Putin’s Ukrainian disaster
He wrestles polar bears, rides shirtless on Siberian stallions and bends frying pans with his bare hands.
But the Kremlin's man-of-steel, Vladimir Putin, is finding, much to his chagrin, that the demonstrators behind Ukraine's biggest protests since the Orange Revolution aren’t frying pans.
They are proving far less pliable, at any rate, than Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovich.
With Ukraine’s economy teetering, and a presidential election just 18 months off, Yanukovich pulled back from the brink of a landmark partnership deal with Europe after Putin, by all accounts, made an offer he couldn’t refuse (or a threat he couldn’t ignore).
Ukraine’s protesters - who are now in control of the Trade Unions building and Kiev’s City Hall - have thrown an unexpected spanner into Putin’s efforts to cobble together a semblance of old empire while making Russia a paramount player on the world stage.
Ukraine’s protesters threaten to scupper that enterprise. And that is forcing Putin into a now-familiar role as the West’s geopolitical bogeyman.
An icy Kremlin host
I recall a chilling moment during a Kremlin press conference last March with French President François Hollande. Hollande had been doing his utmost to appear relaxed and easy-going as his icy Russian host sat glumly beside him.
At one point, a journalist rose to his feet and, addressing Putin directly, noted the "lack of warmth" between the two presidents. Putin, not skipping a beat, shot back: "Step a little closer, and you'll feel the warmth."
Were Ukraine's pro-Europe opposition to step a little closer, they would also feel Putin’s warmth. Tent-pitching, slogan-chanting, rabble-rousing protest of the kind we’ve seen in central Kiev in recent days is a perilous undertaking in Putin’s Russia.
Just ask the leaders of Russia's demoralised opposition. They are on the cusp of a second straight winter of discontent after Moscow cops in full riot gear charged demonstrators in a May 2012 protest that coincided with Putin’s inauguration to a third presidential term.
Not a revolution, but a 'pogrom'
Putin's disdain for pro-democratic street protest is hard-wired into his DNA. His first reaction to Ukraine’s pro-EU rallies was predictably scathing: he likened them to "pogroms", a term laden with dark historical associations for Jews and other minorities.
Then he went further, asserting that the rallies, far from spontaneous expressions of popular will, were the stagecraft of “foreign actors” bent on subverting Russian interests in what Moscow considers its back yard.
I can only imagine how thrilled Putin must have been when, last Saturday, Kiev's police used brutal force to disperse the pro-EU protesters with stun grenades, truncheons and tear gas. It was an emphatic crackdown that bore all the hallmarks of a Putinian crisis response.
Putin was less thrilled with what happened next: the protesters – several hundred thousand of them – charged back the next day, filling Kiev’s central squares with redoubled fervour, indignation and outrage.
Ukraine’s interior minister, Vitaliy Zakharchenko, sounded almost contrite, saying he needed to bear responsibility for the forceful clearing of the square.
Ukraine’s prime minister was left playing the role of bad cop – Putin’s role – declaring that things had “spiralled out of control” and branding the protests “an attempted coup”. Meanwhile, the target of the protesters’ ire, President Viktor Yanukovich, struck a conciliatory note.
“I am convinced that a bad peace is better than a good war,” he said. Could you for one second imagine those words coming out of Putin’s mouth?
The answer, of course, is, “No”.
Claiming the post-Soviet space
That’s because for Putin, “losing” Ukraine to Europe would be akin to sacrificing a large chunk of post-Soviet space (pop. 46 million) to which Putin feels culturally, historically and strategically entitled.
Putin may insist till he’s hoarse that his interest in Ukraine is purely economic, that Ukraine and Russia are commercially bound to one another by dint of geography and gas deals.
But what we’re really seeing is the latest incarnation, of an age-old vision of a Great Slavic space, with Mother Russia at its core, stretching back over a millennium to ancient Kievan Rus.
Putin has never come to grips with Ukraine’s declaration of independence 23 years ago, nor with the fact that Ukraine’s allegiance may be shifting.
A poll back in October, on the eve of the protests, showed that only a quarter of Ukrainians would vote for Yanukovich in the second round of a presidential election in 2015. Thirty-eight percent said they would opt instead for opposition leader and boxer, Vitali Klitschko. Even in the mostly Russian-speaking East, where industry is closely tied to Russia, sympathy for a more European orientation is likely to grow.
“I will recall once more Russia’s most recent history,” Putin told Russia’s Federal Assembly in April 2005. “Above all we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century.”