The events in Ukraine look different when seen from Moscow rather than from other European capitals. European TV channels show spirited faces of young people from Maidan and aggressive riot police attacking the demonstrators. Russian TV shows militants from the opposition attacking police, ruined buildings, and piles of garbage in the streets. These are two dimensions of one reality, but each side sees only one.
There is a widespread view in the West that Vladimir Putin is afraid of what is happening in Ukraine because it can serve as an example for the Russian opposition. This is a very simplified view. The Russian president draws parallels between developments in Kiev and the situation in Russia, but he sees them as confirmation that he is right.
In his view, unrest must be suppressed before it turns into a huge fire. Unrest produces nothing but chaos. A weak state drives itself into a trap. Once a state falters, external forces will charge through the breach and start shattering it until it falls. The West is destructive. It is either unable to understand the complexity of the situation and acts in a primitive way, designating «good» and «bad» players, or it deliberately destroys undesirable systems. The result is always the same — things get worse. The desire to limit Russian influence and hinder Moscow’s initiatives is the invariable imperative of the Western policy.
This is probably how Putin sees the Ukrainian crisis, as well as other local crises of recent years, for example, in the Middle East. He does not sympathise with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who evokes unpleasant memories. In 2004, Putin was personally involved in attempts to help Yanukovych become president. He came to Ukraine to support him and suffered a big defeat. He views the Ukrainian leadership as unreliable and slippery.
However, as in the case of Syria, it is not a personal matter. Yanukovych is a legitimate president of a sovereign state. If external forces are allowed to delegitimise him, let alone remove him from power, this would violate the basic principle of international relations. Therefore, Moscow will not deny Yanukovych (and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad) its support — although it is well aware of his weaknesses, the fragility of the situation, and the risk of his removal from power.
Moscow believes that regime change would thrust Ukraine into anarchy and that it may collapse as a state in the end. It considers the Ukrainian political class, regardless of its political views, irresponsible and unprofessional. Ukrainian «peacetime» politics is reduced to endless intrigues of oligarchic groups, which have no idea about strategy.
For the past 20-plus years, the Ukrainian elite has failed to build a capable and firm state, although after the Soviet Union’s break-up, Ukraine was considered perhaps the most promising country among the post-Soviet states.
However, the rule of the «Orange» coalition in 2005-2010 was an example of utter incompetence. There is no reason to believe that another «pro-Western» government will be more effective, especially considering the leaders of the protests. They do not control the turmoil of the riot, but are only trying to keep up with it.
Russia believes that the continuation of anarchy will lead to the fragmentation of Ukraine. The country acquired its present borders partly by accident: Stalin expanded the Soviet empire by annexing Western Ukraine; Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea to the jurisdiction of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
The nation has not become a unified whole, and attempts to shake the status quo and force Ukraine to make a final choice in favour of the EU or Russia deepen the division. The west of the country has a clear identity, but it does not have an economy of its own. The east has an economic base, but it lacks a distinct identity.
Today Moscow is not seeking the collapse of Ukraine and is taking no special steps in this direction. But if the internal conflict escalates, Russia may opt to establish closer contacts with pro-Russian regions in eastern and south-eastern Ukraine. Russia is confident that the West’s interference and unilateral support for the opposition brings such a scenario closer.
Putin fears chaos. The main driving force behind his policy towards Ukraine will be not a desire for expansion, but a desire to reduce the risk of chaos spilling into Russia. To this end, anything goes — both defensive and offensive means.