Ukraine Might Be Better Off If “Little Russia” Did Secede

Military vehicles of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic are seen in eastern Ukraine, May 30, 2015
Military vehicles of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic are seen in eastern Ukraine, May 30, 2015 (Wikimedia Commons/Mstyslav Chernov)

Separatists in the southeast of Ukraine have declared a new country: “Little Russia”.

The announcement by Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, amounts to little, argues Gwendolyn Sasse of Carnegie Europe.

She points out that leaders in Luhansk, Ukraine’s other breakaway region, have distanced themselves from it. Russia, which otherwise backs the Donbas uprising, hasn’t voiced support either. And the local population doesn’t want independence. A survey conducted earlier this year found a majority in favor of remaining in Ukraine. Only a third want to join Russia.

Yet it might be better for Ukraine if the region does secede. Read more

Rutte Persuades EU Leaders to Rule Out Membership for Ukraine

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte arrives for a meeting with other European leaders in Brussels, February 12, 2015
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte arrives for a meeting with other European leaders in Brussels, February 12, 2015 (European Council)

Other European leaders budged to pressure from the Netherlands’ Mark Rutte on Thursday to explicitly rule out future EU membership for Ukraine.

Rutte hopes the concession, together with assurances from the EU that is not committed to Ukraine’s defense, will be enough to persuade lawmakers at home to save an economic and security pact that Dutch voters rejected in a referendum in April. Read more

Rutte In Bind as Parties Balk at Endorsing Treaty Fudge

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte meets with other European leaders in Brussels, March 16
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte meets with other European leaders in Brussels, March 16 (European Council)

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte failed to convince other parties on Friday to support his attempts to amend the Netherlands’ ratification of a European association agreement with Ukraine, despite warning that withdrawing from the accord could trigger instability on Europe’s eastern border.

“This is bigger than the Netherlands alone,” Rutte said at a news conference.

The leaders of the Christian Democrats, liberal Democrats and Green Party were not impressed. Read more

How Culture Keeps the Russians and Ukrainians Steps Away from War

Russian president Vladimir Putin observes a military parade in Moscow, May 9
Russian president Vladimir Putin observes a military parade in Moscow, May 9 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

The Ukrainian civil war has been easy enough to fall off the world radar; with headline-grabbing terrorism striking the heart of Europe, Donald Trump running his irrational mouth and the EU rendering itself asunder, the conflict in Donbas, the eastern province now split away from Kiev’s central control, seems like a whisper of a war we’d all forgotten about.

Now reports are abounding that Moscow is deploying large and powerful military units both within Donbas and in annexed Crimea. It all began with accusations that Ukrainian special forces had slipped into Crimea to bomb a highway full of officials. True or not, it resulted in a deployment of tanks and artillery on both sides of the de facto border. Worry emerged that both sides might begin blowing one another up.

While the Russians don’t seem keen on an all-out battle, and neither do the Ukrainians, the whole mess bears examination. There are essential truths to learn, both for Russia and Ukraine and the wider world. Read more

Ukraine Would Be Better Off Cutting the Donbas Loose

Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observe damage in the area of Donetsk, Ukraine, May 27
Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observe damage in the area of Donetsk, Ukraine, May 27 (OSCE/Evgeniy Maloletka)

We haven’t heard much from the Donbas recently, but the two separatist republics there are still slowly being annexed by Russia. It may ultimately be for the best for the rest of Ukraine.

Alexander J. Motyl, a Ukraine scholar, reports for World Affairs Journal that the Donetsk People’s Republic alone now spends more on propaganda than Ukraine’s Ministry of Information Policy. Its newspapers, radio and television stations constantly denounce the Kiev “junta” and the “fascists” who have supposedly taken over since the more pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovich, was ousted in a pro-European coup in 2014. Local museums are devoted to exposing the “atrocities” committed by the Ukrainian army.

In the Luhansk People’s Republic, a children’s magazine recently featured a story about an evil Fasciston (Washington) being defeated by a valiant Vladimir Putin-like Papa.

Economically, the two self-declared republics are drawing closer to Russia as well. They use the ruble as currency. Residents can apply for Russian passports. The Russian Ministries of Defense and Internal Affairs control the territories’ soldiers and security forces. Finance, infrastructure and transportation are all run through an interdepartmental commission in Moscow supervised by Putin’s advisor, Vladislav Surkov. Read more

Groisman’s Elevation Does Not Bode Well for Ukraine

Michel Lebrun, president of the European Committee of the Regions, listens to Ukrainian politician Volodimir Groisman in Brussels, October 8, 2014
Michel Lebrun, president of the European Committee of the Regions, listens to Ukrainian politician Volodimir Groisman in Brussels, October 8, 2014 (Open Days)

Ukraine’s parliament confirmed Volodimir Groisman, its speaker and an ally of President Petro Poroshenko, as prime minister on Thursday, following the resignation of Arseniy Yatseniuk earlier in the week.

Groisman is supported by the two largest parties: Poroshenko’s Solidarity bloc and Yatseniuk’s conservative People’s Front.

Former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party had been in talks to rejoin the coalition, which it left in February, but demanded a reintroduction of energy subsidies at the eleventh hour which have been cut to qualify for $40 billion in aid from the International Monetary Fund.

Factions

Yatseniuk’s resignation came after months of infighting between the president and the premier. On his way out, the latter accused Poroshenko’s party of shifting the blame for unpopular austerity measures to his when they were enacted with the support of both.

