The Russian trade war was accompanied by an unprecedented propaganda offensive. President Putin dispatched his economic adviser Sergei Glazyev, a man with extremely nationalistic views, to Ukraine. He painted a disastrous scenario for the Ukrainians if they signed the agreement with the EU. Glazyev claimed that Ukraine would need at least 130 billion to comply with EU rules. This, he said, would sharply drive down the country's currency, so that Kiev would be unable to pay its debts, citizens would be without heat and the country would eventually be forced into bankruptcy.
"Why does the Ukrainian leadership want to drive its country into economic suicide?" he asked. On the other hand, Glazyev noted, Ukraine would generate an additional $10 billion in revenues if it joined the Russian-led customs union.
Glazyev was named Russia's "Person of the Year 2013" at a ceremony in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior on Nov. 28, the day the EU summit began in Vilnius, without Ukraine having signed the planned agreement. According to officials, Glazyev received the award for his contributions to "bringing Ukraine back into the economic union with Russia."
Some might be surprised by Russia's blatant efforts to pressure Kiev. But Ukraine, whose name is derived from an Old East Slavic word that means "borderland," is Europe's second-largest country, and Putin needs it if he hopes to build his planned Eurasian economic empire. Kiev is also the historic cradle of the Russian nation, and the first East Slavic realm was established there in the 9th century. In his speeches, Glazyev repeatedly spoke of "our shared intellectual and historic tradition."
At the same time, both Russians and Ukrainians are disdainful of each other. In Moscow, Ukrainians are called "Chochly," a reference to the unusual headdress of the medieval Dnieper Cossacks. Kiev residents refer to Russians as "Moskali," which is also a derogatory term. The Russians "have treated us as part of their property for the last 350 years," Leonid Kravchuk, the first president of independent Ukraine, once said.
Putin and Yanukovych are also not on good terms. The fact that the Russian president eventually strong-armed Yanukovych has to do with the mentality of the Ukrainian president. Yanukovych is a man who never likes to commit himself and always keeps a back door open somewhere. Putin had not believed that Yanukovych would actually sign the agreement with Brussels. But when it became apparent in the summer that he was prepared to do so after all, Moscow stepped in.
Even Putin has actually been disinclined to use such coarse tactics. Russia is not "seeking a superpower status or trying to claim a global or regional hegemony," Putin said last Thursday in his annual state-of-the-nation address. However, the president still expects countries like Ukraine to remain within Moscow's orbit.
'New World Leader of the Conservatives'
Following Snowden, Syria, Iran and other foreign-policy coups, Putin now sees himself in a role that he finds equally gratifying: an "arbiter of global politics."
"For Putin, all it took was 20 minutes with Obama on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg to avert a bombing of Syria and to lay the groundwork for a solution to the Syrian chemical weapons problem," says a senior Russian diplomat.
According to an unpublished, 44-page report by the Institute for Strategic Studies, the Kremlin's most powerful think tank, to which SPIEGEL has gained access, Putin's authority is now "so extensive that he can even influence a vote on Syria in the US Congress." The report praises Putin as the "new world leader of the conservatives."
The report's authors write that the hour of conservatives has now come worldwide because "the ideological populism of the left" -- a reference to men like Obama and French President François Hollande -- "is dividing society."
According to the report, people yearn for security in a rapidly changing and chaotic world, and the overwhelming majority prefers stability over ideological experiments, classic family values over gay marriage, and the national-state over immigration. Putin, the authors write, stands for these traditional values, while the domestic policies of traditional democracies are hamstrung by the need for compromise. Last week, Putin himself stated that the objective of his conservatism is to "prevent a movement backward and downward, into the chaos of darkness."
These observations on the shift in the public mood may be correct, but who wants to see Russia as a role model? The protesters on Kiev's Independence Square apparently do not.
Putin's Russia is a poorly organized country whose power hinges on the price of oil remaining above $100 a barrel. The colossus in the East, with its nuclear weapons, mineral resources and foreign currency reserves of $515 billion resembles the pseudo-giant in the children's novel Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver by German author Michael Ende: The closer one gets to him, the smaller he becomes.
Russia looks very good on paper, with a budget that has been almost balanced for years and a debt-to-GDP ratio of 14 percent (compared with 80 percent for Germany). But growth rates of 6 percent and higher are a thing of the past. The Kremlin expects a growth rate of only 1.3 percent this year, which is too low in light of the country's massive need for modernization.
In his address to the nation, Putin conceded that bureaucracy and widespread corruption are stifling innovation and entrepreneurial spirit in Russia.
To enhance this image and simultaneously counteract reporting critical of Russia in the Western media, last week, Putin established the media holding company "Russia Today," a modern propaganda machine intended to improve the country's image abroad. He also issued a decree to "dissolve" the long-established, historic RIA Novosti news agency, presumably because its columnists were too dependent on Western positions in their ideology.
The new head of Russia Today, Dmitry Kiselyov, attracted attention when he said on a talk show that homosexuals should be banned from donating blood or sperm. "And their hearts, in case they die in a car accident, should be buried or burned as unfit for extending anyone's life," Kiselyov added. He has also compared the EU's bailout of Cypriot banks with Hitler's expropriation of Jews. At the first company meeting of Russia Today, Kiselyov said that the most important characteristic for employees of the new state-run agency is not objectivity, but "love for Russia."
The Rise of a 'Non-Liberal Empire'
It's been a decade since Anatoly Chubais, the architect of the privatization of the Russian economy and still an influential powerbroker in the Kremlin elite, wrote an essay in which he called for a "liberal empire." He argued that Russia should bring the countries lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union back into its sphere of influence by enhancing its own appeal through democracy, freedom and the rule of law. The same applied to Ukraine.
"Today the European Union is the liberal empire," says Moscow political scientist Vladimir Frolov. "Putin is offering a different, non-liberal empire," he adds, an empire that appeals to authoritarian rulers, such as Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose countries, like Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, plan to join Putin's Eurasian customs union.
In Putin's model, only a leader knows what's best for his people. "The non-liberal empire helps to explain Russia's turning away from Europe by citing subversive European values," says Frolov, "and it allows the Kremlin to hold onto the illusion that it is playing in the same league as America, China and the EU."
No Putin project embodies this illusion quite as much as the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. They symbolize both Putin's dream of a new greatness and his weakness. The Kremlin chief has had new highways, tunnels and railroads constructed in the Caucasus, as well as a state-of-the-art train station and two winter resorts. Corruption and nepotism were partly response for an explosion in costs -- from the original estimate of 9 billion to more than 37 billion. And only a national leader with Putin's ambitions, and only a country with megalomaniacal tendencies, could hit upon the idea of holding winter games in a Black Sea resort town with a subtropical climate.
Russia intends to use the Olympics to present its unique features to a marveling world, which explains why the Kremlin had 14,000 people carry the Olympic torch along a 65,000-kilometer (40,600-mile) route throughout Russia -- both of which are record figures. Naturally, the torch relay began on Red Square, and of course the ceremony coincided with Putin's birthday. The Kremlin sent a diver with the torch to the bottom of Lake Baikal, the world's deepest freshwater lake. Cosmonauts carried it into space in a rocket, camel riders took it across the southern Russian steppes, sled dogs pulled it through the Arctic and an icebreaker ferried it to the North Pole.
The Arctic Ocean is another place where the Kremlin is trying to impress the world. To gain access to the mineral resources hidden under the ocean floor, for which Russia is competing with other countries bordering the ocean, Putin instructed his defense minister last week to "expand Russia's military presence in the Arctic." This means rebuilding 10 Soviet-era bases in the Arctic Circle and beefing up Russia's Arctic military presence.