Putin’s Power Grab: First Armenia, Now Ukraine
The protests sweeping Kiev are as much a reaction against the Kremlin as for the E.U.—and Brussels and Washington need to take note.
On Monday in the largest Ukraine protest since the Orange Revolution, as thousands mobilized in continuation of their demand for the resignation of their government and for sanctions against those responsible for the violence on Saturday—and as protestors in Paris, Tbilisi, Yerevan, Detroit, and cities all over Canada gathered in solidarity—Russian President Vladimir Putin stated the following from the Armenian capital of Yerevan:
“Russia has never intended to go away from here … We will be strengthening our positions in the Transcaucasus drawing upon all the best that we have inherited from our ancestors, drawing upon on good relationship with all the countries of the region, including with Armenia.”
The hundreds of Armenian protestors marching toward the Armenian president’s palace shouting “Putin, go home” and “No to the USSR” might disagree. It is no coincidence that Putin is currently in Armenia. The protests and bloodshed we are seeing today in Ukraine are the culmination of a recent blitz from Moscow to force Armenia, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia away from Europe and into Putin’s reactionary Eurasian Union, a kind of neo-USSR, Jr.
A Recurring Cycle
Last September, Putin paid a visit to Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, three months before the Vilnius Summit. After a closed and no doubt very uncomfortable meeting, Sargsyan announced that his country would be signing Putin's Eurasian Customs Union instead of the EU Association Agreement, which includes a free trade agreement. The Eurasian Customs Union and EU trade agreements are by nature mutually exclusive.
Angry Armenians took to the streets. In a single day Moscow sent a message to the inhabitants of an entire region that they do not have a choice—that their independence is arbitrary. Two months later, the people of Ukraine are now sending a message back, though it may be too late.
The Ukraine parliamentary debates leading up to the Vilnius Summit, in which the EU Association Agreement would be initialed, came down to a vote whether to allow the jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a bona fide political prisoner, medical treatment in Germany. Her release was a precondition to signing the EU Association Agreement. After another mysterious meeting with Putin, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s ruling party refused to allow Tymoshenko to travel to Germanyand thus on November 21st the Ukraine Parliament suspended its path to EU integration.
In the months leading up to the Vilnius Summit, there were no statements from the White House, no real backup plans from Brussels. The leadership in Brussels and Washington didn’t seem to fully grasp the gravity of this situation or the will of the Ukraine people, at least until one hundred thousand angry Ukrainians and one rogue tractor took to the streets and police began beating them and throwing flash grenades. What we are seeing isn’t a “regional shift,” it is backlash against overt regional coercion against the will of a people. When protestors take control of their own city hall as they did in Kiev, the message they are sending is no longer metaphorical.
In many ways, by the time it arrived on November 28, the Vilnius Summit had already become arbitrary. Armenia and Ukraine were already lost and now the two tiny countries of Georgia and Moldova have become unadulterated geopolitical targets. It’s a familiar routine: The gallant Western knight dangles the carrot and quotes Ronald Reagan; the hungry rabbit gets excited; the rabbit hops in the way of the bear, who is angry about the carrot; the carrot and the knight disappear; intentions are good but timing is bad; promises and rabbits get broken; the cycle continues.
Moscow will do absolutely everything in its power—from offering cheap natural gas as an incentive to threatening to impose harsh restrictions on imports as punishment--to prevent the next step of the Association Agreement, the actual signing, and to turn the populations (or at least the representatives) of these countries against their own idealist European notions. Putin has successfully done so now in both the Ukraine and Armenia. The Russian tactics are working, the U.S. and EU are failing and in turn the United States and European Union are failing the populations of these countries who have put their own security at risk for a better way of life.
The Georgian Role
Fresh out of a successful Vilnius Summit where the Georgian government initialed the Association Agreement with the EU (the Ukraine and Armenia did not, hence the recent protests), Georgia’s new government seems to be setting itself up as a regional leader for EU integration. There are many reasons for this, including Georgia’s pro-Western track record for the last decade, its intense contribution to ISAF in both Iraq and Afghanistan and the 2008 war with Russia. Yet also amid accusations that the new government in Tbilisi has imprisoned former leaders as political revenge, Georgia’s post-Saakashvili government has a vested interest—if not a perceived obligation—to prove to the U.S. and EU that its pro-Western foreign policy will not change course even as it wisely seeks to mend ties with Russia. The recent Vilnuis Summit proved to be just such an opportunity, at least for Georgia and Moldova.
As Georgia seeks to normalize relations with Russia, the Russian proxy-government in the breakaway region of South Ossetia continues to recklessly drive its boundary-line further into Georgia territory, violating the 2008 ceasefire agreement and the terms of Russia’s 2012 WTO membership. Such moves indicate that Russian pressure will only increase exponentially as Georgia and Moldova continue formal steps toward the EU Association Agreement initiated last week.
According to Georgian Commentator Mark Mullen, "The Kremlin doesn't know how to be friends. They don't understand positive incentives. This will cause them problems with European leaders, most importantly Merkel, who is already pushing back. And most importantly with the people in neighboring countries that they so enjoy pushing around. It is possible to imagine a scenario in Ukraine or Armenia where anti-Russian feelings unite the people and serve as a politically unifying force to divided opposition. As usual, it largely relates to how many people are out in the streets. The next neighborhood summit the EU holds should be in the summer."
Paying for Western Aspirations
The initiative of the Ukrainian people to stand up against a president who is putting Moscow’s demands before their own is of immense significance. This is more than a simple conflict between the people of Ukraine and their president; this is geopolitical friction between a politically capricious and financially unstable European Union and a belligerent emerging autocratic Eurasian Union.
But the Eurasian Union is not founded on a set of higher ideals—however imperfect one may argue the EU’s own ideals are. Putin’s Eurasian Union, including only Belarus—“Europe’s Last Dictatorship”-- and Kazakhstan, was created for the sole reason of keeping its neighbors out of the EU. It is no wonder then that Russia’s neighbors—at least their citizens, though evidently not their governments—continue to run toward a financially weakening EU. Perhaps it is less a matter of running toward Europe than away from Russia.
If Brussels and Washington don’t get their act together soon and send a counter message to the “real” European community, not the one defined by treaties and borders—the one defined by a desire for individual freedoms and the right to honest prosperity—then the message that Russia’s policy of aggressively isolating its neighbors is working.
This is why there is blood on the streets of Kiev. This is why nearly a decade after the Color Revolutions, a different sort of the same revolutionary chatter is drumming up again, and it has very little to do with the actual European Union and more to do with a people’s right to choose their country’s direction. These people see themselves as part of the European community because that community represents a way out of the corruption and prevailing autocratic tendencies that have overtaken their lives.
The coming months will prove whether the EU and U.S. will make good on the promise of a better democratic world that it has been selling to these people since the collapse of the Soviet Union. There are many hot spots around the world to distract the attention of Western politicians and diplomats but few real opportunities to actually make a difference regarding the course that a society and a region will take. Decisive inaction is not to be confused with strategic patience. The time is now—indeed long overdue—for American and European leaders to make it clear that they stand with the people of the Ukraine and Caucasus region and respect their sacrifices along the road to democracy as they struggle to fend off a bully to the north. I truly wish them all the best of luck.
Will Cathcart is a former media advisor to the President of Georgia and former managing editor of the Charleston Mercury newspaper. Will currently works in business development in the Black Sea region. His articles have appeared on The Daily Beast, Anderson Cooper 360, in the Georgian Journal and in the Buenos Aires Herald.