Who exactly in Russia tried to influence the decision-making on Ukraine and how? And what motivated these players?

A woman waves a Russian flag as armed servicemen wait near Russian army vehicles outside a Ukrainian border guard post in the Crimean town of Balaclava March 1, 2014. Photo: Reuters

In response to a direct question as to who took the decisions on Ukraine, all of the Russian officials and politicians interviewed by Russian political magazine Kommersant-Vlast gave the same independent answer: Vladimir Putin. However, a number of other players – including Russia’s Foreign Ministry and the Kremlin’s presidential administration – also played a role in shaping the opinions of President Putin.

Escalating tensions: Political blackmail or just trade wars?

The situation in Ukraine became aggravated after deposed President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign an association agreement with the EU at the summit in Vilnius on November 28-29, 2013. The government of the Russian Federation had worked closely with Kiev on this issue (the

Russian part of the intergovernmental commission was headed personally by Vladimir Putin), and the discussions had begun long before the summit in Vilnius.

It was the government’s actions in the summer and autumn of 2013, demonstratively restricting access for Ukrainian goods to the Russian market, which led to the rejection of the agreement with the EU, said a representative of the “pre-revolutionary” Ukrainian government. The Russians cited the need to protect the economic interests of the Russian Federation as the sole reason for their actions last year.

"Generally speaking, the entire situation around Ukraine is a textbook example of a trade war,” says a Russian government source for Vlast. “When it became clear that Kiev still intended to sign an association agreement with the EU, we instructed our experts to pick through the document. And when we studied it, my hair stood on end — it posed a direct threat to our interests.”

The reasons are twofold. First, according to officials in the economic block, Ukraine with its 45 million people is an important market for Russian industry. The country's transition to European technical standards would close this market to Russian products. Second, and more important, is the threat to the Russian market itself.

Europe could utilize a relaxed industrial assembly regime in Ukraine to import ready-made products into the country, screw on a couple of parts, and then sell them to Russia as Ukrainian products free of additional levies. “That way, Europeans could not only enter the Ukrainian market, but use it as a Trojan horse to break into ours,” explained the official, who wished to remain anonymous.

According to the source for Vlast, the problem of Kiev’s signing an agreement with the EU should not be bundled together with the prospects for its accession to the Customs Union.

“After a lengthy period of explanation, sometime in October the Ukrainians finally realized that we would do everything we had been speaking about all these months,” he noted. “It is not intimidation, but forced counter measures. They considered the possible damage of cutting trade with Russia and independently decided not to pursue an agreement with the EU.”

"We understood Moscow's determination in early November,” agrees one of the Ukrainian negotiators. “But the decisive role was played by the IMF's refusal to offer a credit line. We came to a consensus that a long-term agreement would be beneficial for Ukraine, but that the short-term deficit should be covered by a loan.”

The role of Russia's Foreign Ministry

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is seen speaking on display screen during the Munich Security Conference, at the Bayerischer Hof Hotel February 1, 2014. Photo: Reuters

The Russian Foreign Ministry took a backseat role in shaping Moscow's policy on Ukraine. According to sources for Kommersant-Vlast, the main diplomatic effort was focused on talks with EU and U.S. partners (held by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his deputies), as well as on executive summaries and statements outlining Russia’s official position.

“Right from the start of the protests in Kiev, the Russian side advocated a policy of non-interference in the internal political processes of Ukraine.... Because we knew full well what the consequences would be if the situation got out of hand. We tried to persuade our Western partners of the danger and destructiveness of fanning the flames and playing on the internal contradictions,” the Foreign Ministry told.

Moreover, diplomatic circles did not consider Yanukovych to be a pro-Russian politician, especially after his decision to imprison former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in the face of objections from Moscow.

“There was never any aim to support Yanukovych. All his amicable steps in relation to Russia were simply a pragmatic sop to the East Ukrainian electorate — it was all for his voters and not for us,” explained a diplomat.

The role of the Kremlin's presidential administration

Inside the Kremlin, Ukraine and the CIS were officially part of the zone of responsibility of the Directorate of Interregional and Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, directly subordinate to the head of the administration. In Putin’s new administration, the directorate was headed by Vladimir Chernov.

The source for Vlast employed apparatchik logic to explain why presidential aide Vladislav Surkov (appointed September 20, 2013) was not formally involved in the Ukrainian issue, despite overseeing the Directorate of Social and Economic Cooperation with the CIS, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia.

