Gunfight at the Ukraine Corral

Survival  Blog  04 February 2016

By Elizabeth Pond

2016 promises to be a decisive year for Ukraine. The sudden resignation on 3 February of Economics Minister Aivaras Abromavicius – and the immediate sharp fall of Ukraine’s sovereign bonds – suggest that the showdown is at hand, much sooner than expected.

The country faces a stark choice. Its second civil-society uprising in a decade could dissolve into infighting among oligarchs, as the first one did. Or, with the help of its free-trade and association agreements with the European Union that finally entered into force on 1 January – along with Washington’s newfound interest in diplomatic engagement – it could at last begin to enact the reforms needed to consolidate its fledgling democracy.

The departure of Abromavicius, one of Ukraine’s leading technocrat reformers, was in response to what he said was pressure from Ihor Kononenko, the deputy head of President Petro Poroshenko’s parliamentary faction, to name his own lieutenants as Abromavicius’s deputy and as head of a major state-owned enterprise. The economics minister said in a statement that he had ‘no wish to be a cover for open corruption or puppets under the control of those who want to establish control over state money in the style of the old authorities’.

The key deciders now will be the Ukrainian oligarchs, who have shunned state-building in the past and concentrated instead on funding and controlling the evanescent political parties that operate as clientelistic personal networks. The deciding issue will be the reform of the kleptocracy that remains not just a parasite on governance but, as in Russia, the very driver of post-Soviet systems of neo-feudal governance.

The oligarchs left at the top of the heap after two years of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s undeclared war on Ukraine are President Poroshenko and Dnipropetrovsk baron Ihor Kolomoisky. Poroshenko is the sixth-richest Ukrainian, with an estimated wealth of just under $1 billion, according to Kiev’s Novoye Vremya. From the beginning, he has supported the 2013–14 ‘Euromaidan’ protests against authoritarian rule and their demands for a shift from East Slav fraternity with Russia to a new European identity. He was elected president of embattled Ukraine by 55% in first-round voting in May 2014, when memories of the shooting of a group of protestors known as the ‘Heavenly Hundred’ by the special police of then-president Victor Yanukovich in February, and the disgraced president’s subsequent flight to Russia, were still fresh.

Poroshenko’s rival for power is oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, the second-richest Ukrainian, with an estimated wealth of just under $2bn. He returned from his Swiss residence to become the official governor of his personal stronghold of Dnipropetrovsk just as Putin was completing the annexation of Crimea in March 2014. He was the most lavish benefactor in 2014 of the volunteer militias that held off the vastly better-armed Russian/separatist troops in and near the Donbass until the ragtag Ukrainian army could be reconstituted following its budgetary strangulation under Yanukovich. According to the New York Times, a deal was made at that point promising oligarchs that they could keep their wealth if they remained loyal to Ukraine.

At present, both men are too weak to knock the other out. Poroshenko won their first public duel in March 2015, when he fired Kolomoisky from his political post as Dnipropetrovsk governor after the latter, along with 40 or 50 armed men, burst into the headquarters of the 51% state-owned UkrTransNafta pipeline firm in Kiev to try to reinstate a dismissed CEO who was allied to him. That clash paralleled efforts to bring volunteer militias under the aegis of Ukraine’s official armed forces and helped to establish in the 25-year-young state of Ukraine, at least in principle, the Weberian precept that a state must have a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force.

Their second public brawl was more of a draw. Last October, a 500-man SWAT team detained Hennadiy Korban, Kolomoisky’s deputy in Dnipropetrovsk and head of Kolomoisky’s newly established pro-Ukrainian Dill Party (as distinct from his newly established pro-Russian Renaissance Party). Korban was first jailed on suspicion of kidnapping and embezzlement. He was released three days later, then consigned to house arrest, then to custody in a hospital, where he underwent surgery. Little has been heard about him since. Poroshenko supporters see the detention as a sign of the president’s seriousness about fighting corruption and organised crime. Kolomoisky supporters see it as a political vendetta.

For the sake of Ukraine’s democratic evolution, the relative lull in fighting in the Donbass (Putin dialled down the violence in September, turning his attention to Syria) is good news. This gives Kiev the breathing space to continue with urgently needed economic, administrative and legal reforms. Unlike mainstream Western analysts, who continued to warn for months that the lull in eastern Ukraine was only a tactical trick, the Ukrainians sensed instantly that Putin was finally retreating from his Ukrainian quagmire.

The lowered intensity of fighting is also bad news for democratic prospects, however, as the respite from Russian pressure has freed Poroshenko and Kolomoisky from their two-year compulsion to hang together in order to avoid hanging separately. It has allowed them to resume power struggles in redistributing the assets of declining oligarchs and stiffened their resistance to the uprooting of endemic corruption that might conceivably redound upon themselves.

This shift in atmosphere has triggered fear among reformers that today’s ‘Revolution of Dignity’ might repeat the failure of the pioneering Orange Revolution, the leaders of which, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and President Victor Yushchenko, quarrelled bitterly after attaining power. Their mutual hostility paralysed the government, alienated voters, and delivered the presidency to old-regime Victor Yanukovich in a reasonably fair election in 2010.

The fears of Euromaidan activists are compounded by concern over popular-reform fatigue and the populism that caters to it. MPs from the new Self Reliance party and Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party, among others, are manoeuvring to call a vote of non-confidence in the government and force early parliamentary elections in the spring that would favour their parties. A snap vote only a year and a half after the first post-Yanukovych election would certainly add turmoil and weaken the main parliamentary reform parties, those of President Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Reforms such as hikes in consumer prices (even with offsetting subsidies for Ukraine’s poorest citizens) have reached the point of stirring up the greatest discontent, and public-approval ratings have now sunk to 25% for Poroshenko and 12% (some polls say only 2%) for Yatsenyuk. Meanwhile, a full 70% of Ukrainians think their country’s general situation is getting worse. Even now, Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk are unable to muster the two-thirds parliamentary majority that the constitution requires to approve key decentralisation measures in eastern Ukraine that are needed to keep the German- and French-sponsored ‘Minsk’ peace process on course.

Reformers hope to avert a regression to oligarchic business as usual by getting the West to apply pressure for enforcing last year’s raft of anti-graft legislation and to offer incentives by granting Ukrainians visa-free travel to the EU. This would reprise the EU’s approach to the 11 post-communist Central European states that were eventually permitted to partake of the peace and prosperity of Western Europe’s premier club of nations following the Cold War. To accelerate domestic evolution toward good governance in these countries, Brussels mixed the top-down co-option of local elites with the bottom-up fostering of proto-democratic civil society in what a Swiss-initiated interdisciplinary study has called functional cooperation.

Implementing this reform process in Central Europe was hard enough. Attempting to do so in Ukraine, which has had little exposure to western European democratic culture, and without even offering the lure of eventual EU membership this time around, presents an even greater challenge. Nevertheless, such reform remains a hope of the robust Euromaidan movement spawned by the 2013–14 protests in Kiev.

