What Next For Ukraine?
They've got a new President, but there's still much to do.
In the wake of Petro Poroshenko’s decisive victory in the Ukrainian Presidential elections yesterday, observers have moved on to the question of what happens next in a region that has been the center of crisis for the past several months. For his part, Poroshenko is saying that his priorities will include restoring order to the eastern regions of the country and repairing the nation’s damaged relationship with Russia:
KIEV, Ukraine — The president-elect of Ukraine, Petro O. Poroshenko, vowed on Monday to restore order in the country’s east, which is besieged by pro-Russian separatist violence, but said he would not negotiate with armed rebels and instead would demand swifter results from a military campaign that has achieved only limited success.
While Mr. Poroshenko has said that he would push for parliamentary elections before the end of the year, on Monday he said he saw no reason for the removal of Prime Minister Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk and other leaders of the interim government, which has been running Ukraine since the toppling of President Viktor F. Yanukovych in February.
Mr. Poroshenko also promised to mend ties with the Kremlin, citing his business connections to Russia as well as his personal relationship with President Vladimir V. Putin, who has promised to respect the Ukrainian election results.
“Most probably the meeting with the Russian leadership will certainly take place in the first half of July,” Mr. Poroshenko said at a Kiev news conference. “We should be very ready tactically in approach to this meeting, because first we should create an agenda, we should prepare documents, so that it will not be just to shake hands.”
He added: “Because Mr. Putin and I know each other quite well, and I think this will lead to very important results. People in the east are waiting for these results.”
Mr. Poroshenko, a pro-European billionaire, is a veteran of Ukrainian politics, having served as Parliament speaker, foreign minister and trade minister. He made his fortune in chocolate, but now also owns businesses in many other sectors, including a television station, as well as in shipping, agriculture and automobiles.
At the news conference on Monday, Mr. Poroshenko said that he would now sell all of his assets except the television station, Channel 5.
Regarding the crackdown on the eastern rebels, Mr. Poroshenko said: “It has to take a shorter period of time. It has to be more effective. Subdivisions and units have to be better equipped. They must have modern weaponry, the best ammunition.”
Using the abbreviation for “antiterror operation,” the Kiev government’s term for the crackdown, he also said: “The A.T.O. cannot and will not last two or three months. It must and will last hours.”
Mr. Poroshenko said that economic development and job creation were critical to restoring order. “The level of unemployment,” he said, “pushes people to participate in these actions, and we must create conditions for people to return to jobs.”
By some accounts, Poroshenko may be well suited to accomplishing the goals that he has set out for himself. On the economic side, his ties to Europe are likely to be helpful in attracting foreign investment that has been scared away by recent events. His experience in government could give him the skills necessary to navigate what seems as though it will be a fracturous political situation in Kiev. Most importantly, though, it seems as though the Russians in general, and Putin in particular, consider Poroshenko to be someone that they can deal with. Had the nationalists done been in this election, the prospects for a resolution with Russia would, most likely, not be good at all. With Poroshenko, though, it at least appears that there might be a chance that the situation in the east can calm down.
If the initial response to Poroshenko’s victory are any indication, though, he is going to have his work cut out for him. Within hours after the results were announced, a seperatist militia tied to the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” attempted to seize control of the Donetsk airport, which happens to be the largest in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian military launched a counterattack, but the leader of the “Republic” remains defiant:
DONETSK, Ukraine — The prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, a separatist group that controls this eastern region of Ukraine, said on Tuesday that about 50 pro-Russian militiamen had been killed the day before in heavy fighting with Ukrainian forces for control of a crucial airport.
The Ukrainian military conducted a major operation on Monday to take back the airport, which militants had only seized a few hours before. It was the first aggressive move against the fighters and came just one day after a national election in which a Ukrainian billionaire, Petro O. Poroshenko, won in a landslide. Mr. Poroshenko has pledged to take on the separatists, whom he has compared to Somali pirates.