More fundamentally, Poroshenko and Yatseniuk represented rival pro-Western factions in Ukraine which set aside their differences when the country was invaded by Russia in 2014.

While Yatseniuk was far from clean, he — for a while — embodied the aspirations of genuine reformers who seek to Westernize Ukraine.

Poroshenko, a confectionary tycoon and billionaire, is backed by oligarchs whose commercial interests demand closer integration with the West as opposed to with Ukraine’s former Soviet master, Russia.

A shared commitment to economic relations with the neighboring European Union and the need to present a united front in the face of Russian aggression forced the two sides into an uneasy and, it turns out, temporary alliance. Modernizers did not insist on uprooting the entire political order and were in turn tolerated by the oligarchs.

More of the same

Whether the modernizers pushed too hard or the vested interests lost their sense of urgency is now beside the point. The old guard has won out and that doesn’t bode well for Ukraine’s prospects in the short term.

Leonid Bershidsky has argued at Bloomberg View that Groisman is effectively a Poroshenko puppet and has been since he served as governor of Vinnitsa, the region where Poroshenko has his biggest chocolate factories.

“What’s known of his economic program isn’t encouraging,” writes Bershidsky.

Groisman’s pronouncements on strengthening agriculture, building roads and fighting corruption while strengthening social support are little different from Yatseniuk’s intentions and often are misguided.

Lev Golinkin is even less optimistic. The author argues in Foreign Policy that Ukraine’s political crisis is likely to go from bad to worse.

Every few months, new corruption allegations rock the government; Western diplomats fly in to issue rebukes and pleas for Ukraine’s leaders to think of their people; Kiev promises to do better; the West relents.

Golinkin is perhaps too quick to dismiss the real economic reforms that were done under Yatseniuk’s government; liberalizations that might not be safe with Groisman.

But he doesn’t exaggerate when he despairs at the corruption of Poroshenko and his cronies.

The reason they get away with it, writes Golinkin, is Vladimir Putin’s Russia. “It’s hard to imagine Kiev’s brazen kleptocracy being handed dozens of ‘last’ chances if Ukraine were involved in a conflict with, say, Burkina Faso.” But because it’s locked in a standoff with Russia, the West is willing to overlook a lot. “Nobody understands — and exploits — this better than Kiev’s oligarchs.”

As Yatseniuk Resigns, Blame Shifts to Poroshenko

President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine attends a World War II memorial ceremony, June 22, 2015
President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine attends a World War II memorial ceremony, June 22, 2015 (Press Service of the President of Ukraine/Mikhail Palinchak)

Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatseniuk resigned on Sunday to make way for a new government but could not resist taking a swipe at his rival, President Petro Poroshenko, on his way out.

“The country’s political crisis was unleashed artificially,” said Yatseniuk, alleging in a televised address that his opponents’ desire to remove him from power had “paralyzed their will for real change.”

Yatseniuk’s conservative People’s Front, the second largest in parliament, is nevertheless due to renew its coalition with Poroshenko’s Solidarity bloc and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party. Volodimir Groisman, the current speaker and an ally of Poroshenko’s, is likely to succeed Yatseniuk as premier.

Yatseniuk earlier accused the other parties, which share his desire to move Ukraine away from Russia and closer to the West, of shifting the blame for unpopular austerity measures like subsidy cuts to his group when they were enacted to qualify for $40 billion in international support.

Tymoshenko has demanded the reintroduction of energy subsidies as a condition for returning to government.

Embattled

Although Poroshenko appears to have prevailed in his backroom fight with Yatseniuk, the president himself is also embattled.

On Wednesday, voters in the Netherlands rejected the European association agreement with Ukraine that was at the heart of the 2014 revolution. When the relatively pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich refused to sign the treaty that year — which commits Ukraine to harmonizing its economic and social policies with those of the countries in the EU — people took to the streets of Kiev and forced him to step down.

Poroshenko, Yanukovich’s successor, signed the agreement in the summer of 2014, but lawmakers this week accused him of having failed to inspire the Dutch to vote in favor of it.

“This is a verdict on a president who for the past two years has systematically and persistently chosen the past over the future,” said Mustafa Nayem, a former journalist and lawmaker in Poroshenko’s party.

Serhiy Leshchenko, another activist elected to parliament on the heels of the pro-Western protest movement, said the referendum in the Netherlands showed Poroshenko’s administration was “losing international support because of the lack of reforms.”

The president has also been named in the “Panama Papers,” which reveal that he set up an offshore holding company for his confectionary business on the Virgin Islands to benefit from its loose tax laws.

Coalition

This website argued in February, when the resignation of a reformist minister triggered the crisis that led to Yatseniuk’s downfall this weekend, that the coalition in Kiev is one between sincere liberalizers and an oligarchy represented by the likes of Poroshenko. The only thing they have in common is that both believe the former Soviet republic’s future lies in Europe, not as an appendage of Russia.

After the 2014 uprising, when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and started supporting a separatist uprising in its southeastern Donbas region, the two camps set aside their differences to govern the country. Modernizers did not insist on uprooting the entire political system and were in turn tolerated by the business interests that supported Poroshenko.

It was a marriage of convenience that was never meant to last. As Yatseniuk steps down on Sunday, the coalition may be fracturing beyond repair.

If that happens, it seems the old guard has the upper hand. But will ordinary Ukrainians accept that?