Indeed, the tacit partnership between the EU and Ukrainian reformers has already begun its work. Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko drums in the message at every opportunity that Ukraine will not attract Western investors unless it cleans up its act. Young MPs in Poroshenko’s party, such as former investigative journalists Mustafa Nayyem and Serhiy Leshchenko, make incriminating documents public to name and shame officials as they find evidence of corruption and political blockage of criminal prosecution and judicial lustration. NGOs such as Kiev’s Centre of Legal and Political Reform press the case for dismissing Chief Prosecutor Viktor Shokin, a holdover from the old regime’s procuracy who was promoted to the top by Poroshenko and who is now seen by many as the main obstacle to investigation and indictments in high-level corruption cases. When reformers like these run into a brick wall, the EU applies conditionality, informing Kiev that the introduction of visa-free travel for Ukrainians to Europe will be postponed until Kiev’s proclaimed anti-corruption drive actually starts putting senior offenders behind bars. American officials such as US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt and Vice President Joe Biden have also joined the fight by exerting public pressure on President Poroshenko to start implementing anti-graft legislation by firing Shokin. On 3 February, 10 ambassadors, among them those of the US, Canada and the EU, signed a bluntly worded public statement saying, ‘We are deeply disappointed by the resignation of … Abromavicius, who has attained true results of reforms in Ukraine’.

So far, this double-pronged campaign has manifestly failed to persuade Poroshenko to replace Shokin, whose influence derives both from the wide competences vested in the chief prosecutor under the patched-up constitution and from Shokin’s personal memory of skeletons in political closets. But Shokin’s tenure, along with the wrestling match between Economics Minister Abromavicius and the Western underwriters of Ukraine’s financial bailout on one side and President Poroshenko and Kolomoisky on the other, pose the most immediate test of what Tomas Fiala, CEO of Kiev’s Dragon Capital, has called Ukraine’s much-needed ‘deoligarchization’.

Having invested so much political and monetary capital into saving Ukraine from Putin’s assault, the EU in particular has a huge stake in the outcome. Besides wielding the stick of conditionality –with the implicit threat that ultimately some tranches of this year’s $40bn of pledged international aid might be held back in case of serious breaches of agreed programmes – the EU will be sending a corps of on-the-ground advisers to Ukraine to help with everything from small-business promotion to political-party formation to rule-of-law basics.

There are no guarantees. Even this massive Western engagement and functional cooperation with Euromaidan activists in building a new, European Ukraine could well get ground down by the stubborn inertia of the country’s kleptocracy. If this happens, the country’s reformers are unlikely to get a third chance to clean up Ukraine’s economy and politics for a very long time.


Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and author. She has contributed several articles to Survival, most recently ‘Will Ukraine Snatch Defeat from the Jaws of Victory?’, in vol. 57, no. 6, December–January 2015, pp. 59–68.

Will Ukraine Snatch Defeat from the Jaws of Victory?

By Elizabeth Pond

(Preprint version of the article in Survival  Dec. 2015/Jan. 2016)

Kiev has won an improbable victory by holding Russia’s military behemoth to a stalemate in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s undeclared war on Ukraine. After a year of intensive shelling during a poorly observed truce in the Donbas, the big guns went silent there on 1 September and have stayed silent ever since.

Yet as the immediate existential threat recedes, the oligarchs who once personally financed the country’s defense seem to be trying to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. They have forgotten their original shock at Moscow’s lightning annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and are reverting to their cozy personal exploitation of Ukraine’s patrimony. This is precisely the kind of dysfunction that Putin is now counting on to make Kiev implode, even as he eases outside pressure by accepting military deadlock in eastern Ukraine and redeploys some combat forces from Ukraine to Syria.

Putin’s hopes to subdue Ukraine by its own collapse are based on the events of the first pro-European revolution on Kiev’s Independence Maidan (Square) a decade ago. A comparison of that Orange Revolution with the 2013/14 Revolution of Dignity is sobering. In the pioneer exercise of street power by Ukraine’s robust civil society in 2004 pro-democracy Maidan demonstrators forced a rerun of rigged elections that would have elevated pro-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych to the presidency. The protesters succeeded in no small part because they were secretly helped by Colonel General Ihor Smeshko, head of the SBU successor to the Soviet KGB in independent Ukraine. Smeshko, whose own family members were demonstrating on the Maidan, enlisted some Ukrainian army support to thwart a bloody crackdown by Interior Ministry forces in the last hour before the planned bloodbath. The demonstrations ended peacefully. Reformist Viktor Yushchenko won the new vote, and reformers constituted a majority in parliament for the first time in Ukraine’s 13 years of independence–only to self-destruct through vicious infighting.

For a time the oligarchs and politicians subordinated their own intranecine feuds and banded together to prevent any Russian installation of Yanukovych as president. The oligarchs–who had acquired their wealth by buying privatised state assets cheaply in sweetheart political deals–were by no means democrats, but their interests lay in keeping the vastly richer Russian energy oligarchs from scooping up their own assets. So acute was their fear that for a few weeks in 2006 most of the wealthiest ones began to negotiate a joint pact in which they would emulate earlier Western robber barons, pay their taxes, and perhaps even become philanthropists to redeem their social debt.

At that point, however, hostility between President Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, his co-leader at Maidan and by then prime minister, was all-consuming. It paralysed the government, halted the metamorphosis of oligarchs into civic benefactors, reinstated backroom crony capitalism, disgusted the public and handed the presidency to Yanukovich in the 2010 election, this time in a fair vote. The moment of transformation was lost. (So was the career of Col. Gen. Smeshko, not because of his clandestine defense of the demonstrators, but because an SBU subordinate was implicated in the poisoning of candidate Yushchenko that had failed to kill him but left him permanently disfigured.)

Too calm after the storm

Today, as Putin suspends his war on Ukraine, a complacency similar to that in the Orange Revolution prevails among oligarchs. In large part, it reflects satisfaction at having called Putin’s bluff last year after a hundred Euromaidan demonstrators were shot and killed by the Berkut Special Police of Ukraine President (and Putin protégé) Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych’s own Party of Regions deserted him after the violence, he fled to Russia, and for months some 80,000 Russian troops exercised on Ukraine’s northern, eastern, and southern borders.

Politically, Ukrainians kept their nerve. Party of Regions parliamentarians voted with the former opposition in the Rada to appoint a new interim president and government. Subsequently, defying the threat on their borders, voters elected and legitimised a new president in May and a new Rada in October 2014. And the elected parliament passed a series of urgently needed reform laws to curb graft, probe the murky energy sector and begin building nascent democratic institutions. Moreover, under Putin’s threat Ukrainians – for the first time in their history – began forging a consensus on a national identity as distinct from Russian and allied instead to European identity.

Militarily, Dnipropetrovsk Governor Ihor Kolomoyskiy and other oligarchs swiftly raised private militias that not only supplemented Ukraine’s ragtag army but bore the brunt of the heaviest fighting against the modern tanks and multiple rocket launchers that Russia pumped over the border into the Don Basin (Donbas). They spearheaded the recovery of land initially lost to the Russian-armed and -led insurgents and by mid-August reduced the self-styled People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk to two besieged pockets. That pushback, on top of Putin’s disappointment over the unexpected failure of Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine to rally to the cause and rebel against Kiev, was too much for the Russian president. In late August, for the first time, he sent elite airborne units into Ukraine in a full (if unacknowledged) invasion; within days these professional soldiers restored half of the territory the insurgents had originally taken and went home again, some of them in Cargo 200 caskets. The message was that Russia would not let its proxies be defeated in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko understood the message and quickly agreed to a 5 September “Minsk” truce brokered by Germany.