Alexander Borodai, the self-described prime minister, who has been a central player in the motley collection of separatist leaders, said that while the pro-Russian fighters’ casualties were high, so were those of the Ukrainian military.
This is war,” he said. “Our losses are serious. But our opponents losses are not less, and maybe even more.”
Around noon on Tuesday in Donetsk, fighter jets resumed their flights over the airport area and shooting started up again, signaling a renewed push that indicated that the Ukrainian forces did not fully control the area.
The military had issued a warning to separatists on Monday to vacate the airport and attacked them around midday using helicopters and fighter jets when they did not comply.
“Kiev is giving us some kinds of ultimatums,” Mr. Borodai said. “Let them keep giving them.”
Despite all of this, though, Fred Kaplan argues that Poroshenko’s election may just mean the beginning of the end of the Russian-Ukrainian standoff:
Poroshenko seems to be the right man for the times: a billionaire chocolate manufacturer and media mogul who has aspirations of an alliance with the European Union but also huge commercial interests in Russia. He’s a dealer; he’s pragmatic. He recognizes that no Russian leader, least of all Vladimir Putin, will let Ukraine spin entirely out of the Kremlin’s orbit and that, therefore, a healthy Ukraine must pay obeisance to Moscow even while leaning westward.
Putin seems to see things the same way. “We will, by all means, respect the choice of the Ukrainian people and will cooperate with the authorities that come to power as a result of the election,” he told foreign journalists the day before the vote, when polls put Poroshenko in a clear lead.
In eastern Ukraine, the Russian-ethnic separatists are still a source of intense political strain, but Sergei Naryshkin, the speaker of Russia’s parliament and a key Putin loyalist, tweeted that the issue of their status was now an internal Ukrainian problem, adding, “It is Ukrainian society that must find within itself the strength to solve this.” Or, as the New Republic’s Julia Ioffe, put it, Putin “has thrown them all under the bus.”
The liberal protesters of the Maidan movement will be upset when Poroshenko sits down with Putin, but they will have to live with the fact that Moscow has interests in Ukraine—just as the eastern separatists will have to live with the fact that Donetsk will not become a city in Russia. The more these facts are recognized, the greater the chance that this tale might have a good ending.
Of course, many in the West and in Ukraine will disagree on the definition of a “good ending.” If you define it as a free and united Europe, with Ukraine fully embedded in the European Union (and possibly NATO), dream on. Not only does this goal lie years or decades away (if it has any prospects at all), but pushing for it prematurely could spark a violent backlash, the likes of which we’ve been witnessing these past few months. On the other hand, if (like me) you define “good ending” as something resembling the status quo of late 2013, with Ukraine moving slowly and deliberately toward the West while staying anchored in Russia (in recognition of 1,000 years of regional politics), then the election is cause for optimism.
If things do turn out the way that Kaplan foresees, then it strikes me that this would be the best possible resolution of an incredibly difficult problem. As has been discussed numerous times since the beginning of this crisis, the ethnic, religious, and other distinctions between western and eastern Ukraine, and the ties that many in the east have to Russia are real things. Equally real are views that many Russians have toward Ukraine, which is viewed as the birthplace of the Russian nation. Additionally, there’s the fact that Ukraine didn’t really exist as an independent nation until the collapse of the Soviet Union and that its borders were drawn and changed for political reasons, or sometimes just by whim such as when Khrushchev decided to give the Crimean Peninsula to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Taking all of that into account, it was foolish to dismiss the role that these ethnic loyalties play in the east, and the manner in which Putin has been able to exploit them is an apt demonstration of their power with a large segment of the population. Given all of that, the idea that Ukraine is going to immediately turn to the east and leave its ties to Russia behind displays a certain level of historical ignorance that we Americans seem to specialize in when looking at the rest of the world. As Kaplan says, at some point Ukraine is likely to become a more western nation but that is going to be a gradual process and it’s going to have to happen under circumstances that all the parties involved can accept. If Poroshenko can start the process of getting Ukraine back on that road then he will be successful.