Written by J.Hawk exclusively for SouthFront
After four years of “freedom” and “European integration”, Ukraine is in the throes of a crisis that makes the “wild ’90s” seem like a picture of stability. The economy is continuing to decline, to the point of the country becoming a net importer of agricultural products. The International Monetary Fund is increasingly reluctant to extend new loans, which are now necessary simply to service Ukraine’s ballooning national debt. The country’s Western partners are visibly tired of Ukraine and its problems, seeing in it more of a liability than an asset that could be used to exert political pressure on Russia. Even erstwhile ardent supporters of the Maidan, like the poet Evgeniya Bilchenko, has traded her Right Sector membership for an exile in Russia, and her support for Western values for a rediscovered fondness of Russian traditionalism. Millions of ordinary Ukrainians have likewise voted with her feet and found new residences abroad, many of them in the “aggressor country” Russia. Given that nearly all the Ukrainian trends are strongly negative, what can be expected from this latest “sick man of Europe”?
At the moment, the future of Ukraine is inextricably linked with the future of its president. The Chocolate King’s main priority has always been personal power, with Roshen or Ukraine being only means toward that end, and in spite of considerable skill as a political tactician he still has not managed to suppress his main rivals to the point of guaranteeing himself another term as president.
The biggest threat to his power remains MVD minister Arsen Avakov and his extremist battalions which recently acquired a law enforcement role parallel to the actual police force. While Avakov is extremely unlikely to become president himself, he could play the role of a “kingmaker”, and his clear unwillingness to deal with mini-maidants staged by the supporters of the now-exiled former President of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili, or the former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, indicates he will act to protect his own personal empire by playing on the conflicts within Ukraine’s elite. The recurring pogroms carried out by Avakov’s militias of Sberbank, Alfabank, and Rossotrudnichestvo, all of which happened in broad daylight, can be interpreted as a display of strength, should the question of who occupies the spot of Ukraine’s president be once again decided by who can put most militants on the streets.
That is not to say Poroshenko is entirely helpless in the situation. The “Georgian sniper” case that is acquiring momentum appears to be intended to, at the very least, discredit Saakashvili as the organizer of the massacre on the Maidan that was used as leverage to force President Yanukovych out of power. While this is a risky course of action for Poroshenko to take, since he is the biggest beneficiary of the Maidan, the ability to decimate the “power block” of the elite would finally eliminate not so much competing clans as competing armies from Ukraine’s politics.
Whether he will succeed is another matter altogether. A US intelligence estimate on Ukraine expressed concern the deteriorating situation in the country could force early presidential elections which would destabilize it and strengthen Russia’s position. It is not clear, however, whether Western powers still want Poroshenko to be their chosen leader of Ukraine, even though they are worried about the chaos that would likely follow his downfall.
The Western Front
Probably no single event demonstrated just how low Poroshenko’s fortunes have sunk with his Western sponsors as the Munich Security Conference in February 2018, during which his speech was practically ignored.
While Kremlin’s restraint on the question of Ukraine, which manifested itself by, for example, not reacting to the numerous Ukrainian provocations against the Donbass which have resulted in scores of civilian deaths, has been the subject of considerable criticism at home, internationally it has brought considerable political benefits. Not the least of them is the fragmenting of the Western support for Ukraine, which is evident in the EU’s unwillingness to mirror United States’ several latest rounds of anti-Russia unilateral sanctions. Instead the EU has become increasingly assertive of its foreign policy prerogatives in defiance of the US, particularly in the areas of EU-Russia cooperation such as North Stream 2 pipeline which threatens one of the key pillar’s of Ukraine’s importance to the EU, namely its status as a key energy transit country.
The unreserved US support for the Poroshenko regime has also facilitated a break between Ukraine and its neighbor Poland, and moreover contributed to the worsening of Poland-US relations. Poland has long maintained its self-image as the key power broker of Eastern Europe, which includes a carefully cultivated sense of own superiority over Ukraine. However, while US regards Poland as a useful client state, the usefulness of Ukraine much greater due to its proximity to and conflict with Russia. This cannot but rub the Polish establishment the wrong way. Ukraine receives US equipment and even lethal weapons free of charge, Ukrainian nationalists parade in the streets openly without anyone in the US Embassy in Kiev noticing. Poland, on the other hand, must pay billions for US weapons, and is constantly being chided by the US State Department for its internal political reforms.
The controversial Polish updated law on the country’s National Remembrance Institute faces this issue squarely by, among other things, criminalizing any expressions of or support for Banderism within Poland’s borders. The media firestorm that ensued promptly resulted in Poland facing criticism from not only the US and Israel but also from Ukraine, while receiving support from..Germany and Russia. This state of affairs places the US in a difficult situation. Just as Washington faces having to choose between Turkey and the Kurds, here too it appears impossible to maintain close relations with both Poland and Ukraine.
