Ukraine: Progress Without Peace

Woman looking at coffins.jpg

Vadim Ghirda/AP Photo

Coffins at the Donetsk morgue of pro-Russian gunmen killed in fighting at the local airport, Donetsk, Ukraine, May 29, 2014

The evening before last weekend’s Ukrainian presidential election, I walked through the park by the university in Kiev and saw what looked like some sort of commotion. In fact, it was a large group of young people salsa dancing. A twenty-three-year-old woman called Valeria told me that she, like many others, would vote for the confectionary billionaire Petro Poroshenko—not because she liked him but because he was the least bad candidate. Her generation, she said, was determined to succeed where the Orange Revolution of 2004 had failed. It’s an argument that seems to have worked for Poroshenko, who won easily with some 55 percent of the vote.

This outcome may seem surprising: Poroshenko had not run for high office before. Nor was he in the forefront of the Maidan revolution against former president Viktor Yanukovych, unlike then-opposition leaders Vitali Klitschko, the boxer turned politician, Oleh Tyahnybok from the nationalist Svoboda party, and Arseniy Yatseniuk, who is now prime minister. But Poroshenko is a familiar face in Ukraine, having served in governments of all stripes, including one under Viktor Yanukovych in 2012 before he fell out with the president. He then became a big supporter of the revolution and the television station he owns gave it much favorable coverage.

However, Poroshenko’s electoral success may be especially owed to an adroit political alliance he made following the flight of Yanukovych in February. At the time, Klitschko wanted to be president and had wide popularity. But after the revolution he seems to have suffered a collapse of self-confidence. “His ambition was greater than his capabilities,” explained a party insider, “and he realized this.” So he made a deal with Poroshenko, who lacked a political party of his own. At the end of March, Klitschko announced he would not run, setting his sights instead on the mayor’s office in Kiev, to which he was duly elected on May 25. He then threw his support and his party infrastructure behind Poroshenko.

With this arrangement, not only did Poroshenko get more than 50 percent of the vote, crossing the threshold needed to avoid a run-off election, but he also soundly defeated his main challenger, Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Orange revolutionary firebrand, prime minister, prisoner under Yanukovych, and oligarch, who trailed a poor second with a mere 13 percent.

Tyahnybok, the Svoboda candidate, meanwhile, performed noticeably poorly, getting less than 2 percent. One reason may have been his attempt to eschew hardcore nationalist positions. When I met him with a group invited by the German Marshall Fund, he actually sounded rather mainstream and dull, though he may say different things to foreigners than to his electorate. Whatever he said to them, though, it clearly failed. Most likely the people who would have voted for him found Oleh Lyashko, the leader of the Radical Party, who picked up 8 percent of the vote, more to their taste. On May 23, for example, Lyashko’s group boasted of having gunned down an official of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic in the official’s office in the little eastern town of Torez.

After the polls closed I went to the Mystetski Arsenal contemporary art gallery, where Poroshenko and Klitschko were celebrating. They were roaming around with dozens of journalists encircling them, stopping every now and again to talk. As Poroshenko’s entourage moved past I asked him what his first move as president would be, and he said he would go to Donbas, the eastern region now plunged into conflict and where the separatist republics have been proclaimed, to talk to people there. “Will you talk to people from the Donetsk Republic?” I asked. At this his face actually creased angrily in an expression of distate, as if I had insulted him personally. No, he said, he had no intention of talking to a “terrorist organization” whose aim was to reduce the region to a state of Somali-like anarchy.

Whether Poroshenko can find people to talk to in Donbas is one question. Another is, What happens next in Kiev? After the Maidan revolution parliament reinstated an older version of the constitution, which means that the president has far less power than before. He cannot appoint the prime minister, for example. The current parliament was elected in 2012 and, since the Maidan revolution and the collapse of Yanukovych’s regime, few regard the deputies as representative any more. So there should be new parliamentary elections. But they may not come as quickly as one might expect.

Many deputies have no interest in dissolving parliament because they would lose access to money and patronage and would likely be swept from office. Poroshenko has also not yet properly “devoured” Klitschko’s party—in the phrase of one insider—and Tymoshenko, fighting back against her image as yesterday’s woman, is believed to be trying to cobble together a new coalition to make her prime minster again, even though she is not a member of parliament. If that happens, it could spell a rerun of the ruinous power struggles that killed the hopes of the Orange revolutionaries.


In the meantime, the east is not waiting for Poroshenko. The day after his election, armed rebels threw down the gauntlet and moved into the airport in Donetsk, where I had flown out of two days earlier. The Ukrainian military responded in one of its strongest showings of force since the conflict began and some forty rebels appear to have been killed. The next day pictures of mounds of their corpses began rippling out over social media.

At the very moment the killing was happening I was talking to a senior security official, discussing why, over the last week, large numbers of Ukrainian fighters had been killed, some of them perhaps as a result of friendly fire. The explanation, he replied, was that, ever since independence in 1991, the army had been so underfunded that almost all the defense budget has gone to (poor) salaries rather than to weapons or training. For their part, the police had become a racketeering organization for their bosses in the regions and in Kiev. For the last twenty-three years, he said, Ukraine had claimed to have “an intelligence service, counter-intelligence and an army, but it was all just a façade.”

Now, because the Ukrainian state is so weak and suffering from post-revolutionary chaos, and because the armed forces are feeble and the police untrustworthy, militias of various sorts are beginning to appear to fight separatist rebels. When I asked the security official who was in charge of the volunteers on the Ukrainian side, he said, bluntly, “nobody.”

Before I left the east last week it became clear to me that the rebels had expected a lot more support than they got—not only from their region but also from Russia, including Russian troops they hoped would be deployed as “peacekeepers.” Now, however, some help is coming in the form of various militias, including from Chechnya.

In Kiev, despite the successful recapture of Donetsk airport, I had the impression that no one really knew how to counter the rebels. A few years back, according to the security official, he and colleagues had written a paper on a possible act of Russian aggression, which they argued could happen after the Sochi Olympics. But, he added, “It was like an intellectual game. In my soul, I did not believe we would fight with Russia.” So, no one made preparations for any such conflict, whatever form it might take.

Poroshenko has his work cut out for him. He needs to end the rebellion in the east, make deals with Ukraine’s powerful oligarchs, fend off a possible threat from Tymoshenko, shore up a sinking economy, and talk to the Kremlin. Tetiana Sylina, a well-known Ukrainian journalist, told me that some people in Kiev are thinking something that they aren’t talking much about in public: rather than fight a civil war, it might be better to let the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk go. It is not an idea that will likely gain traction, not least because the real fear is that after annexing Crimea in March, if Vladimir Putin now succeeds in detaching two more regions of Ukraine, he would be encouraged to go for more. Still, if that is what he has in mind, he may find it hard to control the firestorm he has started.

On May 24 rebel leaders in Donetsk and Luhansk declared they were uniting into the Federal State of Novorossiya, or New Russia. This is the name that Putin has resurrected from the history books and Catherine the Great and filched from people who, until recently were regarded as being on the loony end of Russia’s nationalist movements. Two days later the leader of the Luhansk republic declared war on the leaders of the Donetsk republic, whom he had now decided were traitors. The shame of it all is that this is not a fantasy video game conflict but increasingly a real one, in which more and more people are dying.

Subscribe or give a gift, The New York Review of Books

Give the gift they’ll open all year.

Save 55% off the regular rate and over 75% off the cover price and receive a free 2024 calendar!