CREDIT: AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service
It’s been a rough 24 hours for Russian president Vladimir Putin. After basking in the glow of a successful Olympics for the better part of a fortnight, reality came crashing down on him over the course of Tuesday and Wednesday, leaving his — and Russia’s — image in the spotlight and the glare is unflattering.
Casting the harshest light on Putin’s Russia and the role it plays in its neighborhood, Ukraine appears to be exploding. For a brief moment, it looked as though the political crisis that has seized Kyiv since November was preparing to come to a close. The government of president Viktor Yanukovych and protesters who claimed that he intended to replicate Putin’s tight grip over Russia in Ukraine were slowly edging towards an agreement, one that left a Russian ally — who received a $15 billion bailout from Moscow last year — in power.
Instead tensions flared again on Tuesday, leading to police attempting to clear out Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) and end the so-called “Euromaidan” protests once and for all. The result was the bloodiest day yet in the stand-off, leaving at least 25 dead and hundreds injured. As dawn broke on Kyiv on Wednesday, the protesters were still there, continuing to feed the fire that separated them from the riot police. Western governments denounced the violence, with members of the Obama administration and European diplomats alike warning of potential sanctions being levied against the Ukrainian government’s leaders.
And now Yanukovych appears to be losing his grip on the west of his country, which is historically far less pro-Russia than the east. “Raising the prospect of Ukraine splitting along a historic cultural and linguistic faultline, the regional assembly in Lviv, a bastion of Ukrainian nationalism near the Polish border, issued a statement condemning President Viktor Yanukovich’s government for its ‘open warfare’ on demonstrators in Kiev and saying it took executive power locally for itself,” Reuters report on Wednesday.
While Putin hasn’t commented publicly since yesterday’s violence, he has spoken with Yanukovych on the phone about the situation. And a statement from Russia’s foreign ministry demanded Ukrainian opposition leaders “stop the bloodshed” and said Russia would use “all our influence” to bring peace to Ukraine, according to Sky News. Russia has also described the demonstrators as launching an “attempted coup d’etat,” while Ukrainian government officials have taken to calling the operation to clear out the Maidan and suppress the protests an “anti-terrorist operation.”
Now when you’re attempting to put your best face forward towards the world, you likely don’t want cameras pointing at the bloodied faces of civilians in a country whose leader you’re backing. As the New Republic’s Julia Ioffe points out, too, what is happening in Ukraine is basically Putin’s worst nightmare. Since his return to the presidency after a brief hiatus as Prime Minister, Putin has been busy completely scattering his opposition to the winds and is now, in Ioffe’s words, “tightening the screws” to prevent the chaos seen in Kyiv from ever coming to Moscow. “Putin is tightening the screws, because this is what stability looks like and that, to Putin, by all accounts a man deeply traumatized by the chaotic, painful collapse of the Soviet Union, is worth any price,” Ioffe concludes. “And the more unstable Ukraine gets, the tighter he’ll turn them. Just you wait.”
Much further down in terms of priorities, but still uncomfortable for Putin, Wednesday also saw Russian art collective turned punk rock band turned human rights activists Pussy Riot making headlines again. Members of the group in Sochi attempted to perform a protest stunt, clad in their trademark face-covering ski masks. Six members of the group were then attacked by Cossacks — yes, Cossacks, “the fierce horsemen who once secured the frontier for the Russian empire” as the New York Times once described them — who assaulted them with whips and forcefully broke up the protest. The Cossacks were also captured turning their ire on the cameramen present to document the demonstration.
Two of the most well-known members, Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina were among those who took part in the protest, serving as a reminder of their recent release from Russian prison after performing a protest song in a Russian church back in 2012. The two had recently returned from a jaunt to the United States, highlighting Moscow’s crackdown on dissent and recently passed laws banning “gay propaganda.”
The loss of the Russian hockey team to Finland in the quarterfinals was just the icing in the cake of a day that Putin can’t be enjoying much at all. Falling out of medal contention completely is sure to be embarrassing for a team that was expected to play for the gold, in a country that obsesses over hockey. It also draws attention back to the exorbitant cost of the Games — an estimated final bill of $51 billion, four times what Moscow originally intended to spend. That total includes a probably $7 billion to be spent maintaining the new facilities after the Olympic Torch goes out next week.
And so Putin is left in the spotlight with all of these issues marring his triumph in Sochi. But knowing Putin, the guy who was fine with rolling tanks into Georgia during the 2008 Summer Olympics and continues to back Syrian president Bashar al-Assad after his government’s use of chemical weapons, it’s worth assuming he’ll find a way to get over a bad day.