Timing is everything in politics, and this adage could not be truer for the whirlwind now enveloping Russia and Ukraine. Both countries are in the headlines — Russia for the coming $50 billion Winter Olympics extravaganza, and Ukraine for an economic and political collapse that has left the country on the cusp of revolution.
The confluence of these two events has created a unique set of circumstances unlikely to change until the Olympic flame is extinguished on February 23. For the prestige of hosting the Olympics — and the huge international spotlight that accompanies the spectacle — limits Moscow’s ability to act decisively toward Ukraine as it might have otherwise.
This unexpected inaction can be traced to a failure of Russian soft power and a large segment of the Ukrainian population’s unwillingness to be bought off.
Russia could still resort to tougher measures, including trade boycotts, energy cutoffs, even direct aid to the Ukrainian security services. But Moscow has chosen not to so far — in large part because the consequences of such actions are incendiary. If Russia were to intervene — and fail — its new status as a re-emerging power would be severely damaged.
The Ukrainian crisis seemingly turned in Russia’s favor only recently. Ukraine is broke, and President Victor Yanukovich used the debate over signing the European Union association agreement to solicit proposals for a possible bailout. Not surprisingly, there were not many bidders. Russia ultimately won with a relatively modest offer of $15 billion in loans and a reduction in energy prices.