Alex(ei) at Russian Dilettante points out that, whatever we may think, Russia does have legitimate interests in Ukraine:
It’s bad that Putin’s team let Russia’s involvement be interpreted as Russia’s trying to stifle democracy in Ukraine. It’s not true — it would be if only 20% supported Yanukovich — Putin is mostly promoting Russia’s economic interests there, which is OK with me though ugly at times. Why Putin’s political consultants couldn’t find a better deal than Yanukovich is anybody’s guess. C’est dommage, and the damage to Russia’s image might be enormous.
I agree. Russia has plenty of legitimate interests in Ukraine. It has a massive naval base in the Crimea, there is a large ethnic Russian population, and a big chunk of Russia’s oil and gas exports go through Ukraine.
Time and again Russia meddles in the affairs of its neighbours. It almost never supports democratic opposition groups, preferring to prop-up regimes, good or bad (mostly bad). It seems pretty clear that Russia has made the decision that its interests are best served by opposing the spread of democracy through the Former Soviet Union.
I think there are two underlying reasons for this.
Firstly, it is true that Russia is concerned about the spread of democracy on its borders. Both democratic and authoritarian governments try very hard to appease their supporters. The difference is that a democratically elected government gets its support from the people, while an authoritarian government gets its support from Moscow. More democracies on its borders means a lessening of direct Russian influence in the political affairs of its neighbours.
Secondly, it will not have escaped the notice of Putin and his advisors that democracy tends to work in a domino effect. The people of a Russia surrounded by democracies will increasingly wonder why they don’t have a real democracy of their own(instead of the sham that is democracy under Putin). Most of those at the top of the tree in Russia made their money through illegal means. They have much to lose if Russia were shift towards democracy.
Having said all this, although Russia seems broadly opposed to democracy in the Former Soviet Union, when put under pressure (such as in Georgia last year) it has backed down. I’d expect that to happen again in Ukraine. The sight of true people power attracts the attention of big democracies like the US and EU, and Russia can’t take them all on at the same time.