Six weeks ago, two men walked across Moscow's Red Square, one wearing a coat and the other a bishop's robe. They proceeded to the Monument to Minin and Pozharsky in front of St. Basil's Cathedral.
Kuzma Minin, a merchant, and Prince Dmitry Pozharsky were the leaders of an uprising against the Polish invasion of 1611. November 4, the day on which they liberated the center of Moscow more than 400 years ago, is now a national holiday, a symbol of how a united Russian people can defend itself against any foreign enemy.Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and all of Russia, and Vladimir Putin, the secular ruler of the realm, placed a bouquet of red carnations at the monument. Back at the Kremlin, the church leader had prepared a surprise for the president, a certificate honoring Putin "for the preservation of greater Russia."
"We know," Kirill said, launching into a hymn of praise for Putin, "that you, more than anyone else since the end of the 20th century, are helping Russia become more powerful and regain its old positions, as a country that respects itself and enjoys the respect of all others."
President Vladimir Putin has led this country for the last 14 years, but 2013 has been his most successful year yet. Forbes has just placed him at the top of its list of the world's most powerful people, noting that he had "solidified his control over Russia." According to the magazine, Putin has replaced US President Barack Obama in the top spot because the Russian leader has gained the upper hand over his counterpart in Washington in the context of several conflicts and scandals.
Indeed, at the moment, Putin seems to be succeeding at everything he does. In September, he convinced Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control. In doing so, he averted an American military strike against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and made Obama look like an impotent global policeman.
In late July, Putin ignored American threats and granted temporary asylum to US whistleblower Edward Snowden, a move that stirred up tensions within the Western camp. The Germans and the French were also outraged over Washington's surveillance practices.
Since then, Putin has scored one coup after the next. In the fall, when meaningful progress was made in talks with Tehran over a curtailment of Iran's nuclear program, Putin once again played a key role.
And now, by exerting massive pressure on Viktor Yanukovych, he has persuaded the Ukrainian president to withdraw from an association agreement with the European Union that took years to prepare, just a few days before the scheduled signing at a summit of EU leaders. In doing so, he brought Ukraine back into Russia's sphere of influence, at least for now.
Russian Power Play with Ukraine
Many are impressed by Putin's self-assurance and his ability to question everything that is considered a political rule of the game outside Russia. Prominent American blogger Matt Drudge once called Putin the "leader of the free world," while another commentator dubbed him the "Chuck Norris of international politics." Norris, a star of action films like "The Way of the Dragon," has found a niche portraying hard-hitting, patriotic and deeply conservative loners. Men like Drudge admire Putin for seemingly ruling his giant country single-handedly, though often with ruthless methods.
For others, however, Putin is a man who rules in the style of a 19th-century despot, one who does not feel committed to the European political model. He favors a feudalistic approach instead, with a dominant state; courtiers who fulfill their ruler's every desire, no matter how arbitrary; an economy that purely serves the interests of politicians; and a motto that reads: "What's mine cannot be yours." And now the events in Ukraine and the role Putin has played in them raises the question, once again, of who the man in the Kremlin really is and what he wants. Is Ukraine, as it descends into turmoil, symbolic of a new turning point in the relationship between East and West?
In recent years, Western capitals have viewed Russia as a difficult but stable country -- and, most of all, as one that had lost much of its significance on the world stage. The conflict over Ukraine illustrates that the fate of not only 143 million Russian citizens, but also that of most of Russia's neighboring countries within the former Soviet empire, hinges on Putin.
While pro-EU demonstrators built barricades not far from the seat of government in Kiev, the pro-Kremlin Moscow tabloid newspaperKomsomolskaya Pravda ran a cover story predicting the collapse of Ukraine. The pro-EU western parts of the country, formerly part of the Habsburg Empire, were marked in purple. Meanwhile, the eastern provinces, closely aligned with Russia for centuries, along with the Crimean Peninsula were marked in red. At about the same time, a lawmaker in Crimea urged Putin to send Russian forces to Ukraine to "protect us from NATO aggressors, Western secret agents and paid demonstrations."
It was probably a mistake on the part of the West to stop treating Russia as a potent adversary in the last two decades. And the outrage over some of the things that have happened in Putin's realm has been justifiable. They have included, for example, the Kremlin's use of special police units to suppress the protests of tens of thousands of Muscovites over election fraud in the 2011 parliamentary vote, or the fact that Putin had two members of the female punk band Pussy Riot locked away for two years, merely because they had staged a protest performance in a Moscow church.
The uprising of disappointed pro-EU Ukrainians against President Yanukovych is now revealing to the West the brutal methods with which Russia is beginning to defend its interests beyond its borders. Yanukovych's sudden change of course away from the EU was the result of a cold and calculating power play by the Russian president.
Blocking the EU's Eastward Expansion
The world is seeing a resurgence of Cold War sentiments. Following violent police crackdowns against protesters in Kiev, the United States is considering sanctions against Ukraine, US State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki announced. Her boss, Secretary of State John Kerry, had said earlier that he was disgusted by the police brutality, saying that the response was "neither acceptable nor does it befit a democracy." His words were not only directed at Yanukovych, but also at the man pulling the strings, Vladimir Putin.
