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What's Happening in Kiev Right Now Is Vladimir Putin's Worst Nightmare

AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

I will not explain to you what is happening in Kiev tonight other than to say that it is Vladimir Putin's worst nightmare. 

The last time that this many people came out to the Independence Square (the Maidan) in Kiev, nine years ago, protesters undid the election of Victor Yanukovich and brought to power a Western-friendly government. In the process, they scared the living daylights out of Putin. The reforms he began at the beginning of his term to limit electoral competition, sideline his critics, disable civil society, and atomize the population took on a renewed urgency. Out of the turmoil in Ukraine in 2004-2005 came the strange Russian concept of "sovereign democracy" (our way, when we're good and ready, i.e., never) and the often terrifying pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi run by a man who used to run with a gang that beheaded its victims. 

There was a wave of color revolutions in the former Soviet Space around then, in Georgia, in Kyrgyzstan, but the Orange Revolution in Ukraine was different because Ukraine is different. Ukraine is Slavic. Ukraine speaks Russian, even though the Western part insists on having its own tongue. Kiev is the cradle of Russian civilization. Ukraine, in Putin's mind, is almost just another province of Russia, one that, by some accident of history and politics, has a different government and a different name. He is said to have said as much to George W. Bush in 2008. "Don't you see, George, that Ukraine is not even its own state?" he is reported to have smirked. 

If it can happen in Kiev, in other words, it can happen in Moscow.

When the pro-democracy protests broke out in Moscow in the winter of 2011-2012, I sometimes wondered why the police would so violently clear winter sit-ins in subzero temperatures when it seemed obvious that, give them a few hours, and the prosters would get sick of standing knee-deep in the snow and go home. Or why, for example, the police bothered to arrest two former members of Pussy Riot today. Why sweat the small things? 

But Putin and the system he built do sweat the small things because Putin sees dissent as a slippery slope. He knows the cold has never stopped a single Russian revolutionary. One day people are camping out in a snowy fountain in Moscow, the next they've set up camp and put up barricades in the center of town, bringing traffic to a halt, sowing chaos, and toppling the government. It is the authoritarian take on the broken windows theory, turned upside-down. 

What's been happening in Kiev this winter is a textbook case. Protesters came out to the Maidan to show their opposition against Yanukovich (once again). Despite the cold, they didn't go home. They were peaceful, but only at first. The police tried to clear the Maidan, but didn't use enough force to finish the job. This brought out more protesters and, this time, they began to set up camp—and barricades. They turned the city's main square, a stadium, and one of its main streets into a war zone. They took over government buildings. The more Yanukovich negotiated with them, the more the negotiations chipped away at his legitimacy and his power. 

All this after Putin had promised Yanukovich $15 billion, but that's another story.

I have yet to interview Putin on the matter, but years of observing the man and the system he's built all point to one thing: he is watching Ukraine very closely and shaking his head. Instead of swiftly clearing the protests before they had a chance to gather momentum and not allowing them into the political system, Yanukovich dithered, thereby weakening himself.

In contrast, look at Putin's Moscow. The opposition has been fractured and scattered to the winds. They pose no clear or present danger to Putin's rule. Moscow traffic moves as much as traffic in Moscow can move. There are no hobo opposition camps, no barricades. Moscow, to the stranger's eye, has no complaints. This is Putin's coveted stability in action, and it is in stark contrast to the lack of it in Kiev. Moscow's liberals are watching Kiev with a mix of horror, envy, and admiration: they're just like us, but look at what they've been able to do against a president they didn't like. Which is why Russian state controlled television is also showing a live feed of Kiev burning: you want to overthrow the government, well, watch the tires burn black through the night and the dead bodies stack up. This is what instability looks like, this is what democracy looks like.

Last time Kiev had protests, Putin put the finishing touch on killing democracy in Russia. This time, he is already busy tightening the screws. He is cracking down on DozhdTV, Russia's last independent television station. He has ordered a propagandist makeover of RIA Novosti, a state-owned but fairly modern news agency, installing a fire-breathing ideologue to run it (this guy, if you're curious). Today, Ekho Moskvy, Moscow's largest radio station that is often sympathetic to the opposition, got a new general manager, a woman with a decade-long resume of faithfully serving the state propaganda machine. State TV is broadcasting Goebbels-like "documentaries" about the opposition called "The Biochemistry of Betrayal." People who don't agree with Putin have found their sources of income choked off; many are fleeing the country. 

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. And the more unstable Ukraine gets, the tighter he'll turn them. Just you wait.