Russia pushes Viktor Yanukovych to stare down protests as EU puts Ukraine deal on ice

Ukraine's Viktor Yanukovych wants to have it both ways, keep his Russian patronage and strike a free-trade deal with the EU. But that is not how Russia's Vladimir Putin is playing the game, and he has won this kind of wintry confrontation before.

EU calls Ukraine's negotiating bluff, but Russia holding the cards

Winters are long and winters of discontent more frequent in the biggest states of the ex-Soviet Union. At Independence Square in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, the crowds arrived weeks ago.

Days later the police arrived, too, and tried violently to dislodge them. Instead, the police fell back,and the next day the crowds were several times larger, growing to more than half a million people.

This winter confrontation mirrors another two years ago in Moscow and an earlier one in Kyiv as well in 2004. Both were marked by large crowds, and great enthusiasm; both were followed by failure.

The Moscow failure was obvious; a few months later Vladimir Putin, the object of the demonstrators' fury, was elected president of Russia by a comfortable majority.

The 2004 demonstrations in Ukraine — the so-called Orange Revolution — are more paradoxical, though they seemed, at the time, a success.

Their goal was to prevent the fraudulent election of Viktor Yanukovych as president, and in that they succeeded.

Yet two years later, he and his party triumphed in parliamentary elections and he became prime minister; and in 2010 he was elected president in a vote that outside observers accepted as largely untainted.

Man of controversy

But Yanukovych seems to ignite controversy in whatever he does. This latest cold-weather confrontation began after he refused, at the last minute, to sign a deal offered by the European Union.

Pro-European integration protesters take part in a rally at Independence Square in Kyiv. Thousands massed on Sunday for a rally against President Viktor Yanukovich just days before he heads for a meeting at the Kremlin which the opposition fears will slam the door on integration with the European mainstream. ( Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

The deal would have allowed for Ukraine to assume associate status, and thereby enjoy a free-trade deal with the 28 European states.

Why refuse? Because Russia, the Russia of Putin — the man who described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geo-political disaster of the 20th century — was offering more.

More money to Ukraine as an incentive, and more penalties — higher gas prices, indeed a cut in gas supplies — as a whip if Ukraine didn't sign up to his post-Soviet customs union.

Yanukovych, as his wont, dithered, and played for time.

In Kyiv, the demonstrators replied by tearing down a statue of Vladimir Lenin, the dictatorial founder of the Soviet Union, a man Putin admires.

Yanukovych clearly hadn't expected to face a second Orange Revolution in the streets.

He tried force; it merely magnified the crowds. He dismissed lieutenants who had carried out the orders to crack down. The opposition was unimpressed: It demanded the heads of his prime minister and minister of the interior. But their heads stayed on.

The crowds that dug in and grew are the Ukrainians who see Europe and the EU as their future. They are, for the most part, from Western Ukraine.

But Ukraine is a divided country. In the industrialized East, Yanukovych's stronghold, many voters are native Russian speakers and see their future with Moscow.

They are the ones his regime brings in by special train to counter-demonstrations in Kyiv, though many do so with little enthusiasm.

"I really don’t trust our politicians," said one man taking part in the pro-Yanukovych demonstration on the weekend. "I don't the like opposition leaders. But, of course, the president is an idiot, too."

Calling his bluff

The "idiot," however, clings to power, supported by the power ministries, like the police, the security forces and the army.  But, short of resorting to lethal repression, they seem powerless to stop the popular uprising.

A Pro-European Union activist in sunglasses in Ukrainian national colors attends a rally in Independence Square in Kyiv, Ukraine, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013. (Dmitry Lovetsky/The Associated Press)

The vague U.S. threat of  economic sanctions following the aborted police crackdown, and the appearance at Independence Square on the weekend of American Senator John McCain, in support of the demonstrators, has only added to the headaches of the Ukrainian president.

Yanukovych's bluff in recent days, of promising to continue negotiations with the EU and devise some sort of interim deal, has now been called.

The European commissioner for enlargement, Stefan Füle, tweeted on Sunday that the "words and deeds of [Ukraine] president and government further and further apart. Their arguments have no grounds in reality." The negotiating process was frozen.

It may be another blast of cold air to many pro-Europe demonstrators, but several of the largest nations in the EU, including Britain, France and even Germany, will be perfectly at ease with the freeze.

The negotiations with Ukraine began years ago. Since then the EU has been plunged into the euro crisis and has admitted Bulgaria and Romania to its ranks.

Since then, the appetite for expansion has cooled as the problems of absorbing those two Eastern European states have proven complicated.

What's more, some Ukrainians living in the EU are distinctly skeptical of the deal as well.

I recently listened in astonishment as several vehemently rejected the idea, saying it would merely turn Ukraine into a hewer of wood and drawer of water, a sort of Slavic Canada, for the European powerhouses.

Russia's zero-sum game

None of these developments, mind you, have stopped the drumbeat of Russian criticism of the West in general and the EU in particular.

Putin's prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, has accused the EU of "crude interference" in Ukrainian affairs, while his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, describes the demonstrations in Kiev as the work of provocateurs, adding that the European powers have "lost their sense of reality."

For the Putin regime, this is a zero-sum game: it's either Russia or the EU for Ukraine. There can't be deals with both. Which doesn't leave Yanukovych with many good options.

But despite the size of the demonstrations in Kyiv, the opposition remains hydra-headed, only united over two things: the wish to sign the European deal and to get rid of Yanukovych.

These were the same objectives nine years ago, and that ended badly.

Lenin toppling in the snow was a photo opportunity too tasty for the world's media not to swallow.

It recalled another famous figure pulled from his plinth 22 years ago in Moscow — Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of Lenin's secret police, the Cheka.

That toppling seemed to symbolize the end of the Communist regime in the Soviet Union. Yet less than a decade later a Dzerzhinsky man, a graduate of the KGB, Vladmir Putin, was running Russia and putting ex-KGB men in positions of power around him.

Breaking a statue does not break a regime.

About the Author

Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.