Ukraine, Putin's Thick Red Line
Putin is doing everything to not be remembered by history as the one who "lost" Ukraine. Mother Russia's imperial face is on the line.
MOSCOW — Under no circumstances, it should be clear, can Vladimir Putin let Ukraine slip outside the Russian sphere of influence. If Kiev chooses Brussels over Moscow, it would dim the glory of the “leader of the nations.”
Russians see in Putin a ""sobiratiela ziem russkich"" (the one who gathers scattered lands of Russia), a title that the current president shares with such Russian personalities as Ivan I of Moscow, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Joseph Stalin.
“Sobiratiel” is the highest title that history may honor a Russian leader with. And today, the lands to be gathered are the former republics of the Soviet Union.
Even if Russians mock the independence of the three tiny Baltic countries (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) they have acknowledged that this ship has sailed west. Many Russians, recalling holidays spent in Soviet resorts in Lithuania or Latvia, admit that they never felt at home there.
The fate of the Central Asian republics (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) is not an issue. Russians are persuaded that those poor countries governed by satraps with Communist origins, and threatened by the radical Islamists, will crave Russian protection anyway. In the end, a large portion of the income of Tajikistan’s population comes from money sent by their compatriots who clean the streets of Moscow or build the Olympics sports hall in Sochi.
Asians “will not escape from a submarine in the middle of the ocean,” as Russians like to say. But they may be mistaken since both China and the underestimated Turkey are very active in the region.
But it is most of all the two Slavic brothers that give Russians their biggest headache. According to Fyodor Lukyanov, a specialist on international politics and the editor-in-chief of the magazine “Russia in Global Affairs,” the western borders of Ukraine and Belorussia are for both the Kremlin and ordinary Russians a thick red line not to be crossed by other foreign powers.
Carrots and sticks
Minsk or Kiev do feel like home: the Orthodox churches look “Russian” and the overall architecture recalls the mix of imperialism and Stalinism seen in Moscow. Many Russians, if not the majority, do not even consider Ukrainian a different language, but rather a sort of “broken Russian.”
In July, during the celebrations of the 1025th anniversary of Christianization of the historical Rus region, Putin and the Patriarch of Moscow Kirill recalled that Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians come from one “Dnieper font,” and should therefore stay one big family instead of trying their luck elsewhere.
Putin has invested much in Ukraine. In his political career, there was no bigger humiliation than the one during the Orange Revolution, in 2004. He came to Kiev to support Viktor Yanukovych during the presidential elections and congratulated him twice on the victory over Viktor Yushchenko. And yet the latter finally emerged as the winner. Back then it was not just about ambitions and cold calculations. Personal emotions were involved as well.
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Russian-Ukranian joint Navy exercises in 2012 (Kremlin)
Now, Putin is busy doing everything to stop the Ukrainian accession to the European Union. (On Thursday, he got some welcome news as Ukraine's parliament rejected a bill that would have led to the release of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, which may scuttle a key trade deal with the EU.)
The Russian borders have closed for products imported from Ukraine. The pro-Russian lobbyist like local communists, Viktor Medvedchuk (the former Head of Presidential Administration of Leonid Kuchma) and industrialists doing business with Russia work full speed to do Moscow's bidding. Russian TV channels available in Ukraine spread the vision of the disaster which joining the EU would bring on Ukraine: loss of the eastern market, poverty, unemployment, the end of independence.
Just in the last few weeks alone, Putin has met Yanukovych three times. The last meeting was secretly held at “one of the airports near Moscow” last Saturday, a Putin spokesperson confirmed.
Between the threats and temptations, the Russian president probably evoked an economic blockage or presenting his own candidate during the Ukrainian presidential elections in 2015. Cheap gas, loans and political support for Yanukovych would sweeten the eventual separation with the EU.
There is no such price he would not pay for going down to history as a sobiratiel.