Streetwise Professor

December 8, 2013

Between Putin and the People

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 2:53 pm

Today saw a renewal of the massive protests in Kiev.  Indeed, they were arguably larger than those that occurred last weekend.  Organizers called for 1 million Ukrainians to meet at Maidan.  Crowd counts are notoriously unreliable, and it is doubtful that a million actually protested, but the photographs and videos of the events demonstrate that the demonstrations were massive.

So where from here?  Yanukovich added fuel to the fires that are inching towards him by meeting with Putin in Sochi.  Edward Lucas might have fueled the flames even further when he tweeted that a deal had been struck, with Yanukovich securing $15 billion from Putin, along with a substantial cut in gas prices, in exchange for a promise that Ukraine would join Putin’s simulacrum USSR, the Eurasian Economic Union, in 2015.  Lucas was quickly criticized for being too quick on the tweet, as it were, and spreading a thinly sourced rumor.  Putin’s Carney Peskov said the EEU had not even been discussed, that no deal was done, and that further discussions would take place at a technical level.  But the Ukrainian PM Azarov (who makes Yani look like a real charmer) said that a big deal is in the works.

But remember: they’re all Sovoks, so absolutely nothing they say is worth the air of the breath that carries the words.

A hamfisted crackdown in November was an inflection point in the crisis: the attack turned what had been a somewhat forlorn protest into a much more intense national movement.  (Well, semi-national: protests are massive in western Ukraine, and muted, at best, in the east of the country.)  This is no doubt making Yanukovich abstain from further violence.  The very size of the crowds, and the international attention they are getting, are also a deterrent.  There have been ominous signs-the surrounding of a TV station by the Berkut, warnings to evacuate government buildings some protestors have occupied-that force might be used, but so far the government has been restrained.

So Yanukovich will likely try to wait out the protests, in the hope that they will peter out.  This is probably a futile hope.  He made a similar calculation in 2004, and we know how that worked out.  If anything, the opposition is even more motivated today, as the stakes are perceived to be higher.  2004 was about a corrupt election.  2013 has been framed as a choice of tomorrows, between a humane European future with normal people in a normal country living normal lives on the one hand, and a return to a bleak past as a Russian satrapy.

What’s more, Yanukovich does not have the luxury of time.  Ukraine’s economic situation is desperate.  The country’s foreign reserves are down to about 2 months of imports.  Its interest rates are among the highest in the world.  It needs money, and it needs it now, or it risks fiscal collapse. The IMF has offered money, but on terms that make Yanukovich, his cronies, and his oligarch allies blanch.  Putin is apparently offering money, but on terms that would make a substantial part of the country, and virtually the entire western part, even more furious than it already is.  Today’s massive demonstrations were a response to a rumor of deal: think of the reaction to the reality of one.

Yanukovich, in other words, is caught between Putin and the people.  But it’s worse than that.  Neither trust him.  Both will think that if he sides with them, he is more than capable of reversing course later.

And he has to make his choice soon.

Putin has the cash.  Putin can offer other resources-notably, support to the security services.  Covert, preferably, but overt if necessary.

Putin may have an interest in getting Yanukovich to crack down on the protests.  Once that happens, the Ukrainian president will have nowhere to turn for support.  He will be totally dependent on Putin.  The primary consideration that may lead Putin to want to avoid a violent outcome is that it would inevitably be associated with him and Russia, and could lead to boycotts of the Sochi Olympics, or at least a drumbeat of stories that would detract from what Putin is trying to achieve with the games.

Although he doesn’t have a lot of time, given Ukraine’s parlous economic circumstances, since he has no good immediate moves to make, my guess is that Yanukovich will play for time and pray for a miracle.  When that doesn’t come, he will probably choose Putin, because that gives him at least a chance at survival.  And when he makes that choice, the possibility for a violent outcome is very real.

The eventual outcome depends in large part on whether Yanukovich can rely on the military.  The Berkut (his interior forces) are presumably reliable, but will the army stand idly by if Yanukovich attempts a Tiananmen solution?  (Remember the situation in Romania in 1989, where the military refused to fire on revolutionary crowds.  Similarly, during the coup in 1991, Soviet military units, notably a division of paratroopers under Lebed, refused to obey orders to surround the White House where Yeltsin was leading the resistance.)  In violent situations, those who control the resources with the greatest potential for organized violence prevail.

