“Everybody knows that Ukrainians are Russians,” Kremlin adviser Sergei Markov told me when we met in Moscow ahead of the Olympics. “Except for the Galicians,” he added, referring to western Ukrainians, who lived under Austro-Hungarian and Polish rule before being absorbed into the Soviet Union after the Second World War.
Ukraine is in Mr. Putin’s nightmares because of who has been on the streets. These are not Egyptians or Syrians or Thais challenging their government, but fellow Slavs, Russian-speakers and former Soviet citizens. Although the protests are driven by ethnic Ukrainians from the west of Ukraine, many in Independence Square are ethnic Russians simply tired of the kleptocracy that rose when the USSR fell.
In other words, if it can happen in Kiev, it can happen in Moscow. It almost did two years ago when much of the liberal intelligentsia in Moscow and St. Petersburg took to the streets to protest against Mr. Putin’s return to the Kremlin for a third term as president, after four years in the theoretically junior post of prime minister (a token nod to Russia’s post-Soviet constitution).
We have been here before, of course. During the Orange Revolution of 10 years ago, I stood on Independence Square for weeks as protesters peacefully overturned an election the Kremlin had helped to rig in Mr. Yanukovych’s favour. The mood then was one of elation, a people previously stereotyped as apolitical realizing they had a shared ambition to change their country. There were nightly rumours of an impending crackdown by security forces, but the armoured personnel carriers never came. To the Kremlin’s consternation, Ukraine had proved itself different from its neighbours.
The Orange Revolution panicked Russia, especially as it came just a year after Georgia, another former Soviet republic plagued by corruption and interference by Moscow, had staged its own peaceful uprising, known as the Rose Revolution.
The Kremlin recovered its geopolitical balance after the “colour revolutions” by squeezing Ukraine and humiliating Georgia. By 2010, Ukrainians were so tired of infighting between the Orange coalition of Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko (the former now a marginal figure and the latter in jail on charges many view as trumped up), as well as Russia’s constant threats to cut off the gas, that they elected Mr. Yanukovych fairly this time. Russia also smashed Georgia’s tiny army in a nine-day war that began at the same time as the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
At home, the response was only scarcely more subtle. The Kremlin pushed through a 2006 law forcing non-governmental organizations that received funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents,” a tarring and feathering that warned ordinary Russians to steer clear of anything affiliated with the West. It also stirred up a dangerous ethnic nationalism by forming a pro-Putin youth group known as Nashi, or “Ours,” suggesting that anyone against Mr. Putin was not a true Russian.
By the time he returned to the Kremlin in 2012, Nashi claimed more than 100,000 members, most of them angry young men certain that all of Russia’s problems could be blamed on the West. During the protests surrounding Mr. Putin’s re-election, Nashi often rallied nearby, trying to shout down the opposition’s cries of “Russia without Putin!” with its own chant: “Putin! Russia!”
The Russian dissidents didn’t have the staying power, or fury, that Ukrainians have mustered. The economic progress Mr. Putin has delivered over 15 years in office has insulated him from wider discontent and kept the protest hub of Bolotnaya Square from becoming Russia’s Maidan.
But fear of a repeat has never subsided. To Mr. Putin and those around him, Ukrainians are pulling away from Moscow now for the same reason they did during 10 years ago – because the West is meddling in a country he considers an eternal part of Russia’s sphere of influence. “This is a coup d’état!” Sergei Markov, the Kremlin adviser, shouts over the phone when we speak again on Thursday. “This is entirely funded from abroad, and entirely organized from abroad.”
Mr. Putin sees a Western hand in Ukraine (a notion reinforced by an audio recording posted online, almost surely by the Russians, in which U.S. diplomats in Kiev discuss which opposition politicians should be in a post-Yanukovych government), just as he believes the West paid for the Orange Revolution and encouraged the street protests in Moscow.