The crisis in Ukraine continues to escalate. Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych fled as Verkhova Rada (the parliament) ousted him from power. His whereabouts remain unknown as he’s facing a warrant for “mass killings of civilians.” Yanukovych’s political rival and two-time Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was freed from prison. At least 88 died and over 2,000 were injured during anti-government protests that began in Kiev’s Independence Square (known commonly as Maidan) after Yanukovych refused to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union in November and instead moved closer to Russia by accepting its $15 billion bailout.
It is especially important now that the West support Ukraine’s democracy and sovereignty, as the country risks plunging deeper into civil war and chaos. Since the protests began, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other high-level officials repeatedly expressed a policy of non-interference in Ukrainian affairs. But don’t be fooled. Putin is fighting to pull Ukraine into Russia’s orbit.
On January 28, at a summit in Brussels between Putin and European leaders, Ukraine dominated the discussion. Putin also proposed a free trade zone between Europe and Russia’s Customs Union. According to a Russian expert quoted in the Russian press following the summit, the creation of such a zone would eliminate the need for Ukraine and other countries of the Eastern Partnership to sign association agreements with Europe.
Since the 2004 Orange Revolution, when, by some estimates, as many as a million Ukrainians came out into the streets in November, despite the bitter cold, to protest fraudulent elections, Putin has kept a particularly close eye on Ukraine. These events, which lead to a peaceful transfer of power in Ukraine and a real democratic breakthrough, scared Putin, for he saw the same could happen to him. It is no accident that since that time, he began accusing the West of fomenting colored revolutions, to create an impression that only through Western interference could people overthrow their leader.
In February 2007, Putin spoke in Munich at a Conference on Security Policy. In that speech, addressed to European leadership, he trashed America. According to Russian expert Lilia Shevtsova, this speech was a turning point in Russia’s foreign policy, “from integration to Europe (on the Kremlin’s conditions) to the movement in the opposite direction and attempts of fencing itself from the West.”
The Kremlin has not changed this policy since. Putin has spoken often and openly about Eurasian integration. In February 2013, the Kremlin’s updated concept of foreign policy essentially reiterated these same policies. “Clearly, the integration in Eurasia, and the former Soviet Union is one of the most important priorities,” said Putin in August 2013.
Putin does not see Ukraine as a separate sovereign state, but rather a part of not only Soviet, but a Russian empire. He continues to believe that Russia has the right to a privileged sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. Putin has pressured Kiev to join the Russia-led Customs Union and stay clear of Europe. He increased the in the months before November, when European officials and Ukrainian citizens expected Yanukovych to sign the Association Agreement.
Russia also traces its very creation as a state to Kiev. For this reason, among others, Ukraine matters to Putin above all other post-Soviet Republics. This is why Ukraine is a key element of Putin’s Eurasian Union.
President Obama may not see the situation in Ukraine as a zero-sum game, but Putin clearly does. Now is not a time to sit on the sidelines and pursue a policy of non-interference. This is a chance for the West to stand up for freedom and liberty in Ukraine. British Chancellor George Osborne has already said his country is ready to offer financial assistance to help rebuild Ukraine. Other Western democracies should follow suit, both financially and politically.
Borshchevskaya is a fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy. Follow her on Twitter at @annaborsh