I have no idea what the situation inside the Ukrainian military is.  No doubt the Russians have penetrated it, especially at senior levels.  But whether it is a reliable force, or one that could turn on Yanukovich, I don’t know.  And sadly, even though this is arguably the most important determinant of where things go from here, the media is totally uncurious about it.  They are too wrapped up in the romance of what is going on in the streets to pay attention to the historical reality that what goes on in the barracks is far more important in determining how revolutions play out-or don’t.

One last word.  The Obama administration has been-again-MIA.  Yes, the loathsome Samantha Power tweeted support for the protestors, but as in Iran in 2009 the administration has been notable mainly for its absence on this issue. It should step up to the plate on this.  Because it’s the right thing, and because it could take Putin down a few pegs.

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  1. I’d search-and-replace “Yakunovich” with “Yanukovich” in this text.
    “Yanuceauscu” form is, however, becoming increasingly popular.

    Comment by Ted — December 8, 2013 @ 6:29 pm

  2. Good article. Another big question mark is where the so called oligarchs stand. Many were looking forward to the lifting of trade barriers with Europe, and many have been hurt by the takeover of the country by Yanuk’s inner circle (the Family). I think they are doing a lot of soul searching right about now, regardless of whether they are Russian, Ukrainian, or whatever. They probably wanted to sit on the sidelines to see how this played out, but now they are getting closer to crunch time, they will have to choose sides soon.

    Comment by Gordon — December 8, 2013 @ 6:53 pm

  3. Humankind has inhabited Ukraine for a very long time. It was a refuge during the last ice age and has a relatively mild climate and regions with very fertile soil. Now it suffers from various curses and most importantly are the Soviet curse and the 50/50 curse. When a country is so fundamentally divided and so close to a 50/50 split it is difficult to see a path forward. One solution might be to divide into two countries West and East but that is unlikelyvto happen. The near future is likely to remain disfunctional politics and dissatisfaction for nearly 50% of the population

    The drilling equipment tends to be old and incentives to drill quickly few. It has been the case that drilling operations on a single well would take a year or slightly more. When rig crews begin operations on a new well they often start a garden and begin raising pigs. This is indicative of the situation generally for the country in that the past still severely constrains the future.

    My bet would be that senior military officers were generally in the Soviet Military system and will tend be pro Russian.

    Comment by pahoben — December 8, 2013 @ 9:23 pm

  4. S-Wise-P:

    Obama will do nothing. If he played cards while a US Ambassador was murdered & sodomized & 3 Navy SEALs were killed, what makes you think he will do ANYTHING for the Ukrainians? Principle? He is devoid of them. Pragmatism? He is pragmatic about 2 things: golf & NCAA basketball brackets. The REAL question is “What will Valerie Jarrett tell him to do?”

    Sorry Vlad is so jaded. But he, as he says, has won ‘his last election’ & intends to be ‘more flexible’ now.

    PM VP

    Comment by Vlad — December 8, 2013 @ 10:12 pm

  5. Lol you think the EU gives a shit about you people? They aren’t even offering a good deal. They just want to fuck with Russia, they just you ignorumases as pawns.

    Comment by Yo — December 9, 2013 @ 12:57 am

  6. Yup. Ukraine is definitely not part of the re-set agenda. Based on youtube videos it doesnt look as though the government troops are feeling the EU spirit. If you go down close to where they are exiting it is very bad news because everyone in a uniform stops to kick you multiple times.

    I saw a video of Saakashvili addressing a crowd in Kiev. It doesn’t appear that his plan to stay out of politics is starting off too well.

    Comment by pahoben — December 9, 2013 @ 2:46 pm

  7. The follow on to my comment about the ice age is that many many of European ancestry trace back to some ancestor that lived on land that is currently Ukraine.

