An image of President Putin peeks from behind barricades in Independence Square, Kiev.
An image of President Putin peeks from behind barricades in Independence Square, Kiev.
Julian Hans

MOSCOW — While the barricades in Kiev were still smoking, while the dead were being identified and the wounded were being treated, EU foreign ministers publicly declared for the first time that they held Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych responsible for the bloodshed.

In Moscow, however, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov stuck to Russia’s traditional foreign policy rhetoric, saying that his country would not get involved in its neighbor’s domestic affairs. “That is what we have always said, and the Kremlin stands by its position.”

Although Russia has claimed that it did not and would not intervene in Ukraine’s violent chaos — tamed now amid a compromise between the pro-EU opposition and the president — there are numerous signs that it has not merely stood by idly. Not least among these is a loan to the Ukraine, reaching into the billions. The Kremlin has also, at the last moment, offered generous gas price discounts to save its smaller neighbor from bankruptcy, conveniently forgetting that it was Russia’s refusal to trade with Ukraine that brought the country’s economy to its knees.

Unlike the EU, Russia has not been making symbolic visits to Ukraine. The Kremlin prefers to exercise influence behind the scenes, through the media and secret service. Ukrainian media report that Vladislav Surkov, an influential Putin ally, has been in Ukraine for the past few weeks. Founder of the Nashi political youth movement and part of the puppet opposition A Just Russia, Surkov pulled the strings on the political scene in Moscow for years. After the public failure of his strategy during the 2011-12 elections, Surkov appeared to retreat from the political stage for a while, but returned to the Kremlin in September as a presidential adviser.

Surkov was given responsibility for South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the disputed territories occupied by Russia after the conflict in Georgia. Commentators in Ukraine and Russia see his presence in Kiev as a sign that Moscow is planning a similar fate for areas of Ukraine. If the country turns away from Russia and towards Europe, Russia may try to retain control over certain areas and block Ukraine’s efforts at European integration.

Federalism in Ukraine?

The recent escalation of violence could strengthen Russia’s position. Kiev-based newspaper Zerkalo Nedeli writes that Russia could take advantage of the existing conflict within the country, coming in at the request of the pro-Russian side to deal with the violence as it did during the Five-Day War in Georgia in 2008. The internal conflict between the pro-Russian side to the east of the Dnieper River and the pro-European regions in Ukraine’s west has intensified over the past few weeks.

On the Crimean peninsula — which has only been part of Ukraine since 1954, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev handed it over — many pro-Russian organizations are calling for a separation from Kiev if the “fascists” there stage a coup. That is how the Russian TV channels portray events in Kiev, and they have considerable influence over public opinion in parts of Ukraine. According to data from the Democratic Initiative, 22% of Ukrainians get their news from Russian TV channels.

The most active federalism proponent in Ukraine is lawyer and entrepreneur Viktor Medvedchuk, a personal friend of Putin’s. According to a report from the Ukrainska Pravda, the two men share more than just a history in the KGB. In 2004, Putin became godfather to Medvedchuk’s daughter.

According to Lilia Shevtsova from Moscow’s Carnegie Center, circles close the Kremlin have been talking about federalism in Ukraine for a few months. Specialist journals such as Russia in Global Affairs are presenting it as the best option to avoid a situation like the one that developed in former Yugoslavia. “If Yanukovych loses control, Kiev could drop the western regions, or the Russian-dominated eastern regions could declare their independence and agree on a tax union with Russia,” The words may sound harmless, but they hide a sinister undertone.

Moscow intervening behind the scenes?

Surkov’s official reason for visiting Ukraine was to discuss the construction of a bridge over the Strait of Kerch, linking Crimea and Russia. “Everyone who knows anything about politics in Russia can only laugh at that claim,” says Shevtsova.

Moscow has repeatedly rejected suggestions that Russian special task forces have been sent in to quell the uprising. But accusations from the protesters continue to abound. Most recently, the kidnapped and abused protester Dmitry Bulatov voiced his suspicion that his tormentors were Russian, but he cannot prove the allegation.

There are at least two examples of the Russian secret service working closely with its Ukrainian counterpart, the SBU. Two years ago, during the mass protests and allegations of falsification that surrounded Putin’s re-election, the SBU arrested numerous men in Odessa. Russian television showed footage of the arrested men admitting — clearly under duress — to having planned an attack on Putin.

In October of the same year, Russian opposition aide Leonid Razvozzhayev disappeared after inquiring about asylum at a United Nations office in Kiev. A few days later, he resurfaced in the hands of Russian investigators in Moscow, accused of planning a coup. Razvozzhayev denied the allegations and claimed that he had been overpowered by Russian secret service agents in Kiev, taken to Moscow and tortured. While the UN and European Court of Justice demanded an explanation, the Ukrainian government shrugged its shoulders and claimed ignorance.

According to the Ukrainian papers, Yanukovych tried to contact the Russian president Wednesday night by telephone. Putin’s office denies this, sticking to Moscow’s strict public principle of non-intervention. But it looks increasingly likely that, despite its protestations, Russia is quietly working away behind the scenes in Kiev.

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