Crimea, seized by Russia in 2014, and Russian supported insurrection in eastern Ukrainian Donbass region, will be uppermost in voter’s minds as they go to polls.
Kiev: Imagine that Russia is supporting a separatist movement along an extensive border with India, providing them with weapons, ammunition and human support. How would you feel about that? Now imagine that Russia has also annexed nearly 2% of Indian territory, filling it with Russians who have voted to support the seizure. You would probably now become strongly anti-Russian!
Ukrainians don’t have to use their imaginations; these two scenarios are reality in their country. Because of this Russian aggression, Ukraine is a potential flash point for future warfare between Russia and the West and it is in everyone’s interest that the region is stabilised.
The Crimea, seized by Russia in 2014, and the Russian supported insurrection in the eastern Ukrainian Donbass region, will be uppermost in voter’s minds as they go to the polls next week. The new President, former actor Volodymyr Zelensky, who defeated sitting President Petro Poroshenko by an astonishing 73% to 24% in April, dissolved Parliament (the Rada) last month in order to secure a majority for his new party, Servant of the People. If he wins, currently his party is in the lead at 48%, he has promised to secure peace in Donbass and to restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Few believe he can achieve these aims.
How did Ukraine get into this predicament?
Of all the countries gaining sovereignty after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine had the biggest dilemma. Should it anger Moscow by looking to the west and joining the European Union, or should it maintain its traditional links with Russia? Or could it do both?
In some respects, Ukraine is two countries, divided by the river Dnieper. To the west of the river lie rich farmlands where the people consider themselves to be part of Europe. To the east you meet up with heavy industries, reminiscent of Soviet times. Here the people lean more towards Russia and it’s along the eastern border, the Donbass region, that the separatists are receiving Russian support.
So far, independence can hardly be described as successful. Ukraine was initially viewed as having favourable economic conditions in comparison with other regions of the Soviet Union, but economic incompetence led to a 60% drop in GDP in the first 10 years of independence, with five-digit inflation rates. Crime and corruption were prevalent. A succession of Presidents, all promising to solve these problems, failed. In February 2014, Viktor Yanukovych, twice President after a series of rigged elections, fled to Russia following violent anti-government demonstrations.
Yanukovych’s ousting was used by President Vladimir Putin as an excuse to create problems in Crimea and the Donbass region, using methods which were typically KGB inspired. In Crimea, Russian troops and intelligence agents disarmed Ukrainian troops and took control of the region, using the Russian naval base at Sevastopol as cover. Almost simultaneously, pro-Russian activists in the eastern Donbass region rose up against Kiev, supported by Russian “volunteers” from across the border, equipped with armoured vehicles and ground-to-air missiles, one of which brought down a Malaysian airliner killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew. Here, the five years of fighting is estimated by the UN to have claimed the lives of more than 13,000 people.
Currently, more than 500,000 Ukrainian citizens are living, or surviving, in the Donbass region. In 2014, a hasty peace deal between Ukraine, Russia and the separatists, known as Minsk 1, temporarily halted the fighting. But full-scale attacks broke out again in 2015. Germany and France stepped in to revive the ceasefire, brokering a package of measures for the implementation of the Minsk Agreements, known as Minsk 2. Only modest achievements were made and fighting continues at a low level. In May this year, President Putin further inflamed the situation by signing a decree allowing Ukrainian citizens in the rebel-controlled area a simplified procedure for obtaining Russian passports.
Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, considered an extremely popular move by Russians which boosted Putin’s popularity, the Kremlin has spent heavily to try to integrate Crimea into the Russian Federation. This included the building of a 12-mile bridge across the Kerch Strait to link the peninsula to southern Russia, at a cost of $3.7bn. Ever the showman, President Putin led a convoy of trucks, driving one himself, across the bridge in an inauguration ceremony in May last year The bridge has had a dramatic effect on the Crimean economy, allowing increased trade and tourism, which would otherwise have depended on air and sea crossings. Much to Ukraine’s frustration, the bridge has reduced shipping to Ukraine’s ports in the Sea of Azov by about 25%, due to the limited height allowed under the central span.
Zelensky’s problems are not confined to geographic instability. During his presidential election campaign in April he also promised to end corruption, a massive sore on the face of the nation which will be difficult to remove. Ask any Ukrainian what is their main concern and you will hear one word; oligarchs. Oligarchs are equated with corruption and are seen as having plundered the national wealth.
When former President Yanukovych, an oligarch, fled to Russia in February 2014, Ukrainians were amazed to discover what he had built with their tax dollars. Not only was there a stunningly large main house complete with a private zoo, acres of manicured gardens with statuary, but he had also built a glass-walled bath house overlooking a private fountain. All this when vast numbers of Ukrainians were living in poverty. As with most Ukrainian oligarchs, Yanukovych had deposited billions of dollars in tax havens abroad, money belonging to the people which should have been spent on infrastructure and services.
Unfortunately for Zelensky, the oligarchs are still around. They are even hoping to be successful in the election on 21 July. Polling at about 13% is the “Opposition Platform for Life” party, a pro-Russian group led by Putin’s crony Victor Medvedchuk, businessman Vadym Rabinovich and Yuriy Boiko, a pillar of the Yanukovych regime. Former President and oligarch Petro Poroshenko’s party, “European Solidarity”, is currently polling at 13%, as is a new party, “Holos”, created from scratch by Ukraine’s most popular rock singer Svyatoslav Vakarchuk. In all, 22 political parties are hoping to get elected to the 450-seat Rada.
If elected with a majority, Zelensky, who speaks only Russian, will have to move fast to seek economic assistance from Europe, while maintaining good relations with Russia. He can do this by reluctantly accepting the permanent loss of Crimea to Russia in exchange for cessation of hostilities and the return of the Donbass region. He will need to develop a federal system to manage the whole of the eastern area, guaranteeing the rights of the pro-Russian population. Ukrainian aspirations to join the European Union and NATO will need to be put on hold until strong economic development is established.
Finally, the tricky problem of taming the oligarchs and bringing the off-shore money back into the public coffers will need to be addressed. A possible route is by giving assurances of freedom from prosecution to the oligarchs if they cooperate in this and help to develop the country in the interests of the whole population. This was the “Putin method” against the Russian oligarchs who became rich under Boris Yeltsin. Whether or not Zelensky is strong enough to do the same remains to be seen.
John Dobson worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s Office between 1995 and 1998 and is presently Chairman of the Plymouth University of the Third Age.