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Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, left, with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, during a signing ceremony after a meeting of the Russian-Ukrainian Interstate Commission at the Kremlin in Moscow, Dec. 17, 2013. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, left, with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, during a signing ceremony after a meeting of the Russian-Ukrainian Interstate Commission at the Kremlin in Moscow, Dec. 17, 2013. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

Ukrainian President Yanukovych knows who really calls the shots Add to ...

It was meant to sound conciliatory: Speaking in Brussels after an adversarial EU-Russia summit that was heavily focused on Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin said it didn’t matter to him who ruled the former Soviet republic next door.

Russia, he said, would not revoke a $15-billion (U.S.) loan it had offered Ukraine last month. Nor would Russia renegotiate the discounted price of natural gas that it supplies its neighbour, even if the pro-European opposition came to power in Kiev. The bailout package, Mr. Putin said, was intended to “support the people of Ukraine, not the government.”

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Then came a massive caveat: “It is important, regardless of which political force leads the government, what economic policy they are intending to apply.”

In other words, Russia could work with a member of Ukraine’s opposition as prime minister – or even as head of state, if President Viktor Yanukovych is finally ousted – just as it has worked in the past with other pro-Western governments in Kiev. But make no mistake: The non-negotiable “economic policy” Mr. Putin was referring to is Ukraine’s orientation toward Russia.

After weeks of watching his country pulled apart by violent protests in Kiev and elsewhere, Mr. Yanukovych gave in Tuesday to two key opposition demands. First, his Party of Regions repealed most of the new anti-dissent laws it introduced on Jan. 16, including measures that seemed to ban the rolling protests in the capital’s Independence Square. Then, he accepted the resignation of his long-time ally, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, opening the door to the appointment of a head of government from one of the opposition parties.

But by making concessions, he may have lost Moscow’s previously unflinching support. The Kremlin cares less about Mr. Yanukovych than it does about remaining kingmaker in Kiev.

Mr. Putin sees Ukraine as a future member, not of the European Union, but of the Moscow-led Eurasian Union that will launch next year. Like Ukraine, the other confirmed members – Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Armenia – are all former republics of the Soviet Union.

It’s a possible future that the crowds in Independence Square have spent the past nine weeks fighting against. They aren’t shivering in the streets just to put Arseniy Yatsenyuk or Vitali Klitschko in power. They’ve been sleeping in tents and battling riot police because they want to live in a Ukraine governed by the rule of law, instead of the corruption that dominates business and politics in most of the former USSR.

Many of the demonstrators are veterans of the Orange Revolution that propelled the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko to the presidency in 2005. But Mr. Yushchenko was soon made to understand that Ukraine is only as independent as the Kremlin allows it to be. Twice, as Mr. Yushchenko moved the country toward membership in the EU and NATO, Russia cut off the supply of natural gas via the state-owned OAO Gazprom. Twice, Mr. Yushchenko slowed the pace of his reforms.

His popularity ratings plummeted, and Mr. Yanukovych won the next election, in 2010.

It’s realpolitik of the most brutal sort, and it poses an enormous challenge to governments in Brussels, Washington and Ottawa who have loudly cast their lot with the people on the streets of Kiev.

On Monday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised Canada would “take all appropriate actions necessary to encourage the government of Ukraine to move in a positive direction.” That will play well with the large Ukrainian-Canadian community, but the real tools at Mr. Harper’s disposal are few. The same is true of U.S. President Barack Obama and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who have also expressed solidarity with the protesters and outrage at Mr. Yanukovych’s behaviour.

(The EU tried to show how irritated it is with Mr. Putin by cancelling the dinner that is traditionally part of EU-Russia summits. It was a gesture that revealed frustration and futility rather than strength.)

Mr. Yanukovych is regularly derided as a dictator, and much worse, by Ukraine’s angry opposition. But throughout the crisis, he has had little choice but to bow to the Kremlin.

As recently as November, he was set to sign a trade accord that would have moved the country closer to the European Union – until Moscow hit him with the threat of economic warfare if he signed the pact and the promise of the $15-billion bailout if he didn’t. It was an offer the West came nowhere close to matching.

Mr. Yanukovych knew he’d anger the western half of the country – the opposition’s heartland – by backing away from the EU deal. But he also knew he would lose his own support base in Eastern Ukraine if the Russian market were suddenly closed to the Soviet-era factories that are the lifeblood of the economy there. If Mr. Yanukovych is a dictator, he’s one who cares dearly about getting re-elected in 2015.

The real issue – as it has been since the day the Soviet Union fell – is not Mr. Yanukovych, or any politician, but Moscow’s lingering influence over Ukrainian politics. And while the West can deny Mr. Yanukovych and his allies visas – or even freeze their bank accounts – they can’t hope to counter the $15-billion, the cheap gas or the pro-Russian votes Moscow can rally behind any politician it chooses to support.

The two-decade-old struggle for Ukraine has often been compared to a game of geopolitical chess, one in which Moscow has always seemed to have the more powerful pieces at its disposal.

Historian Anne Applebaum this week quoted a Canadian diplomat giving a more apt metaphor for the lopsided showdown: a hockey game with only one team on the ice.

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