Kirill Rogov Interview: Ukraine, Russia, and Europe after Maidan

February 25, 2014

CGI spoke to Kirill Rogov, Moscow-based political commentator and Fellow at the Institute of the Economy in Transition, about the Ukrainian opposition movement, the ouster of Viktor Yanukovych, and what the victory in the Maidan means for Russia.

Center on Global Interests: What would be the best possible outcome to the Ukrainian crisis?

Kirill Rogov: Ukraine just experienced a cardinal change in its political regime, where the president was forced to flee. The question now is, what kind of institutional (political) capital does this give to the country? Whose victory will this turn out to be? The main challenge in the short term is to create a legitimate government, which Ukraine currently lacks.

Russia has relatively little leverage over the current political situation in Ukraine. Putin’s main lever was to mobilize pro-Russian sentiment and make informal agreements with Ukraine according to Russia’s own interests. But the results have been pretty weak. He placed his bets on Yanukovych, and that fell through. Any other officials who are suspected of having ties with Russia will find their position significantly weakened. So Moscow has very little room to play an active role in Ukrainian politics, aside from openly sponsoring and encouraging separatist movements.

CGI: The U.S. is concerned about the possibility that Russia will intervene in Ukraine, either by supporting Crimean separatists or supporting Yanukovych’s claim to power. Is the fear of Russian interference overblown, or is it a real option? Does Putin have his own “red line” on Ukraine?

KR: It seems the Kremlin is not quite ready for something as radical as an intervention in Crimea. But a lot will depend on developments in Ukraine itself. If tensions continue to rise between the more nationalist and the pro-Russian factions, the Kremlin will essentially have no other choice but to intervene. Right now, this kind of escalation still appears likely, and in my opinion it’s being encouraged, somewhat awkwardly, by those who consider themselves to be the winners.

For Putin, Ukraine is not only a geopolitical but also a domestic factor. If you look at the domestic side, Putin’s position has significantly worsened as a result of his drop in public opinion and the worsening of the economy. Trust for the regime has also weakened, while opposition sentiments are on the rise. In his situation, mobilizing the public along the lines of “us vs. them” and standing up to perceived outside threats is a very effective way to ensure domestic stability. But at the same time, this strategy is very dangerous because the conflict around Ukraine has reached a very high level and could further worsen relations with the West, which is highly undesirable for Putin. He would prefer to keep the confrontation at a certain level without it turning into a new Cold War, by supporting a certain balance of power.

It’s important to remember that the fight against Yanukovych was led by two dominant opposition forces. These two forces now appear to be in disagreement and may even have a falling out, so it remains to be seen what will happen. The second issue is what to do about the Russian regions of the country. In general, the very act of interpreting what happened, and turning Maidan’s victory into political capital, will be a big challenge for Ukraine.

CGI: If we look at the U.S. position in this conflict, the United States first supported the idea of negotiations between Yanukovych and the opposition, and praised an agreement that was reached by the two sides. The next day, it welcomed the opposition leaders who came to power in breach of that deal. How is the U.S. response to Ukraine viewed in Russia?

KR: I think Putin will hold it against the United States and the EU that they weren’t able to guarantee the fulfillment of the agreement. He may even interpret it as a certain craftiness on the part of the United States. But it seems obvious the agreement fell through not because of the United States, but because of a natural course of events that were impossible to control.

The problem is [Putin’s] characteristic lack of understanding about the shakiness of political regimes that have weak legitimacy. In the beginning, it looked like Ukraine had a political regime in place; sure, it didn’t clear out the protesters on Maidan, but at least there was a legitimately elected president. But then it turned out that the security forces which Yanukovych had previously used as a lever of power suddenly realized what was happening, and left the captain alone on the plank. In the course of a day, it became clear that no one would come to Yanukovych’s rescue and that he would probably be arrested.

That’s the flaw in regimes that rely on the mechanism of force to ensure their legitimacy. The day it becomes clear that you no longer have control over this mechanism, that you’re no longer able to use it as a stick, is the day when it’s all over. The only thing you can do is stuff some things into your car and speed off in an unknown direction. A similar thing happened in 2004 in Georgia’s autonomous Adjarian Republic, when the local ruler Aslan Abashidze realized that he lost control over the levers of power as well as Russia’s support, and tried to flee on a plane with bags of money. And that also happened during the course of a day.

So in this case, the United States is not to blame—the problem was with the Yanukovych regime and the way it used its power. But Putin might still put the rhetorical blame on the United States.

The other thing is that Ukraine’s complex internal structure makes it hard for outside powers to work with it. You might reach an agreement with someone on one day, but the next day you’ll find that there’s no one to talk to about it because there’s an entirely new set of people in power. In a way, that’s a feature of political and economic processes within Ukraine itself.

CGI: What do you think will happen to Yanukovych? Is there any likelihood that Russia might grant him asylum?

KR: I don’t think it really matters. The Russians are irritated with him, so he’s not likely to get a warm welcome there. For the Kremlin, he represents a shameful defeat. They spent a huge amount of effort on him in 2004, and that went nowhere. For the next nine years they waited to get their revenge and again placed their bets on Yanukovych, which also went nowhere. So there’s really no reason for the Kremlin to love him.

CGI: What impact will the events in Ukraine have on the Russian opposition movement? Will this reinvigorate protests, or will people be less inclined to challenge the government, after seeing what happened in Kiev?

KR: In the medium term, I think it will have a significant impact. Compared to other events of this scale, this is the most important event we’ve seen since the revolution in Egypt. It significantly changes our understanding of how the mechanisms of protest develop, and how these mechanisms can be used by potential leaders of future protest movements. It also significantly widens the range of tactics.

In the short term, I think we’ll see the Kremlin having a real problem with official propaganda. They’ve spent a lot of time portraying the conflict as being one between a legitimate president and a group of thugs. So when this so-called legitimate government fell and revealed the chasm between TV and reality, it was a huge failure for Kremlin propaganda. It’s going to be really difficult for them to explain what happened, who’s the friend and who’s the enemy, and this problem will eventually take its toll.

In Russia, the knowledge that Ukrainians essentially cast off a thief will remain as a fundamental feature of the conflict, and with time it will only become more prominent in people’s minds. The idea that resistance to power is possible and may have a purpose will also grow stronger among the population. So I think the medium and long-term consequences of this event will be very significant, but they will take a while to unfold.

CGI: And final question: we’re approaching the G8 summit in Sochi, where all the main powers involved in mediating the Ukrainian crisis—Russia, the United States and the EU—will meet at the same table. If another crisis doesn’t happen between now and June, do you think Ukraine will become the main topic on the agenda? How important will it be for Russia to achieve a consensus on Ukraine among the member states?

KR: If the Ukrainians won’t incite a drastic escalation in the situation in Crimea or the southeastern part of the country, then Putin’s basic strategy will be to make periodic hints at intervention while charging a high price for his noninterference (or limited interference). That will be his strategic game. Unless his domestic situation becomes so bad that he’ll look for a real escalation in the conflict, Putin will be fine with achieving Western neutrality by bargaining off his noninterference. In other words, Russia will watch the conflict closely and will make periodic threats about a possible intervention in order to sell its nonintervention to the West for a high price. This is a classic tactic that Putin has used towards the West in regards to Iran and other international conflict areas. But if Putin regards his domestic affairs as being really bad (in terms of economic performance and his personal popularity), he will escalate the conflict to make it a constant source of mobilization within Russia.

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