Russia Watch: Putin uses political karate to keep Ukraine from moving west

German chancellor Otto von Bismarck once observed that the Russian cavalry are “slow to saddle up, but ride fast.”

In the case of Ukraine this week, the Kremlin’s cavalry cut off Ukraine’s move to the West last week, dealing the European Union its biggest defeat – and first geographical reversal — since the end of the Cold War.

Russia’s decisive action provoked on Sunday the biggest protest demonstration seen in Kyiv since the Orange Revolution, almost a decade ago. But, while Ukraine’s youth may be outraged, it may take years to reverse Moscow’s power play.

For five years, the Kremlin seemed to be sleepwalking while Ukraine conducted an increasing flirtation with the European Union.

Waking up last summer, the Kremlin first tried soft power, reminding Ukrainians of their shared orthodox faith, their common cultural and linguistic roots. Pushing a hot button issue, Moscow warned that joining the EU would mean adopting Western Europe’s laissez faire approach to homosexuality.

Ukrainians reacted by asking: Where are Slavic bonds of brotherhood when Russia charges Ukraine some of the highest gas prices in Europe?

Then, the Kremlin toyed with hard power, playing with unilateral trade sanctions. But the longer the lines of trucks stretched at Ukraine’s border with Russia, the higher the European option grew in Ukrainian public opinion polls.

As the November 28 deadline approached for Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovych to sign a free trade pact with the European Union, Ukraine’s signature on the EU deal seemed to be guaranteed.

But this looming deadline focused the attention of one of the most ruthless and clever political leaders in the world today: Vladimir Putin.

Two months after brokering a Syrian chemical disarmament deal, Putin pulled off his second strategic coup, inducing Ukraine’s leadership to switch directions, and move East, instead of West.

Reuters, the normally sedate financial news agency, wrote this screaming headline: “Russia steals Ukrainian bride at the altar.”

Yanukovych’s abrupt switch flies in face of Ukrainian public opinion polls. They indicate Ukrainians favor the European Union over Russia by a margin of 3 to 1. Indeed, on Sunday, 100 000 pro-EU protesters flooded central Kyiv, with many pitching tents for the long haul.

Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich. Photo: Igor Kruglenko
Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich. Photo: Igor Kruglenko

So how did Putin persuade Ukrainian president last week to shift course and not sign with Europe?

Putin analyzed Yanukovych’s vulnerabilities. Then, they hit him where it hurt most — his political power base in Eastern Ukraine. Bordering Russia, this region is economically dependent on Russia.

Russian sanctions targeted Eastern Ukraine companies – railroad wagon manufacturers, steel producers, a chocolate manufacturer, and suppliers for the Russian military. Due to the Russian boycott, Ukrainian exports dropped by 25 per cent, the economy shrank by 1.5 per cent, companies laid plans to lay off thousands of workers, and Ukraine’s foreign currency reserves fell to an amount sufficient to cover two months of imports.

In a direct threat to Eastern Ukraine’s energy-intensive factories, Russia’s Gazprom threatened to cut off gas supplies unless Ukraine started to make payments on his back bill of $1.5 billion.

In American terms, this is comparable to an American president closing the border with Mexico to force a Mexican president to join Nafta. (Mexico voluntarily joined the North American Free Trade Association in 1994.)

Last year, Russia joined the World Trade Organization, which severely restricts such unilateral barriers. But one year later, some economists say, Russia treats the WTO accession agreement like a scrap of paper. In the last three months, Russia has bullied other neighbors, banning milk products from Lithuania, fish from Estonia, and wine from Moldova.

On November 9, Yanukovych flew to Russia for a secret meeting with Putin. Talks lasted until late at night. To finalize details, the Ukrainian and Russian prime ministers met in St Petersburg last week. Details have not been made public. But gas pricing discounts may be part of the deal.

Russia’s damage to Ukraine’s economy was so severe, that Ukraine’s prime minister Mykola Azarov said that the main benefit from the deal will be simply to reestablish normal trade relations with Russian.

On Yanukovych’s return from Russia, the mood music from the Ukrainian government changed sharply — toward Euro skepticism. Yanukovych briefed his supporters well. When key pro-Russia votes were needed, his cabinet and Party of Regions voted unanimously.

On November 21, Yanukovych let his prime minister make the surprise announcement of Ukraine’s return to the Russian fold. That day, the President was in Vienna, continuing to promise that Ukraine’s future is with Europe.

Yanukovych still nurtures ambitions to win Ukraine’s presidential elections in March 2015. With or without Russian aid, Yanukovych has to find $17 billion in new credits for Ukraine next year. With the country teetering on the edge of default, alternatives include jacking up household gas prices and devaluing the currency. Evidently, Yanukovych is banking of Russian aid to help his win reelection.

Back in Moscow, Putin, the cold master of political karate, did not waste capital on victory celebrations. Instead, he launched a pre-emptive attack on Friday against protest demonstrations that he knew were planned. He accused the European Union of paying to organize anti-Russia rallies. Once again, Putin used an aggressive offense to play defense.

Russian presient Vladimir Putin and European Commision president Jose Manuel Barroso. Photo:
Russian presient Vladimir Putin and European Commision president Jose Manuel Barroso. Photo:

So when 100 000 people marched Sunday in Kyiv, Russia’s state controlled media downgraded the turnout, and then quoted Putin predicting that the EU would organize anti-Russia protests.

Sharp reaction came from Europe’s top two leaders, José Manuel Barroso, European Commission president, and Herman Van Rompuy, European Council chief.

Victor Yuschenko, Ukraine’s former president, appealed for European aid, writing in The Financial Times: “Those who underestimated Moscow’s readiness to use whatever means to maintain a sphere of influence must draw lessons from this development and help overcome Russia’s imperialistic claims.”

But, in a review of Putin’s ruthless tactics, one European analyst conjured up the image of French baguette, a long loaf of bread that is slender and somewhat soft. He compared Brussels’ duel with Russia to a man brandishing a baguette in a knife fight.


(Top photo of Vladimir Putin via



James Brooke VOA Moscow Bureau Chief

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.