Winds of Change
The famous “Assad curse” has a corollary that states whoever says “Poroshenko must stay” is likewise not long for this political world. After all, the forcible regime change in Ukraine was part and parcel of the same strategy that has driven the wars in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere. Therefore if Western leaders who are responsible for these conflicts are being ousted, not only is it not good news for the jihadis in Syria, it also means the Ukrainian neo-nazis’ days are likewise drawing to a close.
Poroshenko’s recent trips to United States and France were likely calculated to gauge the level of support his administration can still count on in the changed political environment. While we, as members of the public, are not privy to what was said behind closed doors, the external indicators are that Poroshenko has not received what he came for.
The meeting with Trump was extremely brief, took place during a break during Trump’s briefing with other senior administration officials, and was open to the cameras throughout. There was no dinner and not even a press availability. Poroshenko was reduced to staging his own press event outside the White House fence.
It was hardly better with Macron. While Macron did repeat the usual boilerplate concerning “Russian aggression”, Poroshenko was not even invited to the daily dinner Macron has with his Prime Minister. Again, Poroshenko’s visit seems to have occurred on Poroshenko’s own initiative, with the hosts accepting mainly in order to avoid the appearance of some sort of rift with Ukraine. Apart from that, Poroshenko was given the minimal courtesies and nothing above and beyond that.
Poroshenko’s sole foreign policy success is the lifting of the visa restrictions on Ukrainian citizens for travel to the EU. However, that liberalization will have very little positive impact on Ukraine’s economy, and at most it will allow a greater number of Ukrainians to travel to EU under false pretenses in order to find illegal work. If that turns out to be the case, it will have a negative impact on EU-Ukraine relations as the member-states in question take measures to limit this yet another source of economic migrants.
Show of Strength or Weakness?
The most visible change in the recent months is the crack-down on several types of media, starting with bans on Russian social networks and news sites and ending with SBU raids on independent news outlets such as strana.ua whose coverage of events in Ukraine has often deviated from the official line being propagated by Poroshenko.
For example, strana.ua published information on recent fighting on the Donbass that not only correctly depicted Ukrainian forces as the aggressors, but also described the scale of casualties which is far higher than official figures suggest. Strana.ua’s offices were raided by the SBU which is Poroshenko’s most reliable group of enforcers, and its chief editor was brought in for questioning.
While the strana.ua action is but the most recent of a string of similar policies, in this instance Poroshenko actually moved to publicly intimidate a relatively independent media outlet. That is not to say Ukrainian media had in the past enjoyed freedom to write whatever they want. However, usually the pressure against reporters or media outlets overly skeptical of Ukraine’s “European choice” is exercised by “spontaneous” actions by “concerned citizens,” such as the Right Sector, the Azov Civic Corps, or any number of volunteer battalions which decided attacking journalists is a rather safer pursuit than fighting Novorossia forces.
The question all these actions naturally provoke is whether this is a show of force or a display of weakness by Poroshenko, with the most likely scenario being the latter one. A government confident in its legitimacy and popular support, like for example Russia’s, would not have any incentive to crack down on media outlets if the views they expounded were held only by the margins of society. For that reason the so-called “non-systemic opposition media” in Russia enjoys considerable freedom of action even when it receives foreign funding and aggressively spreads disinformation.
In Poroshenko’s case, however, the situation is quite different. The country’s economy is steadily deteriorating, the “Donbass blockade” only moved that region closer to independence and possibly to integration with Russia and instead badly damaged Ukraine’s energy and metallurgy sector of the economy. Western aid at this point amounts to little more than preventing Ukraine from defaulting on its debt. Foreign direct investment tends to be in low-skilled manufacturing, and even these numbers are relatively modest, since Ukraine can’t exactly outcompete China when it comes to labor costs.
No Honor Among Thieves
The shrinking economic pie in turn endangers the Maidan coalition that was cobbled together in 2014. While some of its members, such as Yatsenyuk and Kolomoysky, were forced our in preceding years after being given suitable “severance packages,” now the conflict has reached players who are not nearly as willing (or not nearly as smart) to bail out while they can. They include the Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov and the volunteer battalions under his control and a number of political actors who are hoping to stage a come-back should Poroshenko stumble, such as Mikhail Saakashvili and, especially, Yulia Tymoshenko who has proved to be an indestructible survivor of Ukraine’s rough-and-tumble political scene.
The friction among the remaining factions of the coalition is suggested by the increased frequency of violent incidents involving not ordinary citizens or even ATO veterans, but senior representatives of various security, military, and paramilitary organizations that are part of the regime. For example, members of the Aidar Battalion were arrested and beaten up by the SBU for protesting at the Presidential Administration building. Shortly afterwards two colonels, one from the SBU and one from the UAF Main Intelligence Directorate, were killed by explosives planted in their cars, only one day apart. Another colonel, an intelligence officer, was killed in suspicious circumstances on the Donbass.
Anticipating a Showdown
That showdown will come in the form of a presidential election, and it may come sooner than scheduled if Poroshenko’s opponents succeed to force an early one. Cracking down on the media under the guise of “fighting Russian cyber-aggression” would give Poroshenko an advantage over his opponents, though even that might not prove sufficient to offset his abysmal popularity rating.
The other asset Poroshenko might tap if he feels sufficiently desperate is the tried and true method of escalating the conflict on the Donbass. For that reason the upcoming G-20 summit that will be held on July 7-8 in Hamburg, and during which Presidents Putin and Trump are expected to meet face to face, presents a golden opportunity to launch an attack and then accuse Russia of invading Ukraine in order to secure foreign support, which in turn would reduce the domestic political pressure. If the G-20 summit passes without an incident, it means that Western powers have come up with a sufficient package of positive and negative incentives to prevent Poroshenko from dragging them into an escalated confrontation with Russia. If, however, we see a flare-up on the Donbass, it will then be a question of whether Poroshenko was acting on the behest of, or in defiance of, his Western protectors.