Things are now moving very fast in Ukraine, and if things continue as they have been, it is hard to imagine Yanukovych will last another week. This raises the question of whether Russia will intervene? Smart observers like Professor Mychailo Wynnyckyj (Kiev Mohyla Academy) are assuming that even if things get really bad, Putin will wait until the end of February when the Olympics in Sochi are over. That seems right, but even though I have never looked Putin in the eye and seen his soul, I do not think Ukraine can expect a serious military intervention soon afterwards either.
As the highly knowledgeable analyst Edward Lucas has reminded us this week, when Yanukovych and Putin reached the loan deal there was talk that Yanukovych would also have to put down the protests. While we cannot know for sure, that seems to have been the plan this week, which leads one to wonder again, what was the rush? As Lucas and others have noted the protests were again losing steam. Perhaps, it was just impatience on Yanukovych’s part, but another possibility is that Putin gave Yanukovych a deadline, presumably the date next week when the first influx of money is to reach Ukraine.
Now of course Putin wants to be sure he is not left holding bonds declared invalid by a new Ukrainian government, but really why would Putin insist that the clampdown happen at a time when Putin’s hands are tied during the run up to Sochi? The reason was that he wanted to test whether Yanukovych could actually handle the job, and Sochi has given Putin the perfect excuse not to do anything, at least not more than send some Special Forces to age in the dirty war that has been going on against activists.
It doesn’t look like Yanukovych is going to pass that test. So Putin will not waste the blood of Russian soldiers to put Yanukovych back in control. What is more, today’s events where even the rebellion is now taking place in key centers of the eastern half of the country will make it much more difficult to use civil war as an excuse to partition the country in the name of maintaining order. Indeed, if today’s trends continue, it would be painfully clear to all that he was fomenting civil war, not preventing it.
Of course Putin will not give up on his plans to bring Ukraine back into the Russian fold. Among other things, the return to using Gazprom as weapon seems almost certain, but with Yanukovych gone and the Party of Regions discredited with him, Putin is going to have to cultivate a new ally, and that will take time.