The history of rebellion haunts Moscow

Chatham House

René Nyberg

Every Russian child knows Pushkin’s famous dictum: “A Russian revolt, (Russki bunt) is senseless and pitiless.

”This is a reference to the Pugachev Revolt (1773 -1775) that threatened the throne of Catherine II.

For President Putin, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004 and its echo, the “Maidan” Revolution of 2014, were harbingers of a new Russki bunt. What alarmed the Kremlin was not just the humiliation caused by the Orange Revolution overturning the forged elections of Moscow’s candidate Viktor Yanukovich. It was the fact that the outcome was determined on the streets of Kiev. Any regime change by the street is, by definition, is a bunt. Orange becomes the new black. In the Kremlin’s eyes, the popular embrace of rebellion had to be prevented no matter what the cost.

Yet despite the experience of 2004, the “Maidan” protests were allowed to snowball from uprising to regime change. The inept attempts of Kiev at stifling Maidan earned only scorn in the Kremlin. No tears were shed for Yanukovich when he was forced to flee.

Kiev was not just drifting away from Moscow, it was mutating into something well beyond the strengthening of ties with the West and the European Union. The revolution’s emphasis on rule of law and lustration, the practice purging the old power structures and security police, were seen as direct threats to the rule of Moscow.

Worse still, there was even potential for a cultural bunt that could shake the foundations of the Slavic-Orthodox world and the timeless “Russian World” of Moscow’s imaginings. The active role of Poland in formulating the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative aroused memories of a historic Polish challenge to Muscovy.

Having effectively sidelined the opposition of intellectuals at home, the Kremlin today faces an open threat to the very heart of its authoritarian system. Not in the streets of Moscow, but in the streets of Kiev.

True, the grabbing of Crimea may well have been an improvised counter-move on Russia’s part. But the apparent effort to carve out a land corridor from Ukraine’s eastern border across the lands of “Novorossiya” all the way to Transnistria is a deliberate, strategic move that threatens the existence of Ukraine as an independent state.

The real issue for Moscow is not the future of the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, but Ukraine’s orientation.

The Kremlin will not easily relinquish its claim to dominate Kiev’s policies. We have already witnessed the destabilization of eastern Ukraine through destruction of infrastructure and communications, as well as efforts to take control of areas in the south. These are part of a wider strategy to wreck the Ukrainian economy and force Kiev to yield.

Tellingly, Putin’s seven-point plan mentions the need to restore the heat and power infrastructure in the war-ravaged provinces. The Ukrainian cities have inherited the legacy of an unreformed Soviet heating system and are scrambling ahead of the approaching winter to secure adequate energy supplies. Ukraine’s dependence on Russian gas is its Achilles’ heel and any gas shortages will only be exacerbated by the loss of coal from the Donbass. Kiev is banking on being able to import gas through reverse flows from countries to its west in order to avoid having to buy any gas from Moscow at all.

The cease-fire demonstrates that neither side sees a military solution to the conflict. Russia is ready to boost its covert and overt support to the rebels any time Ukraine’s army tries to regain the upper hand. Moreover, while Western sanctions are already hurting Russia and there is the threat of even more painful sanctions; the Kremlin seems to callously assume that ultimately the West will not foot the costs of a Ukrainian default.

The IMF has already warned that the committed support funding is insufficient in the event this conflict drags on. The collapse of the Ukrainian economy is a very real threat.

If apartments freeze in Kiev and the West is unwilling or unable to help more, Poroshenko could face his own Maidan that sweeps him from power without a pro-Moscow replacement in the wings. An Ukrainski bunt is also unpredictable and just as frightening as a Russki bunt. It could well drag the Kremlin deeper into the quagmire and turn nasty. Chaos serves nobody’s interests.

Russia has already alienated the Ukrainians. It grabbed Crimea, but has no title to it. It has brought destruction and instability to eastern Ukraine. At the same time, the Ukrainian crisis has unified the EU, revived NATO and galvanized Russia’s neighbors from Kazakhstan to the Baltic States and Finland.

The only winner, so far is China. China is the envy of Moscow. China has achieved stability by being able to renew its leadership in ten-year intervals.

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Written by René Nyberg