Why Putin Bailed Out Ukraine

December 23, 2013
(Sergei Grits/Associated Press)
(Sergei Grits/Associated Press)

As Lucan Way discussed last week, Russia is bailing out Ukraine to the tune of $15 billion (albeit with plenty of strings attached). Russian President Vladimir Putin describes the bailout as an act of brotherly love, while insisting (likely for domestic political reasons) that the deal is commercially sound.

If it’s brotherly love, it’s of the kind that you only find in abusive families — Russia has threatened (and continues to implicitly threaten) the Ukrainian economy. In terms of geo-politics, Russia looked to have gotten a better deal a few weeks ago by greasing its relationship with powerful political/business figures in Ukraine, without having to promise $15 billion in benefits. So why is Putin really promising this money?

It isn’t just because Putin’s government wants to keep Ukraine inside the Russian sphere of influence. It’s also because of the problems that instability in Ukraine could trigger in Russia itself. As a recent article by Karrie Koesel and Valerie Bunce in Perspectives on Politics argues, leaders in Russia and China have both worried that the waves of mass-mobilization seen in the “color revolutions” and Arab Spring of the last decade might lead to upheavals in their own countries. In each of these waves, popular protest has spilled across national borders. This in turn has led both governments to try to “diffusion-proof” their own countries in advance, protecting them against protest seeping in from other countries.

Koesel and Bunce focus on how China and Russia have tried to limit their citizens’ information about these popular protests elsewhere, and have re-engineered civil society to discourage groups from mobilizing against the government. The authors don’t really look at the kinds of measures that Putin is employing vis-a-vis Ukraine, but it’s highly plausible that those measures, too, can be explained by Koesel’s and Bunce’s logic. Putin now has his own domestic opposition movement to contend with — while it has not won any major political victories, he has reason to suspect that it is potentially stronger than it looks. And if the Ukrainian government were to fall thanks to democratic protesters, it would provide a very potent example for Russia’s own internal opposition.

The very entwining of Russia and Ukraine that Putin sees as a regional advantage (in helping perpetuate Russian hegemony over Ukraine and its neighboring states) would make political change in Ukraine more dangerous. It wouldn’t take much imagination for unhappy Russians to see Ukrainian unrest as a spur to start protesting themselves. Unlike the last period of upheaval in Ukraine, there is already a semi-organized street protest movement in Russia that could take advantage of any popular unrest.

If this analysis is right, $15 billion in concessions (if they are ever delivered) is a reasonable price for the Russian regime to pay. Indeed, it looks as though the Ukrainian protests are starting to lose momentum. Keeping a lid on popular unrest in Ukraine can help prevent the spread of that unrest to Russia, hence providing a kind of diffusion-proofing via foreign policy.

Henry Farrell is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He works on a variety of topics, including trust, the politics of the Internet and international and comparative political economy.
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