Russia fired back. For the West, democracy isn't even the issue, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed. He argued that the West merely wants to secure Ukraine as a trophy, so as to deal Russia a strategic blow.
In Moscow last Tuesday, 444 of 450 members of the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, adopted a statement in which they accused Western politicians of "open interference …in the internal affairs of the sovereign Ukraine." The remark was a reference to appearances by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, former Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczyski and US Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland on Kiev's Independence Square, where Nuland handed out sandwiches to demonstrators.
"Unsanctioned rallies, blocking access to state authorities, as well as the seizure of administrative buildings, rioting, and destruction of historic monuments" -- a reference to the toppling of a statue of Lenin in downtown Kiev -- "lead to destabilization in the country and may cause serious negative economic and political consequences for the Ukrainian population," the Duma deputies wrote, noting that a "coup d'état" was underway in Ukraine. Ukrainian state television referred to the European Union as an "anti-Russian" alliance because it was ignoring Moscow's interest by seeking closer ties with Ukraine.
The deep divide between Russian and Western mindsets has become especially apparent in Eastern Europe in recent months, where the EU has been trying to advance its "Eastern Partnership" program since 2009. In addition to Ukraine, the initiative relates to EU relations with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia and Moldova. The West has been offering free-trade arrangements and financial support in return for reforms in the legal system, election laws and media in these six countries. Exports of Western goods would aim to foster closer ties between the eastern edge of the continent and the EU.
Brussels and its junior partners were discussing steel tariffs, wheat exports and the purchase of Eastern European wine. When such ties suddenly became an issue of geopolitics, the West was shocked. For the first time since the beginning of its eastward expansion, the EU encountered bitter resistance -- from Russia.
Exerting Pressure on Smaller Neighbors
Still, it wasn't a complete surprise -- and the EU should have expected it. Since the early 1990s, Russia has been trying to keep the former Soviet republics within its sphere of influence. Ignoring setbacks, Putin is now using his power to achieve this goal. He threatens these countries, holds them hostage, blackmails them or plays them off each other. His actions, though cold and unscrupulous, have been highly successful. "He who pays the piper calls the tune," Putin said.
To this day, Russia uses Transnistria, a state that broke away from the Republic of Moldova in a 1992 civil war, to torpedo Moldova's sovereignty, although no UN member state formally recognizes Transnistria today. Moscow also plays the role of protector in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two regions that broke away from Georgia after the 2008 war, and it uses the puppet states to exert pressure on the government in Tbilisi.
In the mind of Putin, a former KGB officer, a country that was once a Soviet state and no longer wishes to be Moscow's vassal can only become one of two things: a vassal of Washington, or a vassal of Brussels.
Smaller states of the former Soviet Union that rebel against Moscow today can expect to face Putin's concentrated rage. In 2006, he banned imports of Georgian wine and mineral water when Mikhail Saakashvili, the country's pro-American president at the time, demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops.
Ahead of a summit meeting in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, where at least Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova planned to sign association agreements with the EU, Moscow boycotted Lithuanian milk products. Years earlier, Russia had shut down a strategically important oil pipeline to Lithuania, merely because the government in Vilnius planned to sell a large refinery to Warsaw instead of Moscow and cease its reliance on Russia.
The manner in which Russia exerted pressure on Armenia this year was especially conspicuous. Like Ukraine, the small Caucasus republic had spent four years negotiating an association agreement with Brussels. The country's president and prime minister rejected Moscow's demand that Armenia join a Russian-led customs union, arguing that it was "geographically impossible" and "pointless" -- until September 3, when Putin summoned his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan, to the Kremlin.
Shortly after the talks, Sargsyan told reporters that Armenia was not going to sign the agreement with Brussels, after all, but that it would join the customs union. Moscow had threatened to raise its prices for Russian natural gas and had started selling arms to Armenia's archenemy, Azerbaijan. Putin also offered the Armenians help in expanding its railway system and a nuclear power plant that had been scheduled to be shut down.
The Republic of Moldova was subjected to similar pressure. In September, Moscow had suddenly informed Moldova that it could no longer export its wine, the country's most important export product, to Russia. Putin's officials also reminded the government in Chisinau that hundreds of thousands of Moldovans earn a living as guest workers in Russia, and that close to 200,000 of them had no valid residency permits and could therefore be deported. Unlike Armenia, the Moldovan government chose to sign the EU treaty nonetheless.The pressure Moscow exerted on Ukraine before the EU summit in Vilnius exceeded all of its previous efforts. In the summer, the Russians blocked duty-free exports of pipes from Ukraine, as well as shipments by Ukrainian candy maker Roschen, claiming deficient quality of the goods. The move adversely affected two important Ukrainian oligarchs and was designed to persuade them to talk President Yanukovych out of the planned cooperative agreement with the EU.
In October, not long before the Vilnius summit, Russia suddenly introduced new regulations for the transit of goods, causing long backups of trucks waiting at the Russian-Ukrainian border. Then it suspended imports of meat and railroad cars from Ukraine. Finally, the Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom demanded payment of a €1.3 billion ($1.8 billion) debt for gas that it had delivered at some point in the past.