Vladimir Putin: The Biggest Loser
It is of course too far early to tell whether the revolution in Ukraine, which ousted pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich, will succeed in steering the country toward freedom and prosperity. But one thing is already clear: the past week’s biggest loser is Russian president Vladimir Putin, whose rout in Ukraine has further soured the already dubious triumph of the Sochi Olympics. It is almost a storybook tale of hubris, humiliation, and poetic justice.
Both Sochi and Ukraine have been, for Putin, intensely personal high-stakes projects. The Sochi Olympics were going to be a showcase for the might and splendor of the new Russia. Ukraine was going to be the biggest piece in rebuilding the post-Soviet Russian Empire.
It is important to remember that the 2004-2005 “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine (its name derived from the ribbons worn by protesters in the huge demonstrations that led to Yanukovich’s first ouster, forcing a revote after he stole an election) played a key role in shaping Putin’s attitudes. The spectacle of his ally’s downfall caused him to become far more hostile to domestic dissent and far more paranoid about foreign threats.
In the official lingo of the Kremlin and its loyalists, “orange” became a generic term for subversive movements supposedly created and manipulated by Western powers for the purpose of installing friendly regimes. It is very likely that Putin and the Putinistas sincerely believe their own propaganda: the idea that people would spend days camping out on a square in the bitter cold simply because they are outraged by election fraud simply does not compute in their thoroughly cynical minds, so the alternative explanation must be that someone is paying them off. (That “someone,” of course, is the perfidious West, and Uncle Sam in particular.) The pro-Kremlin media and leaders of loyalist groups have routinely spoken of “the orange threat” within Russia itself, using the word as a slur against the opposition.
In the last several years, Putin saw a chance to bring Ukraine back into the fold. The Orange Revolution ended in disenchantment as its leaders, President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, failed to improve the economy or rein in corruption and became mired in squabbles. The once-popular Yushchenko received just over 5 percent of the vote in the first round of the 2010 presidential elections; Tymoshenko was narrowly defeated by Yanukovich in the runoff. (In view of Russian complaints about pro-Orange U.S. interference, it is ironic that Yanukovich owed his victory in large part to an image makeover assisted by American political consultants with Republican Party ties.)
As Ukrainian journalist and political analyst Olena Tregub noted in a 2010 article, Yanukovich’s victory did not represent a rejection of the Orange Revolution’s ideals. While stressing friendly ties to Russia, he also advocated a closer relationship with the European Union, stating on more than one occasion that EU integration was a top foreign policy priority for Ukraine and was not only a strategic goal but a “civilizational choice.”
Last fall, it seemed that Yanukovich would live up to his promises: Ukraine was poised for a major trade deal with the EU that would have put it on track to eventual EU membership. But Putin was not about to let that happen. Moscow stepped in, employing its usual carrot-and-stick tactics to scuttle the agreement: threats of trade retaliation coupled with promises of benefits if Ukraine backed out. On November 21, Yanukovich announced that the deal was off—sparking nonstop protests on Kiev’s Maidan Square, the birthplace of the Orange Revolution. The announcement, on December 17, that the Kremlin was rewarding the Yanukovich regime with a big discount on natural gas and $15 billion in purchases of Ukrainian government bonds further angered the opposition: the sweetheart deal—which Yanukovich openly admitted had been fast-tracked by Putin—was seen as evidence that the regime was selling out Ukraine’s national interests. Few doubted that Russian largesse would benefit primarily Yanukovich and his cronies and henchmen, not ordinary Ukrainian citizens.
The rest, of course, is now history.
As the protests began on November 22, Ukrainian journalist Vitaly Portnikov wrote on the independent Russian website, Grani.ru: “Putin must be overjoyed: he wanted to keep Ukraine from making the European choice, and he managed to pull it off. But in reality, he has lost Ukraine, because people will now link the collapse of their hopes not only with Yanukovich but with Russia. … Even as he engages in a mythical confrontation with the West and Europe, Putin de facto undermines his country’s prestige in the eyes of the nations most favorably disposed toward Russia.” Just three months later, it looks like Portnikov’s prediction has come true.
Barring the catastrophe of military intervention by Moscow, Ukraine has decisively rejected Russia’s patronage. And the question of “who lost Ukraine,” from Russia’s point of view, has a simple answer: Putin. His determination to prevent Ukraine’s rapprochement with the EU has backfired beyond his worst nightmare.
That this would happen right in the middle of the Sochi Olympics has an almost uncanny symbolism—particularly since the Olympics, like the dream of imperial revival, were a monument to Putin’s hubris. Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russian program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin that the Olympics had never before been “so identified with the leader of the host country.” And yet Putin’s attempt to play Olympian god ran into a series of largely self-inflicted defeats—from the pick of a semitropical location with a climate ill-suited for winter sports and with no infrastructure to support the games (but one that just happens to be Putin’s favorite vacation spot) to exceedingly bad pre-Olympics press over Russia’s new anti-gay legislation.
What next for Putin? As he watches Ukraine, there is little doubt that the Russian leader has nightmare visions of Russia turning orange. In the short term, Ukraine’s revolution will likely mean an even harsher crackdown on the opposition in Russia to prevent such a development; it is also likely that the violence of the past few days in Kiev will be used by Russian propagandists to frighten Russians into believing that authoritarianism is the only alternative to deadly turmoil. But if there’s one thing the events in Ukraine show, it’s that the best-laid plan of authoritarian strongmen often go awry.