The militia battles forced Putin’s hand. He had to decide if he really wanted to pay the costs of escalating from limited “hybrid warfare” by stealthy commandos to full combat–with the rising numbers of dead Russian troops, military overstretch, and proabably years of fighting Ukrainian guerrillas that occupation would entail. The rebels kept edging the frontline west during the year of the poorly observed truce, kilometer by kilometer, and tried for one last major breakthrough in January and February of 2015. Yet the Ukrainian lines basically held. For a few months more Putin continued to talk about his original dream of reconquering “New Russia,” the eastern 40 percent of today’s Ukraine that Catherine the Great had seized from the Ottoman empire in the 18th century. By May he dropped the subject, however, and by the end of August there was a sudden change in leaders among his Donbas proxies that brought the less militant Denis Pushilin to the fore in time to approve the new 1 September 2015 truce. Shortly thereafter Russian negotiators also initialled a deal to resume gas supplies to Ukraine at market prices over the winter months. And Moscow released from jail and returned to Tallinn the Estonian security officer it had kidnapped at gunpoint on Estonian soil a year before, in exchange for a Russian spy.

As provisional peace breaks out, the 1,000 Russian officers and trainers in the Donbas and 50,000 troops still massed just over the Russian border no longer seem menacing to Kiev. Corruption as usual has resumed, if with fewer pots of state gold to plunder. The will to root out corruption and implement tough reform of Ukraine’s post-Soviet kleptocracy is ebbing proportionately. Implementation of the crucial political and legal reforms that President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk began is stalling.

Clearly, all the oligarchs who are now working primarily within the new Euromaidan ecosphere are currently focused on a dog-eat-dog fight for redistribution of the Ukrainian assets of those who are still sulking or equivocating–primarily ex-President Viktor Yanukovych and his one-time financier, Rinat Akhmetov, whose base in the Donbas iron and coal industry obliges him to balance off Kiev and the Russians who have the final say in separatist territory. So far President Poroshenko has won the most. The latest annual list of the country’s wealthiest oligarchs published by the Ukrainian magazine Novoye Vremya shows that he was the only one to get richer rather than poorer over
the past year. His assets rose 20% to bring him up to $979 million and sixth place on the list, behind Central Ukraine baron Ihor Kolomoyskyi (down 17% to $1.9 billion, for second place) and Akhmetov (down 56% over last year, but still in first place with $4.7bn).

Under the circumstances, is Putin right in anticipating a second Ukrainian implosion that he can exploit? Or are the Euromaidan idealists right in thinking they can avoid the Orange Revolution trap this time around?

Power struggles

In politics, the main power struggle pits the two oligarchs who were the earliest friends of Euromaidan–President Poroshenko and Central Ukraine grandee Kolomoyskyi–against each other. Second-tier oligarch Petro Poroshenko, the “Chocolate King,” helped fund the Euromaidan movement from its inception in 2013, was elected Ukrainian president in May 2014, and has been building up a wide presidential party ever since. Triple Ukrainian-Israeli-Cypriot citizen Ihor Kolomoyskyi returned to Ukraine from Switzerland to become Governor of Dnipropetrovsk under the interim Ukrainian government in March 2014. The two had a public clash last March, when the government fired Kolomoyskyi lieutenants as managers of the state-owned oil and gas monopolies and Kolomoyskiyi sent well-armed men to the firm’s Kiev headquarters in an unsuccessful attempt to reinstate them. Poroshenko took a risk and managed–barely–to fire Kolomoyskyi as Dnipropetrovsk governor without triggering serious repercussions. In October Kolomoyskyi took his revenge at the ballot box, when his candidates for mayors of the three largest cities outside of Kiev–Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv, and Odesa–looked likely to win, as of this writing.

When Kolomoyskyi’s mayoral candidate in Kiev was then suddenly detained before the run-off vote in mid-November by criminal investigators on suspicion of embezzlement and kidnapping, critics of Poroshenko accused him of playing politics with the prosecution office. Poroshenko described the arrest instead as just the ‘start’ of the anti-corruption fight. This rivalry and the corollary vendettas among Akhmetov, member of parliament Yulia Tymoshenko, titanium and fertiliser magnate Dmytro Firtash, and others seem not yet to have the venom of those during the Orange Revolution, but a comparable flare-up cannot be ruled out.

On the other hand, the younger Ukrainians who have now grown up in an independent country and take its existence as a given–and do not want the deaths of their fellow “heavenly hundred” to have been in vain–bring a new determination to their struggle for a more open society and polity. Mustafa Nayyem, the ethnic Afghan and investigative reporter who started the Euromaidan protest in 2013, along with a core of two dozen other activists, won seats in the present Rada, cooperate across party lines, and keep up the pressure for democratic reform and resistance to backsliding into the old crony system. They are conscientious about writing reform legislation. They use the weapon of naming and shaming liberally–and they are inventive in seeking allies in the West who can ferret out proof of Ukrainian money-laundering in British and German and Cypriot banks and give them the documents to confront culprits and urge them to contribute their wealth to Ukraine if they don’t wish to be taken to court.

In addition, the increased scrutiny of Ukraine by European partners that will accompany the coming into force of the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement on 1 January 2016 should help Ukrainian anti-corruption activists. Already German, Polish, and other advisers are assisting various ministries–and gaining insights into the modus operandi of mid-level bureaucrats who conduct many of the routine bribe operations. They will be additional eyes and ears for the young Ukrainians who have come back after studying and working in the West with enough savings to take senior ministry posts and still support themselves on the low salaries paid to officials.

Second time lucky?

One final difference between today and a decade ago that offers hope of a better outcome from the second Maidan revolution than from the first is structural. Kharkiv University political scientist Oleksandr Fisun thinks that this time around, Euromaidan has already made Ukraine’s political system “more democratic and transparent” through its “civic activism, the absence of a dominant party of power, and improved competition among power centers.” For the first time, “Ukraine’s patrimonial politics are paradoxically contributing to the institutionalization of political pluralism, via a series of formal and informal power-sharing arrangements between the major Euromaidan players.”

Thus, President Poroshenko’s agreement of cooperation with Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk in April 2014, which was blessed by “Yanukovych semi-insiders” like oligarchs Dmytro Firtash and Serhiy Lyovochkin, helped to “marginalize the political avant-garde of the Euromaidan [right] radicals, Svoboda,” and also paved the way “to secure support from moderate factions of Yanukovych’s former Party of Regions,” like those around Borys Kolesnikov, the eastern Ukrainian Opposition Bloc’s shadow prime minister and former secretary of the presidium of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.

Fisun calls this evolving system “neopatrimonial democracy, in which rent seeking remains the key driver of politics. Multiple patron-client oligarchic networks compete through formal electoral mechanisms, but their primary goals still focus on capturing positions to control sources of rents.”

If Professor Fisun is right, this neopatrimonial democracy might eventually lead, in conjunction with the current anti-corruption drive and with decentralization on the highly successful Polish pattern, to real political parties instead of today’s patron-client clans devoid of policy content. The parties might begin to aggregate and define the real interests of their constituents and then find fair compromises with other constituencies. They might even capitalize on the new Ukrainian identity that Vladimir Putin has bestowed on them by war to reconcile western and eastern Ukraine politically.

The immediate test of whether the oligarchs, having shuffled a few chairs, can now simply reconstitute with impunity their old rent-seeking empires with scant regard for the public weal will be the fate of the government’s balleyhooed reforms. The Rada took the first essential step to political reform in the wake of Yanukovych’s flight by revoking the super-presidential system of the new Yanukovych constitution and returning to the earlier constitution balancing the prerogatives of president and premier. And the Rada has passed more market and anti-corruption legislation in the past year than in the previous two decades of Ukraine’s independence.

