VLADIMIR PUTIN and Viktor Yanukovych have taken a big step toward realizing their short-term political ambitions, at the long-term expense of Russia and Ukraine. By promising loans and cut-rate Russian gas, Mr. Putin ensured that Mr. Yanukovych will not lead Ukraine toward integration with the European Union and preserved the dream of a rival Eurasian Union dominated by Moscow. By accepting the Kremlin bailout, Mr. Yanukovych gave himself the chance to remain in power, preserve the illicit wealth his family has accumulated and avoid economic and political reforms that were the price of E.U. integration.
The two leaders must still wait out or disperse the thousands of dissenting Ukrainians camped in the center of Kiev. That may prove difficult — and if Mr. Yanukovych resorts to violence he will risk Western sanctions. If he succeeds, Ukraine will lapse into a Russian sphere where corruption, rigged elections and disregard for the rule of law mix with a toxic anti-Western and anti-liberal ideology. Though Mr. Putin did not spell out what Russia expects to gain from the bailout, there’s little doubt that he expects Mr. Yanukovych to commit to the Eurasian Union, perhaps after engineering his reelection in 2015.
The good news for the majority of Ukrainians who oppose this project is that Mr. Putin’s triumph is likely to prove pyrrhic. With its own economy stalling, Russia can ill afford to spend $15 billion, a substantial portion of its sovereign wealth fund, on Ukrainian bonds, and the gas price reduction will wound the biggest producer of those funds, Gazprom. Since Mr. Yanukovych will not undertake the reform measures needed to stabilize the Ukrainian economy, the country will probably face default again in a year or two. Meanwhile, no amount of money or repression is likely to silence the rising generation of Ukrainians who aspire to Western freedoms and prosperity. Sooner or later, the attempt to create an alternative empire of autocracy and corruption in the center of 21st-century Europe will collapse of its own weight.
E.U. governments and the United States can speed that process by sticking to the principles to which they tried to hold Mr. Yanukovych in exchange for the association agreement with the European Union that he eventually spurned. Those included an insistence that Ukraine modernize its economic regulation, strike a deal with the International Monetary Fund and release former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, Mr. Yanukovych’s chief rival, who was imprisoned after a politically tainted trial. Some faulted Western leaders for not dropping those conditions and seeking to outbid Mr. Putin. But it is precisely because it upholds liberal values that the European Union is attractive to Ukrainians.
Western diplomats should continue to support the Ukrainian opposition and warn Mr. Yanukovych against repression while counseling the protesters to seek the government’s ouster by democratic means. There’s still a chance that Mr. Yanukovych could be pressured into calling a parliamentary election. Though he may try to rig the presidential vote in his favor, concerted Western pressure could still bring about a fair competition.
Mr. Putin’s bid for Ukraine is a zero-sum game borrowed from another century. The West should have a strategy that looks past thuggish Russian and Ukrainian rulers and invests in Ukraine’s future — which can be found in Kiev’s streets.