Commentary: Putin's Biggest Blunder

His meddling in Ukraine's election could cost him dearly at home

Is Russian President Vladimir V. Putin losing his touch? Once admired for his steely efficiency, Putin suddenly doesn't seem to be able to get anything right. He has managed to alienate Russian Big Business and many foreign investors by destroying oil company Yukos. September's terrorist attack on Beslan left him looking weak and ineffective and exposed the disorderly state of Russia's security forces. His bureaucratic reforms have led to administrative chaos, while cuts in the social benefit system have sparked Russia's biggest public protests in years. But when future historians come to write the history of Putin's presidency, they may well conclude that his biggest mistake was his disastrous policy in Ukraine, where he has just suffered a failure of epic proportions.

Putin clearly imagined he was promoting the obvious winner when he interfered so heavily in Ukraine's presidential election in favor of Viktor Yanukovych, the candidate backed by outgoing Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. Yet the millions of protestors on the streets of Kiev and other Ukrainian cities, and the collapse of the government's authority have made it impossible for the Nov. 21 election result -- which had Yanukovych winning by 49.46% to 46.61% -- to stand. If there is a fair reelection, the candidate demonized by Russia, pro-Western opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, will almost certainly win, just as he would have won the Nov. 21 runoff but for massive ballot-stuffing, documented in detail by international observers. There's a risk that pro-Yanukovych regions in eastern Ukraine will refuse to accept Yushchenko as President, in which case Ukraine could split apart.

Alienating the West

Either alternative will represent a massive blow to Putin's authority and prestige both at home and abroad. A divided Ukraine would lead to instability in a region where Russia has important economic interests -- 80% of the gas Russia exports to Europe goes through Ukraine -- and would be a permanent point of tension between Russia and the West. If the country remains united, as now seems likely, Putin's goal of linking Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus in a new economic union dominated by Russia looks like a pipe dream. A Yushchenko government is not likely to be great friends with Russia after Putin's blatant interference in the election. And if Kuchma and Yanukovych figure out a way to retain power, a deeply unpopular regime in Kiev would hardly be a stable partner for Russia. Another risk for Putin is that the Ukrainian revolution inspires democratic opposition movements in other former Soviet republics, perhaps even in Russia. "Putin has put himself into a corner. Now no outcome looks good for Russia," says Nikolai Petrov, scholar-in-residence at Carnegie Moscow Center.

Putin would have been wise to hedge his bets in Ukraine, not least because Yushchenko was always the favorite to win a fair election. Instead, the Russian President made the election in Ukraine a personal priority, pulling out all the stops to secure a Yanukovych victory. Russian advisers and election funds flooded Ukraine, Russian state TV, which is widely received in Ukraine, unleashed a wave of pro-Yanukovych propaganda, and Putin himself appeared on Ukrainian TV to endorse Yanukovych. All these efforts failed to win over proudly independent Ukrainian voters. "Russian political advisers and spin doctors simply don't understand the situation in Ukraine," says Kost Bondarenko, an independent political consultant in Kiev.

The irony is that Russia could quite easily have lived with a Yushchenko victory. "There is a difference between Russia's interests and the Kremlin's interests," says Petrov. Although Moscow's propagandists painted Yushchenko as a rabid nationalist and Yanukovych as a loyal ally, the reality was much less dramatic. As Prime Minister in 1999-2001, Yushchenko signed important agreements with Moscow and welcomed Russian investments in Ukraine. In contrast, the "pro-Russian" Yanukovych shut out Russian businesses from the Ukrainian market and supported Washington by sending Ukrainian troops to Iraq.

The damage to Russia's interests goes well beyond Ukraine. Putin's interference further alienates opinion in the West, which is increasingly inclined to see the Russian President as a throwback to an earlier, scarier era. Despite its present anti-Western rhetoric, Russia obviously can't afford a new Cold War. As the terrorist attack on Beslan in September showed, Russia's security is already in a perilous state, which is why Russia needs all the cooperation from the West it can get.

Meanwhile, Ukraine isn't the only former Soviet republic chafing at Putin's policies. For the last few weeks, there has been a political crisis in Abkhazia, a Russian protectorate in the nearby state of Georgia, because the Russian-supported candidate refuses to acknowledge that he lost a presidential election. Last year, Georgians themselves took to the streets, overturning the results of what they considered a rigged vote. In both Ukraine and Georgia, the protests were directed against corrupt local elites. It is Putin's costly error to treat these democratic political movements as fundamentally anti-Russian.

The sensible thing for Putin to do now is to tell the discredited regime in Kiev that it can no longer rely on Russian backing, and work with the West to ensure a democratic election, even if it means a Yushchenko victory. That might cost Putin some credibility in the short term, but there's still plenty of room for Russia and Ukraine to cooperate.

The more determined Putin is to stick to his guns in Ukraine, the more he will be damaged at home. Already, despite government control of the broadcast media, some Russian TV channels have gleefully reported the mass defection of Ukrainian journalists, who quit en masse rather than put out propaganda prepared by the Ukrainian government -- a veiled attack on Putin's own repression of independent media. If Russia continues blaming the West, Russian nationalists, and the public at large, will sooner or later ask themselves how their trusted President managed to let Russia be humiliated so close to home. "After this, Putin's authority will be twice as weak as before," says Stanislaw Belkovsky, director of the National Strategy Institute, a think tank in Moscow.

True, a Russian revolution seems unlikely given the Kremlin's almost complete control over the political system, the absence of realistic alternatives, Russia's revived economy, and Putin's own continuing popularity: His most recent approval rating was 69%. But events in Ukraine are sure to have a powerful influence on Russia, which has strong ties with its neighbor. Russia's apparent political stability may not last beyond 2008, when Putin is scheduled to retire at the end of his second term. Like Boris Yeltsin before him, he will no doubt look to find a loyal successor who will then be marketed to the public using the massive resources of the government. But as Ukraine's surprising revolution has shown, it never pays to count on foregone conclusions.

By Jason Bush with Roman Olearchyk in Kiev

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