Yet implementation is sluggish, especially in rule-of-law and corruption issues. The most glaring example of malfunction of the hyped anti-corruption drive is probably the retention of Viktor Shokin as chief prosecutor despite his conspicuous failure to bring any high-level graft indictments to court so far. With undiplomatic bluntness, US Ambassador to Ukraine Pyatt warned his Ukrainian friends recently that ‘Corruption kills…Ukraine can, and must, address the problem of corruption now…Rather than supporting Ukraine’s reforms and working to root out corruption, corrupt actors within the Prosecutor General’s office are making things worse by openly and aggressively undermining reform. In defiance of Ukraine’s leaders, these bad actors regularly hinder efforts to investigate and prosecute corrupt officials within the prosecutor general’s office.’

The man who has the authority to remove Shokin, but has not done so, is President Petro Poroshenko.

Ambassador Pyatt might have, but did not, conclude his speech by saying that if Ukrainians don’t get it right this time, they are unlikely to get a third Maidan chance for at least another decade.

Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and author.


The Version of Record of this manuscript has been published and is available in Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, vol. 57 no. 6 | December 2015–January 2016 | pp. 59–68

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00396338.2015.1116148

A Useful Stalemate in Ukraine

IISS Survival Blogpost     04 August 2015

By Elizabeth Pond

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s undeclared war on once-fraternal Ukraine has destroyed Moscow’s influence on Kiev, forged genuine Ukrainian identity in resistance and ended in a roughly stable stalemate in the eastern 3% of Ukraine that Russia now controls. However bitter that stalemate is to Putin, to Ukraine, and to the West, the least bad option may now be to prolong gridlock while diminishing casualties in Ukraine’s Donbas coal region.

This could lock into place Putin’s tacit admission of the rising costs of his misadventure, Kiev’s tacit cession of half of Donbas to Moscow and the West’s tacit adaptation of twentieth-century containment of the Soviet Union to twenty-first-century containment of revisionist post-Soviet Russia.

All three players have sought to limit the conflict on their own terms. Ukrainians have always had the inherently limited goal of defence. Putin started his war of choice confident that – in a theatre where Russia enjoys escalation dominance – he could restore the historical predominance of Russians over their Ukrainian ‘younger brothers’ in an operation that would be limited by the quick triumph of his own strong will over the hesitant West’s war fatigue. The West, which has scant geopolitical interest in Ukraine, has given Kiev moral support but has conspicuously restricted its military aid to a minimum in order to avert retaliatory Russian escalation up the chain to, as Putin has threatened, potential use of nuclear weapons.

At the same time, all the players have established their red lines. A year ago, when Ukraine’s ragtag army and start-up militias gathered strength and came close to defeating Putin’s proxy separatists in Donbas, Putin sent Russian airborne troops into battle (while denying that any Russian soldiers were there). They broke the Ukrainian siege in a matter of days and signalled that Putin would not allow his local proxies to lose. Kiev understood the message and initiated the first Minsk truce, but maintained its own red line in keeping Donbas de jure part of Ukraine.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel set out the West’s red line that Russia’s violation of international law and seven decades of peace in the European heartland was unacceptable. NATO mounted modest military exercises in the member states Putin was threatening – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland – and announced plans to preposition heavy weapons there. Yet in Ukraine itself the West skirted the risk of triggering Russian escalation by avoiding direct military engagement and instead imposing financial sanctions on Russia to raise the long-term costs of Moscow’s forcible land grabs.

Stalemate in Donbas is now testing these red lines. Harbingers suggest that President Putin may be the actor who feels the most pressure in finally beginning to admit to himself the damage to Russia from his misjudgements in Ukraine.

He first squandered his initial total influence over Ukraine by prodding his protégé, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, to rout pro-European demonstrators at ‘Euromaidan’ by violence that turned protesters into martyrs. He annexed Crimea, believing that German businessmen were too dependent on Russian oil and trade for Europe to resist this breach of international law. He then proclaimed a crusade to take over the eastern third of today’s Ukraine, expecting Russian speakers there to rise up against Kiev and expecting the paltry Ukrainian armed forces to disintegrate before Russia’s military behemoth.

He miscalculated. Chancellor Merkel led Germany and the whole European Union to join the US in imposing the sanctions that, together with low oil prices, are already pushing Russia into a major recession this year. Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine never rebelled en masse. The Ukrainian army and militias, despite being vastly outgunned, proved to be formidable fighters and raised the spectre for Moscow of the quagmire of a long guerrilla war. And Putin’s war resuscitated NATO and turned ever wider circles of apolitical Ukrainians against Russia.

In the face of these serial tactical defeats Putin is now displaying less ardour for the fight in Ukraine. Lately he has seemed bored with Donbas and exasperated by the feuding criminals and mercenaries who are his separatist proxies there. He is conspicuously not moving to annex that war-ravaged rustbelt. He no longer speaks of ‘Novorossiya’, Catherine the Great’s term for the part of Ukraine he was claiming. He reportedly sent his top Ukraine adviser, Vladislav Surkov, to the Donbas last month to tell the separatists to stop murdering each other and to cool their zeal for launching a new offensive. He has not repeated recently his earlier threats to escalate confrontation up to the nuclear level. He has been at great pains to hide the deaths of the Russian soldiers he swears are not in Ukraine from their wives and mothers.

By now there are rumblings of Russian military overstretch, concerns about a revival of anti-Russian rebellion in the North Caucasus through veterans returning from Ukraine, and worry about illegal weapons flowing into Russia across the Donbas border. And despite Western fears of an imminent Russian attack on Ukraine this summer, the 50,000-plus Russian troops massed on and over Ukraine’s eastern border have so far done little more than join in the relatively low-level shelling across the Donbas truce line.

Does Putin’s softer line hide from the West Moscow’s preparation for a new assault in Ukraine? Or do Putin’s build-up of troops on Ukraine’s borders and menacing military exercises with nuclear-capable aircraft in the region hide from rabid Russian nationalists (as they suspect) a quiet retreat from belligerence by the Russian president? It’s hard to tell.

Enshrining stalemate in a formal or informal agreement would by no means ensure a lasting peace in Ukraine. But it could at least reduce casualties and provide some measure of whether the strategic patience Chancellor Merkel has counselled from the beginning is finally dulling Putin’s hubris. And it could give Kiev the space to get on with its Sisyphean efforts to rescue the moribund economy, reduce corruption, sideline Ukraine’s nastier oligarchs, and harness the private militias that have saved the country.

http://www.iiss.org/en/politics%20and%20strategy/blogsections/2015-932e/august-c020/a-useful-stalemate-in-ukraine-467f


Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and author. She has contributed several articles to Survival, most recently ‘Serbia Reinvents Itself’, in Survival, vol. 55, no. 4, August–September 2013, pp. 7–30.

Harbingers of Transformation

A few bright spots on Europe’s troubled periphery

Berlin Policy Journal, German Council on Foreign Relations   April 7, 2015

by Elizabeth Pond

Even as the future of the European Union’s neighborhood remains under threat, a few developments on the EU periphery – in Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia – show that civil society and rule of law are making inroads in post-Communist kleptocracies.

For once there is some good news from the politically challenged periphery of the European Union. Chalk it up to nascent democracy, womanpower, and, believe it or not, the enduring attraction of joining the EU family.

