Ukraine's embattled president Viktor Yanukovych announced Thursday, Jan. 30 that he is taking sick leave as the country's political crisis rages on without any sign of a resolution. A statement on his website said he was suffering from an acute respiratory disease and a high fever.
There was no indication of how long he might be indisposed or whether he was still working.
For two months, Yanukovych has been confronted with raging protesters fighting for him to step down, early elections and other demands.
Wednesday, Jan. 29, apparently aware of the president’s imminent withdrawal from Kiev, Moscow warned that the financial package promised by President Vladimir Putin would be withheld until the former Soviet nation formed a new government.
The statement came from Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev at a cabinet meeting in Moscow. He said Russians would honor their financial and energy packages with Ukraine only when “we understand what sort of government there will be, who will be working in it and what rules they will stick to.”
Tuesday, just a few hours earlier, President Putin stated that Russia would honor its commitments to Ukraine for the benefit of the ordinary people – whether the opposition came to power or not.
Anxiety in Moscow to avoid another Orange Revolution
That was before Yanukovych removed himself from the capital – at least temporarily.
Clearly, there were people in Moscow who lost no time in whisking away the safety net Putin offered Kiev in December of $15 bn worth of loans and gas at a large discount to reward the Ukraine president for rejecting integration with Europe in favor of closer ties with Russia.
Those elements were intent on saving Moscow from the error Putin committed exactly ten years ago when he personally staked that same Viktor Yanukovych to win office. Moscow then sank substantial funds and political clout in getting him elected in a rigged runoff election, which triggered the Orange Revolution and resulted in an ignominious comedown for Russian policy towards its close neighbor.
Moscow has no wish to see a second Orange Revolution in Kiev and repeat Putin’s earlier defeat. The Russians don’t care much either way if Yanukovych stays in power or goes.
Russia’s affinity for dabbling in the affairs of the Ukraine from a distance is conventionally explained in Moscow and Washington by two motivations:
1. From the strategic military perspective, Moscow needs access to Ukraine and the Black Sea for controlling the Caucasus and Central Asia.
2. On economic grounds, Ukraine has high value as the mainline hub for the transportation of Russian gas to Europe. Moreover, Western Ukraine uniquely houses three gas terminals which store large quantities of gas. There is no facility of this size anywhere else in Europe. Control of this vast reserve confers enormous power to its owner over the flow of gas to Europe.
Europe loses interest, lets the Ukrainians fight it out
However, DEBKA Weekly’s Ukraine watchers detect the waning of strategic considerations in the violent clashes between pro-Moscow and pro-EU adherents of late. Ukraine is still important to Russia but Moscow is losing interest in Europe and leaning more towards relations with Iran and interests in the Persian Gulf.
The Europeans too are drawing back from their earlier passion for helping the opposition stage a second Orange Revolution in the Ukraine. This cooling-off was in evidence when German Chancellor Angela Merkel objected to plans drawn up in Brussels for imposing sanctions against the Kiev government. This European reluctance for extreme measures against the Ukraine government will no doubt influence the Obama administration’s initial threat of sanctions too.
One of the theories bandied about in Moscow and in some Western capitals is that certain Western intelligence agencies began stirring up the trouble in Kiev in order to cut the ground from under Putin’s feet and cause him to lose face in time for the opening of the Sochi Winter Olympics in Sochi on February 7.
Such eagerness to reduce the Russian president as a world leader also appears to have ebbed.
Even if there was a kernel of truth to this theory, Washington, Brussels, Berlin and Moscow have lost faith and interest in the Kiev unrest.
They are content for now to let the Ukrainians fight it out among themselves.