Poland is not the only of Ukraine’s neighbors who is displeased with Kiev. Hungary likewise vetoed a number of NATO-Ukraine initiatives until Ukraine agreed to make changes to its language law that discriminated against the Hungarian-speaking minority.
While the United States is still committed to Ukraine, it’s not clear it’s committed to Poroshenko himself. A senior US general expressed dismay upon learning Ukraine is exporting Oplot MBTs, while at the same time pleading for US-made weapons. While we may see US-made Javelin anti-tank missiles delivered to Ukraine in 2018, those deliveries could come with restrictions on their use that would preclude the UAF from using them against DPR and LPR forces. Worse, there is growing US and EU pressure on Poroshenko to establish an anti-corruption court under close Western oversight that would de-facto mean Western take-over of Ukrainian institutions and spell doom for Poroshenko’s business and political empires. The least thinly veiled threat to Poroshenko came from the mouth of none other than the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who in the March of 2017 said that “ it serves no purpose for Ukraine to fight for its body in Donbass if it loses its soul to corruption.”
All Quiet on the Donbass?
Poroshenko’s domestic troubles and waning support by Western powers mean an increased temptation to engage in military provocations and perhaps even a full-scale offensive against DPR and LPR in order to force Russia to engage its military in support of the non-recognized republics. Russia’s military response would have possible consequences of alienating the EU and intensifying US military assistance to Ukraine in the form of expanded deliveries of advanced weapons. It might even result in additional IMF aid tranches–one cannot allow a country fighting off “Russian aggression” to go bankrupt, after all…Russia’s response, moreover, would complicate the March 18 presidential elections.
Poroshenko appears to be at least toying with the idea. On February 20, 2018, Poroshenko signed Rada’s recently passed law on “reintegrating the Donbass” which essentially calls for an all-out military campaign. Literally on the next day Poroshenko announced the formation of an “operational staff” that would take in hand all military operations in the East. OSCE has announced a variety of Ukrainian troop movements in the area, including heavy artillery weapons.
But it would be an extremely risky enterprise that could backfire. Ukrainian forces would inevitably suffer heavy losses, which would tip the balance of power in the direction of Avakov’s paramilitaries. Poroshenko would also face increased demands to introduce martial law in the country, something he has resisted so far because it would make him dependent on the “hawks” within the elite, men like Avakov, Turchinov, and Parubiy, who would stand to gain the most power, which is why they have been advocates of such a move. It is not even clear the EU, suffering from a refugee crisis and the effects of the sanctions war with Russia, and eager to develop itself as a global power broker independent of the US, would tolerate Poroshenko’s provocations that would serve as an excuse for greater US involvement in Ukraine and pressure on the EU to end the North Stream 2 project.
A Return to Multi-Vector Politics?
Whatever one can say of Poroshenko, he has definitely proven to be a political survivor thanks to his ability to take advantage of conflicts among Ukrainian political actors as well as among major powers to carve out a niche for himself as the ruler of Ukraine. These tactical successes have had their costs, to be sure: Poroshenko’s opportunism means that he has squandered whatever trust anyone else ever had in him. Today, there is not a single political actor anywhere in the world who takes him at his word.
In practical terms it means that in order to survive, Poroshenko would have to reinvent the multi-vector foreign policy Ukraine has followed ever since its independence, one to which it has returned after every earlier Maidan. On the one hand, it might appear as if Poroshenko has burned too many bridges to make improving relations with Russia possible. But on the other he has never burned all of them. In 2017, Russia maintained its spot as Ukraine’s number one trade partner, with the bilateral trade actually increasing although it is not clear to what extent “Russian” imports to Ukraine are actually coming from the Donbass. Moreover, the blame for bridges that were burned could be blamed on many of Poroshenko’s associates who could be implicated in the “Maidan snipers” case that is being kept alive with some political aim in mind. Finally, multi-vectorism in Ukraine’s case need not be confined to Russia–China, too, is beginning to exert an eastward pull on Ukraine, whose leaders see in it an additional guarantee of political survival against the increasingly onerous Western demands.
But in the end, multi-vectorism could lead to a break-up of Ukraine as its internal political actors seek support from different corners of the world for their political ventures. It is clear that every foreign power, be it US, Germany, Poland, Russia, and even China, has something else in mind for Ukraine, which has become yet another global geopolitical battlefield like Libya and Yemen, and which soon may prove beyond the ability of someone with Poroshenko’s limitations and liabilities to control.