    Comment by pahoben — December 9, 2013 @ 3:03 pm

  8. Thanks for the spelling help. By way of explanation/excuse, I wrote this after enduring a 7 hour flight delay in Amsterdam, and I was a little frazzled, not to say p*ssed. When I fell asleep-in an Amsterdam hotel, my flight having been cancelled after all that-I thought to myself: “did I write Yakunovich or Yanukovich?” Finally made it back to Houston to find gentle reminders that I had spelled it wrong. I’ve made the change. Thanks again.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 9, 2013 @ 5:04 pm

  9. I’m going to go with pahoben’s comments. I lived there for a year in Odessa, a pro-Russia region, and it really turned my stomach about how they are so divided. It was sad and exasperating. I’m having a really hard time explaining what I experienced. It was extremely odd. They want to be a country, but they’re not entirely sure they are. They want to be friends with both Russia and the EU, but their own population sits at polar opposite positions. They want freedom, economic opportunity, and the rule of law, but they also say that they have a slave mentality and need a dictator to tell them what to do. (at least the Russian part, I didn’t make the slave thing up, it was told to me) They know they get screwed by Russia, but they can’t bear to let her go.

    Keep in mind that though the demonstrations are large and maybe more powerful this time around, it is still the case that a nearly equal number is on the other side. Don’t assume that Yanukovich is doing whatever he wants. He has support by a large amount of people. In fact, they couldn’t even get a no confidence vote passed in Parliament. (though I don’t know the details around why or how)

    Prediction for the future? History tells us that what you see today is what you get, occasional outreaches to the West, then Russia forces them back and ultimately screws them over… repeat cycle. If the EU were a roaring economy, that could be the tipping point, but right now, Russia can still bribe them and we all know how Sovoks love bribes. I still hold hope that this is a tipping point now, but I can’t let myself get too excited. Some day, maybe, they’ll pull themselves away, but this is more emotional than economic.

    Lastly, the military would not risk going against Russia and would likely stick with Yanukovich. It’s not just fear, but a loyalty and a dysfunctional little brother thing going on there. Ukrainians often say they won’t fight a Russian.

    Okay, my splintered mess of a post is done for now. Back to work.

    Comment by Howard Roark — December 9, 2013 @ 6:19 pm

  10. @Howard
    I have Ukrainian friends I think the world of and sad is how I feel about it also

    I drove through Odessa and remember the infrastructure these was the worst of any major city in Ukraine. I drove out on the highway to Kiev and driving past a wreck with 20 somethings lying all over the highway with very serious trauma. The ambulance personnel did not seem in a hurry.

    The road police даи (funny enough Russian for give) are horrible. One time I was stopped in the East and I gave them hick Texan enthusiastic shtik in English when he walked up to the car. The guys eyes got big and he took a couple steps back as if I had struck him. In the end I still had to pay since he started to lean on my passenger.

    Comment by pahoben — December 9, 2013 @ 7:16 pm

  11. Another time I drove into Kiev from the Wesr and I got waved over because my SUV was dirty. I knew that the closer to Kiev you were the more the road police wanted but soon realized this was not the usual shake down. This guy starts going through all my documents with a fine tooth comb and finally asks for my passport (this was a first). He carefully starts through my passport and says you go tio Russia a lot why is that. I said my wife is Russian. He looked at me and said Rusyanka? I replied yes and he just said in an instant oh okay you can go. I didn’t pay anything.

    Comment by pahoben — December 9, 2013 @ 8:47 pm

  12. All the highways in Ukraine are essentially toll roads. The difference is the toll booths hide in the bushes and jump out as you approach.

    Comment by pahoben — December 9, 2013 @ 9:07 pm

  13. Most of the east-west divide is unfortunately ethnic, unfortunately for the Ukrainians they have a very large ethnic Russian minority who are manipulated by the Russian state.
    Much worse than in the Baltic republics where the Russian minority is capable of, and does, cause a lot of problems for the native population.

    Comment by Andrew — December 10, 2013 @ 3:56 am

  14. And the mood fpor Yanukovich is soured in the east as well, his approval ratings there have apparently dropped below 30%

    Comment by Andrew — December 10, 2013 @ 4:07 am

  15. I drove out on the highway to Kiev and driving past a wreck with 20 somethings lying all over the highway with very serious trauma.

