political ghetto. In other words, by giving Yanukovych a chance to survive, the Kremlin will now call the tune in Ukraine and will not tolerate the country’s popular democracy. The Ukrainian President will have to put an end to the “pogroms” and “provocateurs”—the terms Putin and Lavrov use to refer to the Maidan protests and protestors. He will have to work off the Russian loans now.Fifth, these two leaders have entered into a pact against the West. Their alliance is directed against Europe and its standards; it seeks to preserve authoritarian systems by severing Ukraine’s connection with Europe and the West. What will now happen to all the politicians and pundits who until recently asserted that this game was not zero-sum for Ukraine, and that the two models of integration were compatible? They will be forced to declare that now, with Ukraine under its belt, Russia will find it easier to cooperate with Europe. And what will the European supporters of the Partnership for Modernization say? Modernization is nowhere to be seen… They can agree to a partnership for status quo and thus forget about Ukraine.Finally, one has to take into account the fact that Russia’s saving Ukraine from default could split the Ukrainian constituency. Part of it could support the deal, ignoring the fact that it only delays the moment of truth: the Russian money will be spent, and Ukraine again will have to think about what to do, albeit this time in more difficult circumstances.The Putin-Yanukovych pact, we should keep in mind, also comes the expense of the Russian taxpayers. It is thus another example of the Kremlin’s wanton disregard for its people. Even as the Russian regime lacks the resources to pay its own bills, it has just confiscated $7.5 billion in Russian citizens’ pension savings. Even as withdrawals from Russia’s National Wealth Fund are limited to pension expenditures, Putin personally disburses cash from the fund to support a corrupt regime in another country. The Kremlin is already arbitrarily supporting the authoritarian regimes in Belarus and Central Asian states at Russian taxpayers’ expense. Sooner or later this fact will be added to the laundry list of complaints that could trigger a wave of anger against the regime, this time coming from the Russian people. Who knows? It could even bring about a Russian Maidan.The question of a Ukrainian breakup is increasingly being discussed in Russia as something more than a faint possibility. This shows the Kremlin recognizes that the confrontation in Ukraine may escalate, and that Yanukovych may lose control over the entire country. The issue is especially relevant when the topic of the (voluntary!) secession of Crimea from Ukraine is discussed. After all, many Russians believe that this part of Ukraine still belongs to Russia. These ideas are most likely being injected into mass consciousness (and not just in Russia) in order to pressure the Ukrainian elite into accepting Russian domination as more preferable scenario than losing some of Ukraine’s territory. Russian politicians are already discussing a similar scenario for Moldova, as Kisinev looks to Europe. Why else would they feel the need to remind the world of the 200,000(!) Russian citizens residing in Moldova?What conclusions can we draw from the current state of affairs? First, the West must finally understand the gravity of the situation in Ukraine. A violent scenario is still possible, and it would have dramatic repercussions for the region and the world order. It seems to me that so far Brussels is trying to lull itself into a belief that Ukraine is going to resolve its crisis peacefully. Are Brussels and the United States ready for other possible scenarios?Second, let us hope that in the face of the dire conditions they find themselves in, the Maidan as an all-Ukrainian movement and the Ukrainian opposition will do everything in their power to stop the regime from turning to coercion and eradicating their protests. The current struggle for Ukraine will not only determine this country’s future but also the future for reform in the other post-Soviet countries.Finally, in Ukraine we are getting an answer to the question of whether the West will include the normative dimension in its foreign policies. This may be the most important and revealing outcome of the Maidan.
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Victor Yanukovych has presented his nation as a gift to Vladimir Putin, but the Ukrainian people have gathered in Kiev’s Independence Square to resist this move. Violence is still possible, and more is at stake than just the political future of one country.