MOSCOW – A Ukrainian protester lobs a burning gasoline bomb into a doorway. A police officer writhes in agony on the ground. Smoke and flames rise from burning barricades in Kiev.
Footage of violence in the Ukrainian capital was beamed almost nonstop into Russian homes by state television Wednesday, accompanied by apocalyptic warnings of civil war next door and accusations of meddling by foreign states.
The pictures ram home the message that President Vladimir Putin wants to put across: The violence has gotten out of hand and must be stopped.
“Ukraine stands on a very dangerous threshold,” said Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of Russia’s parliament. “It’s all following the regulation course for a country heading toward civil war.”
Getting the message across is vital to build Russian public support for Putin’s strategy in Ukraine, the second-biggest of the former Soviet states and a country of 46 million that is at the heart of a geopolitical tussle between East and West.
The Foreign Ministry underscored Moscow’s attachment to a Slavic, Orthodox Christian neighbor that was the cradle of Russian nationhood over a millennium ago by calling Ukraine a “friendly brother state” and strategic partner Wednesday.
Putin has largely let others, and Russian money, do the talking for him during the crisis, saying almost nothing in public about at least four meetings has had with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych over the past six months.
But his overriding goal in the dispute over Ukraine’s now-frozen deals to build trade and political ties with the European Union has been clear: to keep Ukraine, a big market and a country many Russians see as an extension of their own, in Moscow’s orbit.
That in turn fits with Putin’s broader geopolitical aim of restoring power and global influence that was lost with the collapse of Soviet communism in 1991. The tussle over Kiev is not only with the hesitant regional ambitions of the EU but with Moscow’s old superpower adversary, the United States.
Letting Ukraine turn to the EU, notably toward Russia’s historic rival Poland, would send a signal inspiring other former Soviet republics to follow suit, including Georgia and Moldova, which are also negotiating trade pacts with the bloc.
And it might even encourage rebellion in Russia, offering hope to the mainly middle-class young urbanites who joined protests against Putin in the winter of 2011-2012 but failed to end his 14-year domination of Russian politics.
At the same time, the violence plays, to an extent, into Putin’s hands by enabling Russian media and officials to portray Yanukovych’s opponents as a violent rabble backed by the West and bent on destruction. The presence on the barricades of hard-right militants, some of whom honor anti-Russian, anti-Semitic groups that fought with Nazis against the Red Army, allows critics to label the opposition as “fascists” pursuing “pogroms” in Ukraine.
Such messages appear to be getting through, with Russians showing little support for the Ukrainian opposition. As violence flared Tuesday, a Moscow radio call-in discussed whether Yanukovych should use force against the protesters. One caller after another said he was right to resort to take action. One said the Ukrainian leader had shown weakness by failing to turn machine guns on the crowd.
Protests began in Kiev after Yanukovych ordered a policy U-turn in November, spurning a trade pact with the EU and rebuilding economic ties with Moscow instead.
The reward was a Russian bailout package offering cash-strapped Ukraine $15 billion and reduced gas prices. A second, $2 billion tranche of the bailout loan may be tied to Yanukovych ending the unrest and refusing protesters’ demands to bring opposition leaders into government.
“I think that Russia received some kind of assurances from the Kiev leadership which satisfied them,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin spin doctor who has worked in Kiev. Russia, he believed, received assurances that Yanukovych would “hold firm to his position in talks, not make big concessions, fight against the radicals who have got stronger in the opposition.”
“Something along those lines and probably more concrete,” Pavlovsky said. “I doubt that just words would reassure Putin.”
Another incentive for Putin to keep Ukraine under Russia’s influence is its importance to his project for a trade and political bloc stretching from China’s frontiers to the edge of the EU. Ex-Soviet Kazakhstan and Belarus have already joined a Moscow-led customs union that is a precursor of the Eurasian Union that Putin plans. But Ukraine is a much bigger market. Without it, the union would be much weaker.
Putin’s spokesman reiterated Wednesday that Russia would not intervene in Ukraine, but Western nations accuse Moscow of meddling behind the scenes anyway. Russian media have hit back with similar accusations against Western politicians.
One Kremlin aide, Sergei Glazyev, has floated the idea that Ukraine could become a federation giving more power to its regions — a move, he said, that might enable mainly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine to join Putin’s trading bloc. That call has been taken up by parliamentarians in Moscow, fueling speculation that this — or some form of annexation of Russian-speaking areas — may have the Kremlin’s backing.
A former Putin adviser, Andrei Illarionov, has quoted unidentified Kremlin sources as saying a “solution” to the Ukrainian question must be found. The options, he says, could include the “federalization” of Ukraine to establish control over eastern and southern regions or otherwise trying to control Ukrainian cities with large Russian-speaking populations.
Western observers are also worried by calls in Crimea for the region to again become Russian territory, nearly six decades after Kremlin leader Nikita Khrushchev redrew internal Soviet boundaries in order to gift the peninsula to Ukraine. Although Moscow has not responded to those calls, Russia would have reasons to embrace Crimea — its Black Sea fleet is based in the Crimean port of Sevastopol.