    I once took a taxi from Kiev to Simferopol. How I didn’t end up a similar casualty is anyone’s guess, as my driver was trying really, really hard to make us both one.

    Comment by Tim Newman — December 10, 2013 @ 10:13 am

  16. Despite the West-East divide, the long term trend is in favor of Ukrainian nationalism. In 1994, nationalists could only count on oblasts west of the Dnieper. Now in elections, they routinely carry the northern left bank as well. There are signs the oblasts along the southern part of the river are slowly becoming part of the nationalist bloc, which means eventually the Russian strongholds are split in three instead of being in one monolithic bloc. Dnipropetrovsk and Kherson oblasts could go for the opposition in the next 10-20 years.

    Not only is Ukrainian nationalism becoming deeper embedded in the country, the young can tell the difference between the EU, which for all of its problems has the rule of law, and Putin’s Russia. If they want a future, there is only one real option. The crowds in Kiev may be important, but I think the really telling thing is the spread of protests in areas that are supposed to be loyal to Russia. 7000 in Dnipropetrovsk, 5000 each in Kharkov and Zaporizhia is more significant than larger rallies in the western parts.

    Yanukovich has institutional authority and power, but support for him is tepid and weak. Any hope that he could unite the country and provide better administration than the divided Orange government has evaporated, and he is not trusted. The next presidential election is only in 2015.

    Comment by Chris — December 10, 2013 @ 11:48 am

  17. @Chris
    But isn’t that the usual case. The support for the Ukrainian President is typically tepid and weak and isn’t that is the likely case continuing into the future.

    Comment by pahoben — December 10, 2013 @ 10:33 pm

  18. @Chris & @pahoben. The weaker the popular support, the more reliant the Ukrainian President is on the security forces and the money of the oligarchs. That’s who will decide this.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 10, 2013 @ 10:47 pm

  19. A word about the military:

    Yes, Yanukovich has been careful about selecting loyalists in top positions in the military and security apparatus. Both Ukraine’s head of the SBU (Ukraine’s version of the FSB) and the defense minister are actually Russians, born in Russia, who moved to Ukraine as adults. The FSB head, Igor Kalinin, was born in Moscow in 1960, joined the KGB and moved ot UKraine in 1992 when he became an instructor an SBU academy. Dmitri Lebedev, the defense minister, was born in Krasnodar, attended a military academy in Yaroslavl Russia and came to Ukraine as a soldier in his twenties.

    On the other hand, it’s a conscript army which means the soldiers reflect the general population. In Ukraine, not only is there a geographic divide but also an age divide – even in Donetsk, a slim majority of people under 25 prefer the EU to the Customs Union. So, it is safe to say that a healthy majority of the soldiers are pro-West. Will they follow the orders of non-Ukrainians in opposition to their own wishes and against their own people? So, its doubtful Yanukovich can rely on the army. He would rather probably want to make sure it is out of the way and couldn’t interfere in case of a crackdown.

    To further complicate things – the Interior Ministry has been rather lavishly funded. Its troops may be better armed and trained than the military.

    Comment by AP — December 11, 2013 @ 12:04 am


    Good insight into the oligarch situation.

    Comment by Gordon — December 11, 2013 @ 10:46 am

  21. @Gordon
    Thanks for the link.

    Comment by pahoben — December 11, 2013 @ 6:05 pm

  22. @Tim
    I hooe there wasn’t anyone chained to a seat in your taxi 🙂

    I dont know what the fatality rate is per passenger mile but it must be relatively high. Whenever you have BMW’s traveling 100 mph and farm equipment traveling 10 mph sharing the same road bad things happen.

    Comment by pahoben — December 11, 2013 @ 6:12 pm

  23. @AP. Good information/insights. Not surprising that the Interior Ministry has been lavishly funded, as compared to the military. Not an uncommon phenomenon. The rulers fear internal threats far more than external.

    It’s like the Roman emperors, lavishing favors on the Praetorian Guard.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 12, 2013 @ 5:28 pm

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