In Ukraine, as the initial shock of Russia’s attack last year faded in memory, oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky tried to return to business as usual and grab new state assets. After his private protection squad recently took over the head office of the huge Ukrnafta oil and gas concern in Kiev, however, he was sacked by the central government from his post as the governor of Dnipropetrovsk province. In Romania – a nation renowned for graft – the highest serving official to be investigated for corruption in the past quarter century, Finance Minister Darius Valcov, actually resigned. And in Serbia, for the first time since ethnic Serbs massacred some 8000 unarmed Bosnian Muslim boys and men in Srebrenica in 1995, police arrested suspected Serb perpetrators of Europe’s worst atrocity in half a century for trial in Serbian courts.

Dangers still abound, of course. Russian President Vladimir Putin continues his nuclear saber-rattling. There are widespread fears that he may end the current fragile truce in eastern Ukraine when the spring mud hardens and overpower the outgunned Ukrainian army and militia defenders to seize more territory, and the crackdown on Kolomoisky has not stopped the greater menace that Vienna-based oligarch Dmytro Firtash poses to the Kiev government, as he wields influence by funding parties and politicians in Ukraine and in German-speaking Europe. In Romania, the political system there remains largely populated by unreformed members of the old pre-1989 Communist Party, who have formed a kaleidoscope of cozy clientelist parties. And in Serbia, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic still says that Serbia will never recognize the 2008 independence of Serbia’s one-time province of Kosovo, while the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights reports that respect for human rights deteriorated in Serbia in 2014.

Nonetheless, taming Ukraine’s oligarchs, putting previously immune Romanian officials on trial, and finally bringing Serb suspects in the genocide at Srebrenica to justice in Serbia’s own courts all mark turning points.

In Ukraine, the trigger to Kolomoisky’s fall from grace was neither the opening move of a coup, as widely reported, nor a repetition of the internecine feuding of the political winners of the earlier Orange Revolution. It was instead a backsliding to the oligarchs’ snatch-what-you-can reflex on the part of a billionaire who is skillful at murky deals but also feels some sense of civic responsibility. He tried to prolong his previous low-cost control of Ukrnafta, which he had maintained as a minority shareholder by blocking corporate meetings under an old sweetheart law requiring a quorum of 60 percent of shareholders. When Ukraine’s reformist Rada changed the law to a 50-percent-plus quorum, Kolomoisky sent his protection squad into Ukrnafta headquarters, allegedly to prevent a Russian raid. His quick dismissal from the Dnipropetrovsk governorship warned other oligarchs that undue political influence really is being curtailed – and that they would do well to emulate America’s 19th-century barons, support the rule of law to protect their new wealth, pay their taxes, and become philanthropists.

Everyone agrees that the oligarchs must be coopted into the new Ukrainian system if it is going to succeed, and Kolomoisky had himself already started to evolve in this direction. He contributed handsomely to construction of the world’s largest Jewish community center, which opened in Dnipropetrovsk in 2012 and quickly became a cultural magnet for the entire city.  After Russia attacked Ukraine a year ago, he returned from his homes in Switzerland and Israel to become governor of the key province of Dnipropetrovsk in central Ukraine, where he personally paid and equipped volunteer militias that helped hold the line against pro-Russian incursions from eastern Ukraine last summer. His downfall came when he wanted to keep his favored position in both his civic and tycoon worlds – and his disciplining will continue as all volunteer militias are gradually brought under army command.

Moreover, a number of the civil society watchdogs who ignited last year’s “Revolution of Dignity” – learning by doing as they camped out in Kiev’s “Euromaidan” square for three months and organized seminars on good governance and writing legislation – now hold seats in parliament alongside oligarchs. They are continuing their crusade inside elected institutions.

In Romania, even as a post-Soviet kleptocracy took root in the quarter century since the end of the Cold War, it was women who bucked the hierarchy and kept a fledgling anti-graft movement alive. Human-rights activist Monica Macovei was appointed justice minister in the three years before Romania was admitted to EU membership in 2007, survived death threats, and managed to improve the country’s human-rights protection sufficiently to meet the minimum EU legal standard. Laura Codruta Kovesi, Chief Prosecutor of the National Anti-Corruption Directorate since 2013, won 90 percent of her indictments last year, convicting a former prime minister, five parliamentarians, 24 mayors, and 1,108 others. Romania’s women lawyers are now fully backed by Klaus Iohannis, a straight shooter from Romania’s tiny ethnic German minority who was elected president in a surprise upset last November. In order to allow the government to work without suspicion, Iohannis persuaded Finance Minister Valcov to resign last week while he is investigated on charges of accepting a two million-euro kickback for the award of a public works contract. This is a common precaution when senior officials come under investigation in northern EU member states, but not in Romania. Other senior politicians are already becoming more circumspect, especially since surveys show that the 55 percent of the electorate who supported Iohannis last November has now swelled to some 75 percent who approve of his fight against graft.

In Serbia it is the female human-rights activists, male prosecutors, and Brussels eurocrats who have worked together for transformation. Sonja Biserko founded the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Belgrade and railed against Great Serb hubris. Natasa Kandic founded the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade and in 2005 broadcast a secret selfie video made by the Serb paramilitary Scorpions as they murdered six unarmed Bosniak boys and men from Srebrenica in 1995. The women braved death threats from compatriots who deemed them traitors to Serbdom. So did the unpopular male prosecutors who pursued Serb war crimes perpetrators.

Political pragmatism finally took hold as Aleksandar Vucic – who started his career as a wunderkind acolyte of strongman Slobodan Milosevic –quit Serbia’s most chauvinist party, won a decisive election, and, as prime minister reached an EU-brokered partial accommodation with Kosovo in 2013. This was the price demanded by Brussels for starting negotiations with Belgrade on Serbia’s coveted accession to the European Union. Today, twenty years after the Srebrenica massacre, Serb prosecutors are finally able to arrest Srebrenica suspects for trial in Serbian courts without igniting riots.

These are all harbingers of a healthy evolution in the region.


ELIZABETH POND, a Berlin-based journalist, has covered Ukraine and Eastern Europe for the past 30 years. She is the author of The Rebirth of Europe and Endgame in the Balkans.

Harbingers of Transformation

Debunking an urban myth

By Elizabeth Pond

It’s time to debunk the lingering urban myths that Germany has resisted imposing sanctions on Russia over its undeclared war on Ukraine and might once again desert the West in a flirtation with Russia. True, Chancellor Angela Merkel favors smart sanctions over blunt sanctions and is trying to negotiate with Russia a deescalation of the violence in Ukraine that has already killed more than 5000. But that’s empowerment, not opposition.

Moreover, her broader record in maximizing the West’s very weak opening Ukraine hand is impressive. At the start of the crisis, she told parliament bluntly that Russia’s land grab of its weak neighbor’s territory was unacceptable in a Europe that has finally turned a blood-soaked continent, in a “miraculous” evolution, into a zone of peace. Together with the United States, she sensibly rejected putting Western boots on the ground in a theater where Russian President Vladimir Putin enjoys overwhelming military dominance and parades his will to use it. As a surrogate counter to Russian aggression, then, she and the West as a whole gambled on pitting their soft power of long-term financial might against Russia’s hard power of short-term military muscle.

Berlin and Washington stressed that the West must stay united in the crisis and agreed to resolve tactical differences pragmatically, by writing separate but overlapping lists of sanction targets and coordinating them. America’s list was widely advertised by Congressmen as seeking to punish Putin and make him feel pain–and was also intended, Russian officials trumpeted, to force regime change on Moscow. Merkel’s list of targets was specifically aimed at deterrence of future aggression in Ukraine and–unlike the American list–was set to expire after one year unless it was renewed.

