The Revolution That Wasn’t

Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko
Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

Conversations in the government quarter, the imposing Soviet and Art Nouveau buildings that house the offices of Ukraine’s top leaders, often turn to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s late-night phone calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin. These are said to be quite frequent and quite relaxed for two presidents who have been unofficially at war in eastern Ukraine for the past four years. Poroshenko, a secretive figure who reputedly does not like to delegate, says little about his calls, according to senior government figures, so speculation often runs wild. I once asked one of the few leaders of the Maidan uprising to subsequently achieve high office about one burst of phone communications. Poroshenko seems to believe he can persuade Putin to let Ukraine off the hook, he remarked. I asked him half-jokingly whether he feared that one night Putin might just offer Poroshenko a deal that would suit the two presidents, but not necessarily Ukraine. That could well happen, he replied. Other observers feel the president has more basic issues on his mind. Asked what the two men might discuss, a politician-businessman looked amazed at the idiocy of the question. “Business,” he said witheringly.

These two answers essentially span the spectrum of explanations for the phone calls: few attribute noble motives to President Poroshenko. Even officials only a step or two down from the president often seem loath to explain or justify his more controversial behavior, such as his unwillingness to replace corrupt military officers or ministers. Among Ukrainians, this translates into a deep malaise. Four years after the flight from Kiev of Poroshenko’s predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, who was forced out by months of protests that paralyzed the capital, many Ukrainians are disillusioned with their leaders and the political class in general, demoralized by the weak economy, worried about the frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine, and frustrated by the president’s failure to address the systemic corruption that permeates all aspects of life. In many cases Poroshenko has fought hard to protect controversial figures like Prosecutor-General Viktor Shokin, whom he defended for over a year before firing him only when US Vice President Joe Biden threatened to withdraw a $1 billion loan guarantee.

Poroshenko, a wealthy businessman and former senior minister in the Yanukovych administration, was elected president in May 2014 following the Euromaidan protests, which had started in November 2013 in Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, over Yanukovych’s decision to postpone an agreement with the European Union. They had quickly turned into mass civil disobedience, ending in a bloodbath in mid-February 2014 that left 130 demonstrators and at least sixteen police dead. Yanukovych had fled to eastern Ukraine on February 22 and been whisked to safety by Russian special forces in an operation that Putin likes to say he oversaw personally.

Putin immediately denounced Yanukovych’s overthrow as yet another US-fomented “colored revolution,” the latest move on the…

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