Vladimir Putin has a dream – and for the past two weeks, the world has been helping him to live it.
In this dream, Russia is rich again, a place where the reported $51-billion cost of the Winter Olympics in Sochi is no object. It’s a nation of impressive architecture and smiling volunteers who speak English but think like Russians. “Russia – Great, New, Open!” brag the billboards around the Olympic city. (“Open”? Sochi has high fences, surveillance balloons and warships off the coast; every phone call and e-mail is monitored.)
Mr. Putin sees a Russia that is once more a global centre of gravity, indispensable on the world stage. Soon, if his plans come to fruition, Moscow will stand as the leader of a new bloc of nations – the Eurasian Union – with borders that look a lot like those of the Soviet empire, whose fall he has openly mourned.
Vladimir Putin also has a nightmare. And this week, it looked a lot like the burning heart of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital where tens of thousands of protesters battled police to bring down their Kremlin-backed, authoritarian government. Dozens died before a tentative truce Friday interrupted the hostilities, but anger remains so high that there is no guarantee it will hold.
Kiev and its malcontents pose a challenge to everything Mr. Putin has built, perhaps even his grip on power.
The protesters have fought security forces with rocks, Molotov cocktails and live ammunition, threatening to explode the illusion of Russia’s resurgence, exposing it as a country with little appeal even to its nearest neighbours. They raised the possibility that the political system its President has built and exported – an authoritarian capitalism known simply as “Putinism” – is much more fragile than it may seem.
It’s not just that Mr. Putin fears the fall of President Viktor Yanukovych and the rise of a pro-Western government in Kiev, although that would be a heavy geopolitical blow. He needs Ukraine to take part if his Eurasian Union – currently set to launch next year with only Russia, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Belarus as members – is to look like anything more than a tiny dictators’ club.
The standoff began when the Kremlin used its massive economic leverage to force Mr. Yanukovych to abandon a proposed free-trade agreement with the European Union in favour of closer integration with Russia. The opposition not only rejected that kind of interference, it turned up its nose in December when the Kremlin tried to play nice, offering $15-billion in economic aid – plus a one-third cut in the price of the Russian natural gas that powers their homes and factories – to help Ukrainians out of a fiscal crisis set to pinch hard this year.
Such handouts had allowed Mr. Putin to buy off enough fighters in Chechnya that he could largely extinguish the first and fiercest uprising he faced upon coming to office. But unlike the Chechens, his foes from the western (and Westernized) half of Ukraine occupying the centre of Kiev are in no hurry to be bought off. They stayed in the streets even after economic aid started to flow, defying both Mr. Yanukovych and his paymasters in Moscow.
The clashes that came this week have been inevitable ever since, with the Kremlin unsubtly pushing Mr. Yanukovych to use force to clear the fortified tent city on Independence Square, known to Ukrainians simply as the Maidan.
Last month, when he made a series of concessions to the opposition, including the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, the Russian aid was put on hold. On Tuesday, shortly before the fighting began, Moscow announced it would pay the next $2-billion tranche. Then, when Mr. Yanukovych agreed to an initial truce and said he would meet three European foreign ministers who’d flown to Kiev, the money was halted again.
Why? Because, to the Kremlin, this has never been just an ordinary protest in Eastern Europe. Ukraine is central to Russia’s sense of itself, the birthplace of the Kievan Rus, the empire that rose in the 10th century to embrace Orthodox Christianity and become what modern Russia considers its direct ancestor. Ukraine was the one republic whose decision to leave when the Soviet Union collapsed truly bothered Russians.