The up-front activism of the Christian Democratic chancellor, whose native style personifies leading from behind, met with skepticism in the US, in Europe, and certainly in Russia. Western critics thought that the Social Democratic foreign minister in her right-left grand coalition, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, would never cross his political mentor and Merkel’s predecessor as chancellor, Gerhard Schröder. Schröder famously once praised Putin as a “flawless democrat,” accepted a lucrative Russia-paid job as head of the shareholders’ committee of Gazprom’s Nordstream pipeline the instant he retired from politics–and never publicly challenged Moscow’s violations of international law.

Yet on this issue Steinmeier declared his emancipation from his former boss. He repeatedly condemned Russia’s Crimea snatch as resolutely as Merkel did. And within his party’s Bundestag caucus he weaned most of the left wing away from their nostalgia for the grand deal that never transpired in the days before 2012, when hope persisted that Putin might agree to a more cooperative security partnership with the West in return for investment and technological help in breaking out of Russia’s oil and gas mono-economy.

Even more surprising was Merkel’s success in winning support for financial sanctions, or at least acceptance of them, by the German business lobby that represents some 6000 firms with 300,000 employees who depend on the €77 billion annual trade with Russia. Even though bilateral trade would shrink by 26 percent from August 2013 to August 2014 under the sanctions regime, Merkel persuaded most of the lobby executives that Europe’s security and peace order must trump profits and jobs. She effected this change behind the scenes in private meetings that rarely hit media headlines.

In addition, she quietly provided German guarantees of Ukrainian payments for energy imports from Russia, guarantees which will assuredly be called on. Though no one actually quotes European Central Bank President Mario Draghi’s famous words in calming the eurocrisis, Germany is now prepared to pay “whatever it takes” to rescue Ukraine’s dysfunctional economy–if, and only if, the Ukrainian government cleans up the kleptocracy.

Armed with Germany’s own example of tolerating economic pain to uphold Europe’s taboo on forcible change of borders, Merkel then exercised similar suasion on her 27 fractious partner states in the European Union. France reluctantly suspended delivery of two contracted Mistral helicopter carriers to Russia. Britain subordinated the commercial interests of London banks and realtors to the common weal, even if it did continue to export weapons to Russia. Hungary, despite its vaunted turn to Russia (before the ruble plummeted), chose not to be the odd man out. Merkel delivered the required unanimous EU agreement to impose three rounds of sanctions on Putin’s wealthy inner circle as the Russians annexed Crimea.

The one constituency that Merkel did not court personally was the public. Nonetheless, her actions–and the bloodcurdling shooting down of the MH 17 airliner over separatist territory with a Russian Buk missile in July–triggered a public debate that has transformed popular German views of Russia. Last April 49 percent favored a neutral German role as a mediator between the United States and Russia. By December 76 percent mistrusted Russia and 54 percent approved sanctions.

Apart from the issue of sanctions, Germany’s assumption of geopolitical leadership of Europe for the first time since 1945 was most apparent in the diplomatic art of shifting the context of the confrontation over Ukraine in the West’s favor. In effect, President Barack Obama, fully occupied with crises elsewhere in the world–and exasperated that Europeans still remained free riders in security long after the EU had become richer than the US–outsourced the diplomacy to Merkel. This made sense; what to Obama seemed to be a pesky peripheral interest was a vital interest for states in the immediate European neighborhood. Moreover, Merkel was the one Western leader who could still communicate with the Russian president, in part because she speaks Russian from her East German schooldays, in part because Germany has been Russia’s best friend in the West ever since Moscow withdrew its 20 Soviet divisions from (East) German soil after almost half a century and permitted peaceful reunification of the two German states. Berlin, without gloating, let the troops retreat in dignity then and continued to treat Moscow with dignity thereafter.

The diplomacy was especially tricky because Putin’s improvisation to recover from successive setbacks made him unpredictable, while his reflex resort to the two tools he understood, armed coercion and outrageous spin, made him dangerous. Rational appeals that he was destroying the very social contract that had hitherto built his domestic popularity–restoring order after Russia’s initial Wild East capitalism and raising living standards for the urban middle class in return for abstinence from challenging his soft authoritarianism–fell on deaf ears.

At base, despite all his macho bluster, Putin’s annexation of Crimea was an angry reaction to his loss of control of all of Ukraine after he allegedly prodded his acolyte, then Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, into authorizing Berkut police snipers to kill some hundred pro-Europe demonstrators in Kiev in early 2014. The counterproductive brutality shocked Yanukovych’s own party into deserting him, accelerated the formation of a distinct Ukrainian identity in opposition to Russian coercion, and voided Putin’s entire pet Eurasian Union project by immunizing East Slav Ukraine against joining and legitimizing it. Yanukovych and his family fled to Russian exile with, according to Anders Aslund of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, some $8 billion.

The most urgent challenge to Western diplomacy after Russia incorporated Crimea was to help Ukraine and its parliament-appointed interim government survive during the chaos following Yanukovych’s flight. The neophyte government was in disarray. The neglected and underfunded Ukrainian army seemed useless, and was in any case still stationed on Ukraine’s western border in a deployment pattern inherited from Soviet times. The Ukrainian security services were still heavily laced with Russian commanders. Putin had just resurrected Catherine the Great’s 18th-century name of Novorossiya for what is now the eastern half of Ukraine and laid down a historical claim to it. In the name of New Russia, Russian-armed and -led separatists were beginning to seize administrative buildings in eastern Ukraine, where Putin hoped to ignite a general uprising of Russian-speakers against the Kiev government. Some 80,000 Russian troops on high alert were conducting continuous maneuvers and feinting invasions of Ukraine on an arc to the north, east, and south of Ukraine.

Putin was on a roll, convinced that the Russian capacity for suffering far surpassed that of the effete West. His popularity soared to the mid-eighties in a chauvinist surge. He had acquired Crimea cost-free, as the outgunned Ukrainian army had not resisted the takeover, and as yet there were no dead Russian soldiers. He had lied serially to Merkel, most blatantly in denying any Russian involvement in the armed destabilization of eastern Ukraine. She no longer trusted him to implement any agreed deals.

In dozens of phonecalls with Putin beginning in early March, Merkel, like Obama, offered to help save face for the Russian president if he would get “off ramp” and not further dismember Ukraine. If he did not change his policy, she warned him, Russian oligarchs would face financial sanctions. He shouldn’t delude himself into thinking that German tycoons would thwart them.Yes, the sanctions would hurt the German economy, but this time corporate Germany too would give priority to raison d’état.

In this environment Germany initiated Geneva peace talks in mid-April to deescalate the violence. This achieved two of Berlin’s aims. The immediate goal was to get Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to negotiate directly with his Ukrainian counterpart Andriy Deshchytsia (in the protective presence of the American Secretary of State and the EU foreign policy chief) and thus acknowledge the Ukrainian foreign minister’s legitimacy as his interlocutor. The mid-term goal was to keep Russia talking instead of shooting during the month of greatest Ukrainian vulnerability before new votes would begin to confer legitimacy on an elected president and government. Ironically, this more important purpose was realized at least in part because Putin apparently thought the Kiev government and the likely presidential winner, the Europe-oriented chocolate oligarch Petro Poroshenko, were so weak and manipulable that he could gain the prize of Novorossiya without having to fight for it, on the pattern of his Crimean conquest.

