Ukraine’s political crisis is, in the final analysis, about the future of Russia. And, going by the recent resignation of Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and the ‘illness’ that has afflicted President Viktor Yanukovych, that future looks bleak.
Whatever the final result of the confrontation being played out in the streets of Kiev, it will really be about the future of Russia and the Eurasian heartland in the coming decades. Mr Yanukovych had sought to move his country decisively out of the orbit of the European Union (EU) and closer to Russia.
This immediately fissured the country along its traditional Ukrainian-Russian divisions, leading to protests across much of western and central Ukraine. Now his own legislature has revoked the laws he tried to use to put an end to the demonstrations.
A failure to dig a political ditch between Ukraine and the EU will be a setback for an increasingly insular Russian leader, Vladimir Putin. Much is made of how he was able to resurrect a Russian diplomatic role in Syria and stymie America in other parts of the world.
But this is also a consequence of US President Barack Obama’s own dislike for overseas activism and he was noticeably relieved at Mr Putin’s intervention. The real Russian story is at home.
Mr Putin fully understood the need to radically reform Russia’s mutant capitalist system — riddled with entrenched subsidies, dependent on oil and gas exports, and controlled by a small cluster of ultra-rich businessmen connected to the Kremlin — when he first came to power. Over the years, he ended up joining this corrupt system rather than fighting it.
The economy has become more corrupt, more inefficient and the State structure more bloated over the past decade. Moscow now needs oil prices over $100 a barrel to keep itself afloat. Mr Putin has cracked down on political freedom, become more aggressive overseas and blown $50 billion on the Sochi Winter Olympics.
China’s economic footprint in Central Asia probably surpasses Russia’s today. The Caucasus is returning to boil even as Turkey is flexing its muscles and Iran is emerging from isolation. Ukraine and Belarus have the option of a wealthier and more democratic EU. Ukraine will either be a debacle for its Russia-backed president and, therefore, for Moscow.
Or it will be a bloody struggle between the two sides in which even if Mr Putin’s man wins, the violent nature of the victory will discredit any possibility of a greater Russian role in the international system in the 21st century. The Kremlin should worry if this will be a precursor for things in Russia in some distant future.