It has been some time since I have been able to post about Ukraine. Much of that had to do with distractions from the end of semester responsibilities and then some family matters that could not be put off, but the transformation of the Maidan revolution into a military conflict in the Donbas has hindered the ability of armchair experts to offer insightful comment. While I am glad not to have spent time as a prisoner of pro-Russian fighters, I envy Simon Ostrovsky a bit, and hope his VICE reports get him bigger notice. Yet for all their immediacy and journalistic value, such reports cannot answer the big questions that everyone is asking: 1) Can the Ukrainian military manage to regain control of the region without exacerbating relations with the already disaffected citizens of Donbas? 2) How long can the paramilitaries in the Donbas hold out? 3) How much is Putin willing to do to support them? More importantly, nor can I or any expert. For tempting as it is to answer that last question and arguably most pressing question, no one is able to get in Putin’s head, and the truth is we will not know what Putin has decided until it is too late and the full-scale invasion of Ukraine is underway, or we wake up one day and we realize Ukraine has ceased to be at the top of his agenda. In the meantime, the only thing we need to remember is that Russian intervention in Ukraine is intended as a distractraction and buy time both in Russia and in Ukraine.
On Putin’s home front there are some warning signs. A study released last week shows about two thirds of Russians do not like the idea of a war with Ukraine, a fact that would set a limit for how far Putin can go; although, having drawn heavily on Russophile pan--Slavs for support, he now has to worry about a backlash if he backs down. So open but never quite acknowledged support continues for the fighters in Donbas, as do faints to suggest he is ready and willing to invade. On Monday, 14 July Dmytro Tymchuk, Ukraine’s best connected journalist on military affairs put out a statement stating that Russian special forces would enter Ukraine on 15 July, and it is now the 16. Better safe than sorry of course, but at this point one can only surmise that the Russian communications traffic that Tymchuk reported had repeatedly referenced 15 July as an invasion date was itself an effort to deceive and distract. Coming as it did just days before NATO and European countries are set to decide on introducing further sanctions to Russia, attempting to make the Ukrainian government look alarmist could well play well in some important quarters, like Germany and France so that the next phase of sanctions remain mild. If that was the intent, the tactic has not worked, and so we shall see what Putin will do next.
The saddest part is that people are dying and suffering in multiple ways because Putin would rather distract than deal with the cul de sac that is his vision for Russia and Ukraine. He has made consistently poor choices in respect to Ukraine since 2004, because for him there can only be one outcome, one that Ukrainians are increasingly opposed to. That said, while ignoring it would be inhumane and irresponsible, let us remember the conflict also distracts from the real business of transforming Ukraine, which is what the Maidan revolution was about. Last week Ukraine’s Fifth channel reported that following difficulties passing reforms affecting Ukraine’s historically corrupt gas monopoly Naftogaz prime minister Arsenyi Yatseniuk drafted a letter of resignation and left it with the President of the Ukrainian parliament. Around the same time, Ukrainska Pravda reported the new mayor of Kiev, Vitali Klischko has named a Kyiv real estate tycoon Ihor Nikonov as his chief advisor. Nikonov happens to be a partner of the natural gas oligarch Dmitriy Firtash, who is currently in Vienna fighting extradition to the U.S. on corruption charges and would of course like to see as little change possible to the gas market in Ukraine. Klitschko’s connections to Firtash are not new, nor are Poroshenko’s, so one has to wonder can the current distraction provide the opportunity for the oligarchs to hijack the Maidan revolution the same way as happened with the Orange Revolution in 2004.
So far the oligarchs do not seem to be closing ranks or systematically sabotaging reforms, at least not yet. Ukrainska Pravda has since reported that all signs are Yatseniuk will remain prime minister for the foreseeable future, which we can hope is a sign that Poroshenko understands the costs of sabotaging Yatseniuk. Meanwhile the oligarchs who profited most from Yanukovych’s misrule that their most have been the most wrong-footed by Yanukovych’s downfall. Akhmetov has played his hand so poorly, hedging his bets until he had lost credibility with the Donbas people so that it is increasingly unlikely that the government will need to court him as they retake the Donbas. Firtash is also on the defensive, and is likely doing all he can to get the new government to convince the U.S. to drop the charges against him. He has just offered to forgive a loan to the government of 100 billion hryvna (roughly 100 million dollars) no doubt hoping for some favors, but that does not seem to be in the cards. Two days ago Kolomoisky, who is the governor of Dnipropetrovsk region and has great standing in the new government and the people thanks to his success in preventing pro-Russian movements from taking hold in his bailiwick, stated that the companies both Akhmetov and Firtash bought during privatizations conducted by the Yanukovych government should be renationalized.
The oligarchs, however, are themselves a distraction, because their ability to influence the system is dependent on collaborators, and the fact is the continuing war is serving such people quite well. While some of the millions of people who supported the Maidan have volunteered to serve in the fight to recover the Donbas, and many others are pledging money, the focus on the war has provided an excuse to postpone parliamentary elections. Without a new parliament, the existing parliament is itself becoming a kind of frozen zone. The Communists will likely never be represented again, and the same fate may await many Party of Regions, unless they can join a forge a new party of power and patronage. Cooperating with the new government fits perfectly with that aim, and the longer the war goes on allowing the elections to be postponed the easier it will be for them to succeed in that goal. Supporting the government’s anti-terrorist action is understandable and necessary, but it should not distract from the remaking of society that was at the heart of the Maidan. With Yanukovych gone and Ukraine’s relationship with Russia clearer than ever, the time is ripe for a new political spectrum to emerge, but that can only happen if Ukrainians keep their eyes on the prize, and don’t let the war in the East, whether won or lost, distract them.