American hardliners judged the outcome of the Geneva accord harshly and criticized the Germans for agreeing to delay the next tranche of tougher EU sanctions for a few days (while also criticizing Obama for allegedly showing too much deference to transatlantic unity in the Ukraine crisis). European critics too accused Germans of appeasement and false moral equivalence in inviting Russia to a negotiation about the future of its victim Ukraine. Subsequently, Steinmeier felt obliged to use a budget speech in the Bundestag to refute those who saw German policies as “appeasement and are quick to make [false] comparisons” with Neville Chamberlain’s concessions to Hitler in 1938.

In the event, the Russian army did not attack in the window when in purely military terms it could have sliced through to Kiev, as Putin later boasted, in two days. The ragtag Ukrainian army, after starting a disastrous counteroffensive to retake territory held by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s two easternmost oblasts, had time to regroup. Poroshenko was elected president by a clear majority in the first vote, without needing a runoff, on May 25. The delay before a resurgence of heavy fighting gave both Ukrainian and Russian speakers in the self-styled Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east enough exposure to arbitrary rule by the motley teams of Russian proxies (and their failure to pay out the promised higher pensions) to sour on them. The inhabitants of Novorossiya did not rally to the pro-Russian cause as Putin had expected and thus confronted him with a second shrinkage of his influence in Ukraine to only Crimea and the Donbas of Donetsk and Luhansk. The Ukrainian army, purged of at least some of its Russian agents, resumed the counteroffensive in tandem with volunteer militias and by August pushed back the Russian proxies to two Donbas enclaves and prepared for the coup de grace.

At that point Putin drew his red line in the sand. He would not let his proxies be defeated. Still denying that any Russian regulars were fighting in Ukraine, he sent elite paratroopers to Ukraine in his first direct invasion of his fellow East Slav neighbor. In a few devastating days the 7000 combined Russian troops in the country overran at least five of Ukraine’s 15 brigades and rendered them combat ineffective, according to the Potomac Foundation. Poroshenko understood the message and quickly agreed to a truce on September 5. Berlin saw to it that the pact, while confirming a new front line that left pro-Russian forces in control of half of Donetsk and Luhansk, nonetheless contained provisions that could eventually form the basis for a semi-permanent ceasefire. These included a buffer zone free of heavy weapons and closure of the porous Ukrainian-Russian border to further flows of Russian tanks, artillery, and military personnel under the oversight of the revived Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. By extension, the truce defined the preconditions for easing financial sanctions. The Germans had also seen to it that the original EU sanctions were organized in packages that could be varied to calibrate signalling to Russia without requiring fresh authorization from the EU Council for each decision.

Since then, in flexible small fora–sometimes in the “Normandy format” of Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France, sometimes in the “contact group” of Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE , sometimes in such ad hoc groups as Germany, France, and Poland or Ukraine, Russia, the EU, and the US–Berlin has continued to lead the diplomatic probes for a more stable ceasefire.

By the time Black Tuesday hit in mid-December, the ruble dropped to half its value of a year earlier, capital flight from Russia reached an annual $130 billion, GDP headed for a fall of over four percent in 2015, and Western investment in Russia dried up, Putin stopped scorning the sanctions as a pinprick. By aggravating the impact of the drop in oil price to $60 a barrel, the West’s sanctions began to bite a year earlier than advocates had expected. Even Putin, perhaps, now has to reconsider the forces his belligerence has unleashed. These include not only an accelerated rush by Ukrainians to drop an East Slav for a European Ukrainian identity, but also Russian domestic disapproval of sending Russian boys to get killed in Ukraine, as voiced by mothers and widows of the dead Russian soldiers, that are buried secretly by the army. They include as well potential renewed Chechen insurgency and sly distancing from Moscow by Belarus’s Aleksandr Lukashenko and Kazakhstan’s Nursultan A. Nazarbayev. A hint that the Russian president may be doing some rethinking could perhaps be found in pragmatic Russian-Ukrainian deals on energy and humanitarian aid for civilians in the Donbas over the winter and what seems to be a decision to leave the region as formally still part of Ukraine rather than annexing it to Russia.

If this narrative is a correct reading of events, why then does the myth of German resistance to sanctions–and suspicion of a looming repetition of German defection from Western liberalism–persist?

For four reasons, perhaps. The first is that Merkel’s leading from behind of her grand coalition, the pro-Russian German business lobby, and the EU operated so smoothly that the evolution of Berlin’s Ukraine policy seemed to happen automatically. With no Sturm und Drang, Merkel’s low-key campaign drew few headlines.

The second, related reason is a widespread misunderstanding by outsiders of how foreign policy is shaped in Germany and a tendency to conflate opinion polls and TV talk shows with real policy. Foreign policy actually remains an elite affair that is resolved within a notably stable centrist consensus.

The third reason is a widespread misunderstanding by outsiders both of the process of forging common policy within an EU of 28 members and of Berlin’s special role in forming a consensus that gets beyond a lowest common denominator to real evolution. Germany regularly helps by digging into its deep pockets, of course. But at its best, as a true believer in the European dream of integration, Germany also helps build consensus by lending a sympathetic ear to the smallest as well as the biggest members and formulating ways to blend varied interests. Greeks would surely object to this description, but Norwegian and Polish think tankers speak of Germany as Europe’s indispensable nation. German Foreign Ministry State Secretary Markus Ederer describes Berlin’s unique role as the CFO–the Chief Facilitating Officer–of the European Union.

Finally, the fourth reason might be a kind of historical determinism in the recurring fear–even 70 years after 1945 and the deep repudiation of Hitler’s crimes by today’s citizens–that the Germans could again succumb to their old anti-Western and anti-liberal temptations. Suspicions of a German-Russian flirtation, suggests one senior Scandinavian government analyst, were fed by “the extraordinary denial of the danger that Putin presents that was propagated so loudly by so many outspoken Germans in the security field” right up to the shock of the Russian takeover of Crimea in March 2014. By now evidence to support such worries is hard to find.

On the contrary, it looks so far as if well-coordinated Western sanctions, the Ukrainian armed forces’ feisty defense of the homeland, and Angela Merkel’s patient diplomacy have combined to produce a least-worst outcome that no optimist could have dreamed of when Putin annexed Crimea one year ago.

The short form of this essay was published in Foreign Affairs, vol. 94, no. 2 (March/April 2015) under the headline : Germany’s Real Role in the Ukraine Crisis

http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/143033/elizabeth-pond-and-hans-kundnai/germanys-real-role-in-the-ukraine-crisis

Truce At Last?

The fighting seems to be dying down in eastern Ukraine. This would mean “advantage Kiev.”

Elizabeth Pond

There are growing signs that twelve months after the first Minsk agreement was signed, an armistice is taking hold in eastern Ukraine. It would be no victory for Vladimir Putin in Moscow’s undeclared hybrid war, though. Rather, it seems the Kremlin has lowered its goals.

bpj_online_pond_ukraine_truce_cut

© REUTERS/Kazbek Basaev

The biggest surprise in Ukraine this month is the dog that didn’t bark. In the first week of September not a single Ukrainian soldier was killed in the Ukrainian-Russian battleground in the eastern tip of Ukraine – and the big guns have now been silent there for two weeks. The combined Russian and local rebel forces “still violate [the year-long] ceasefire up to ten times a day” in skirmishes, says Andriy Lysenko, Ukraine’s presidential defense spokesman, but they have stopped shelling the Ukrainian lines with heavy weapons.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak calls this reprieve “the lowest number of shootings over the past year-and-a-half” in Russia’s undeclared war on Ukraine. It follows twelve months in which heavily armed Russian/rebel forces, breaching the Minsk agreements of September 2014 and February 2015, have driven Ukrainian troops out of pockets along the truce line in bloody firefights and made incremental gains – but have not been able to break through Ukrainian defenses in any major offensive. Even NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, after a summer in which NATO generals were expecting a new Russian attack at any moment, admits that “so far it looks like the ceasefire is now more respected than it has been for a long time.”

