Putin Is Forging a New Ukraine—Just Not the One He Wants

A decade of Russian interference could turn Putin into a unifying figure for Ukraine—as a villain.

The great enemy of would-be statesmen is the law of unintended consequences. President Vladimir Putin of Russia, caricatured by friend and foe alike as a master geopolitician, should be discomfited by this law. The man who is trying desperately to make Ukraine a constituent element in the Eurasian Union, is doing nothing other than hastening the formation of a post-Soviet, Ukrainian political identity—an identity that looks West for inspiration.

Mr. Putin's work in building a new Ukrainian consciousness began no later than the fall of 2004, a period during which his popularity in that country was higher than either of the candidates running for president in Ukraine. Mr. Putin oversaw a Russian policy designed to ensure that Viktor Yanukovych would win the 2004 elections against opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko.


The Kremlin's effort to assist Mr. Yanukovych was multifaceted. It included:

● a major media campaign lauding Mr. Yanukovych and slandering Mr. Yushchenko;

● the provision of substantial funding and "political technologists" (consultants) for the Yanukovych campaign;

● the support of the many clergy in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate;

● several visits by Mr. Putin to Kyiv in the fall of 2004 to demonstrate his support for Mr. Yanukovych;

● two separate congratulations from Mr. Putin to Mr. Yanukovych after the Central Election Commission declared him the winner of the falsified second round of presidential elections.

Simply put, the geopolitical master put his resources and prestige on the line and failed to make Mr. Yanukovych the president of Ukraine. Following the massive protests known as "the Orange Revolution," Viktor Yushchenko won the honest third round of presidential elections. President Putin's opposition to Mr. Yushchenko did not cease after the Orange Revolution. It culminated in early January of 2006, when Gazprom, the giant Russian gas producer, insisted on a multiple increase in the price of the gas that it supplied to Ukraine. When Ukraine balked, Gazprom turned off the gas, precipitating a crisis in Ukraine and Europe—a stunt that it repeated three years later.

Mr. Putin's aggressive support of Viktor Yanukovych in 2004 and later years began to turn public opinion in Kyiv and elsewhere in the center of Ukraine away from Russia. Many analysts have commented on the differences in outlook between the Ukraine's East and West, an historic divide that has weakened considerably over Ukraine's twenty-plus years of independence. But Kyiv and the center of the country were always seen by East and West as "theirs," and voters in the center would function the way that independent voters do in the United States, at times supporting candidates associated with the East and at other times supporting those representing the views of the West. But the Kremlin's heavy hand in 2004 and later meant that Russian support for a particular Ukrainian candidate was less likely to help those candidates gain support in the center.

Mr. Putin's prestige was not the only Russian asset that took a hit in Ukraine during and after the Orange Revolution. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) has been an important promoter of Russian interests in Ukraine. The UOC-MP is one of the two principal churches in the country. The other is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP). According to Marat Gellman, one of the "political technologists" who worked in Ukraine for Mr. Yanukovych in 2004, the prestige of the UOC-MP dropped substantially because of its outspoken support for Mr. Yanukovych and condemnation of the Orange Revolution.


Mr. Putin was given a second chance to demonstrate his understanding of the Ukrainian political scene last fall, when Mr. Yanukovych was negotiating a trade association agreement with the EU. In order to discourage the Ukrainian president from concluding the deal, the Kremlin sharply restricted imports from Ukraine. President Yanukovych announced in late November that, given the likelihood of a Russian trade embargo, he would not pursue the trade association agreement with the EU. (In the view of this author, Yanukovych made his decision because he realized that the EU would only agree to the deal if Yulya Tymoshenko was released from jail, a condition he would not accept; but Yanukovych hid behind the Russian threat in making his public announcement.)

Mr. Putin's fall economic embargo did not endear him to Ukraine's political center or its oligarchs, including many from the East; and, of course, Mr. Yanukovych's repudiation of negotiations with the EU led to immediate protests of tens of thousands in Kyiv's Independence Square (the Maidan). When Mr. Yanukovych cracked down on the demonstrators, hundreds of thousands turned out, now protesting his increasingly authoritarian rule. The beleaguered Ukrainian president again turned to the Kremlin for support, visiting Moscow in mid December and returning with a "gift" of lower gas prices and USD 15 billion in promised loans. Not surprisingly, this latest Kremlin tactic would not solve Mr. Yanukovych's political problem, because gifts from the East would not persuade Ukrainians fed up with police tactics and massive corruption to stop protesting.