“Ukraine is the zone of responsibility of the head of the administration and the directorate under him,” said the Kremlin source for Vlast, recalling that in 2004, during the “Orange Revolution,” Ukraine had also come within the purview of its then-head Dmitry Medvedev.

As noted by several sources for Vlast, the role of the Kremlin’s directorates has been largely confined to observation and analytics in the run-up to Ukraine’s presidential elections in 2015. Surkov himself was sighted in Ukraine on several occasions. During his trips, he presumably had time to meet with Viktor Medvedchuk.

It is he, the former head of the presidential administration of Ukraine (2002-2005), now leader of the social movement “Ukrainian Choice” and one of the main advocates of Ukraine's accession to the Customs Union, who was considered the most pro-Russian candidate in the upcoming presidential elections. According to the Ukrainian officials and businessmen surveyed by Vlast, Kiev was convinced that the Kremlin would back him in 2015.

However, one source supposes that Surkov did in fact play a positive role: “With his departure for the Kremlin, an alternative viewpoint appeared. After all, until November the situation in Ukraine was viewed almost exclusively through the eyes of just one man — Sergei Glazyev.”

Glazyev, presidential aide on Eurasian integration, who has occupied the post since July 30, 2012 (prior to that, as of 2009, he served as executive secretary of the Customs Union Commission), is described as the most frequent guest in Ukraine among all Russian officials.

Glazyev strove to convince all Ukrainian officials and businessmen of the benefits of working with the Customs Union. In February, he gave an interview to Ukrainian Kommersant in which he urged the authorities to brand the Maidan protesters as “insurgents” and to adopt a tougher stance, calling at the same time for the federalization of Ukraine. Sergei Glazyev was joined in his work on Ukraine by former State Duma deputy Konstantin Zatulin, who is now head of the Institute of CIS Countries. Ukrainians know Zatulin mostly as the author of statements on the “illegal” transfer of Crimea to Ukraine and the subsequent multiple restrictions on his entry into the country.

Lessons learned from Ukraine

U.S. Senators John McCain, right, and leader of the UDAR opposition political party, Vitaly Klitschko at the rally held by supporters of pro-EU integration in central Kiev. Photo: RIA Novosti / Ilya Pitalev

One of the main aspects of Moscow’s work on the Ukrainian issue, cited by all participants in the process, is the lack of coordination and the abundance of interdepartmental conflicts. During the integration talks with Kiev, the Russian government was not in contact with Sergei Glazyev. And Glazyev himself did not communicate much with either the government, the Russian Foreign Ministry, or his Kremlin colleague Vladislav Surkov.

“The result was a classic ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ situation,” expounds political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, who during the “Orange Revolution” worked in Ukraine in the interests of the Kremlin. “Everyone expected that only the president would take decisions on Ukraine, but he received information that had not been sieved by the directorates. As a result, he was inundated with unverified information.”

Another expert working in Ukraine in 2004, political scientist Marat Gelman, believes that overall Russia has learned something from the events of the “Orange Revolution”: “There is simply no comparison. Now we are infinitely more cautious: we haven’t intervened publicly or congratulated anyone on winning, and have behaved in strict accordance with the official line. Rather, our own population has even felt pressured into thinking that the current upheaval is good for Ukrainians,” he told Kommersant-Vlast.

At the same time, experts are in unison that Moscow has become hostage to its old propaganda clichés about the “orange” threat in Ukraine, which delayed the establishment of links with the moderate opposition. “We are all hostage to stereotypes, but when the matter concerns a deep crisis in an important country, these stereotypes play a destructive role,” surmises Pavlovsky.

Another stereotype, which hindered a sober assessment of the situation, was the view that the West’s role would be inevitably ruinous. “The notion that there were Western-backed radicals and fascists on one side and pro-Russian politicians on the other, who were suddenly forced into giving some slack, is a very dangerous simplification that has distorted the analysis and curbed many options,” says the president of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, Fyodor Lukyanov.

If Moscow had moved away from the stereotypes, a window would have opened for cooperation with the moderate opposition and even the West. “It was necessary to pursue an open policy and build relations not with the authorities, but with the elites and society,” says Gelman.

“Russia should have collaborated with all political forces, not just the ruling party and government officials,” acknowledges Andrei Chesnakov, director of the Center for Political Conjuncture.

Another important conclusion for Moscow to come out of the Ukrainian crisis is the need for additional expertise in dealing with the post-Soviet space.

The story is abridged from the original version that was published in Kommersant-Vlast political magazine.