Could a fortnight of unwonted quiet presage a solution to what Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London Lawrence Freedman describes as a crucial conundrum in the fluid post-superpower world: how to convert a military deadlock into a stable political settlement? (For German efforts to bring this about see Berlin Policy Journal’s interview with Markus Ederer, State Secretary at the German Foreign Office.)

The judicious answer to the question would be No to any formal agreement ending Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 17-month war on Ukraine – but Yes to the second-best of a stable truce with only low-level violence. Only the boldest of commentators, Ulrich Speck, goes so far as to assert that Putin is now shifting his focus to Syria because he finally sees his neighborhood war as counterproductive in pushing Russia’s fellow East Slavs in Ukraine to embrace an unprecedented Western identity – and he cannot reverse this shift “without a major war.

What the relative quiet in eastern Ukraine does not mean – pace analysts who lament this supposed Russian victory in mainstream American media like the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal – is that Russian president Vladimir Putin has won his war. On the contrary, Putin has long since given up his expectation that eastern Ukrainians would rise up against Kiev if only they were nudged into revolt by Russian special forces infiltrated into the region – and that such rebellion would lead to the “return” of Catherine the Great’s 18th-century “New Russia” territory to Moscow. In this light the Russian president’s continued saber-rattling toward Ukraine now looks less like a real threat than a mimicry of threat to maintain his macho domestic image.

The clearest measures of Putin’s lowered goals are the conspicuous absence of that long-awaited offensive in the optimal summertime by up to 24,000 Russian regular troops already in the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine and 50,000 Russian troops massed in nearby Russia – along with the squabbling among Russia’s proxy rebels in the Donbass. Both fall and spring are bad times to attack because the seasonal muddy “roadlessness” of rural Russia and Ukraine is treacherous for heavy tanks. Moreover, it appears that Moscow is now damping down the militancy of its unruly Donbass proxies by demoting hardliners and promoting those who favor political over military conquest of Ukraine.

Western analysts who regard continuing deadlock as a victory for Putin’s “hybrid war” argue that Moscow is creating another “frozen conflict” and could manipulate the Donbass at will to sabotage the Kiev government, on the pattern of the quarter-century-old “frozen conflicts” in Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. Yet now that Putin has single-handedly consolidated a newfound national identity in Ukraine by attacking it, his army would have to occupy the whole country in order to control it. The half-measures of deniable hybrid warfare – Russian officials still claim, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, that there are no Russian regulars in Ukraine – have shown their limits.

The biggest deterrent to overt occupation is the prohibitively high costs, as Putin seems to be acknowledging for the first time in his new-found restraint. These include the rising numbers of dead Russian soldiers; the prospect of a quagmire of guerrilla warfare in Ukraine itself; military overstretch and a shortage of Russian troops for other contingencies in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and abroad; increasing Western financial sanctions; and consequent domestic economic degeneration.

To outsiders, the deaths of anonymous Russian soldiers in Ukraine might not appear to be a real disincentive to belligerence for a ruler who enjoys almost 90 percent popularity, exercises vast power over domestic media, and has jailed the few political dissidents who have dared to cross him. Nor would it seem possible that the West’s long-term financial sanctions could have damaged Russia’s economy so fast.

Yet in retrospect Western analysts credit the casualties of Russian soldiers in Afghanistan with Moscow’s withdrawal of those troops in the 1980s. The extraordinary buildup of the ragtag Ukrainian army of early 2014 to a force that almost routed Putin’s Donbass proxies a year ago and were themselves routed only by the first invasion of Ukraine by Russian regulars in August 2014 is another deterrent to Putin. So is the measured Western response to Russian belligerence in giving small-unit military training to Ukrainian troops and conducting joint military exercises in the Baltic and Black Seas – while refraining from sending “lethal” weapons to Ukraine. These moves have signaled NATO’s determination to defend alliance members and to give Kiev help for self-help without escalating the war in a dramatic gesture that would prompt Putin to trump the escalation.

The upshot is that by now the Donbass stalemate – or “exhaustion”, as Freedman terms it – is actually beginning to look like something of a victory by default for Ukraine. As the attacker, Moscow loses if it does not seize any more of the Ukrainian territory Putin has claimed for Russia. As the defender, all Kiev has to do is to maintain the stalemate. Freedman suggests that at this point “Russia might be more vulnerable to exhaustion than Ukraine…. The longer the conflict continues along the current path, the more time Ukraine has to reform its military and economy and deal with corruption.”

By contrast, time is no longer on Putin’s side. The trick will be to “prepare for the point at which the most exhausted side can slide away from its previous stance under the cover of implementing an established agreement.” In this case, that would of course be the much-maligned Minsk agreements.

Elizabeth Pond, a Berlin-based journalist, has covered Ukraine and Eastern Europe for the past 30 years. She is the author of “The Rebirth of Europe” and “Endgame in the Balkans.”


This is the longer version of the blog at

http://berlinpolicyjournal.com/truce-at-last/

The Waiting Game

Berlin Policy Journal 12 June 2015

By Elizabeth Pond

No, the West has not (yet) lost Ukraine in Vladimir Putin’s Russian roulette, and the fragile Minsk truce and Western sanctions on Moscow over its land grab in Ukraine have not failed.

A more nuanced reading of the current state of affairs in the Ukraine crisis would stress that we are still in a waiting game in Russia’s undeclared war on Ukraine–but there is evolution in its terms. The Obama administration has recently reengaged directly with Russian president Putin after more than a year of minimal contact (and Russian media are spinning this as proof that the United States finally sees it must restore good relations with world-power Russia and dump unimportant Ukraine). The West, while still refusing to give lethal weapons to Kiev to counter the lethal weapons that Russia is pouring into rebel eastern Ukraine, has begun cautious training of Ukrainian troops and is sharing more battlefield intelligence with Kiev. And the West, including Japan, showed unexpected unity at last weekend’s G-7 summit in threatening to adopt even tougher sanctions if the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine fail to adhere fully to the “Minsk agreements“–meaning both the stricter original ceasefire of last September and its more lax implementation deal in February of this year.

In the European Union German Chancellor Angela Merkel has successfully nailed any easing of EU financial sanctions on Russia this year to Moscow’s and the separatists’ full implementation of the Minsk accords. In Moscow Russian President Putin has revealed, by curbing some hothead separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas –and even managing to drop his vaunted campaign to wrest all of the “Novorossiya east of Ukraine away from Kiev without sparking any Russian backlash–that he has not after all loosed nationalist demons that he can no longer control.

All told, Russian mathematician and Putin critic Andrey Piontkovsky detects a “new toughening of the West’s position.” It has decided that it “must stop Putin in Ukraine by non-military means” today to prevent having to use military means tomorrow to defend Baltic members of NATO against Russian incursions.

This will confront Putin with a choice, Piontkovsky concludes, between “political death as someone who will be held responsible for corruption, responsible for the downing of [Malaysia] airliner [flight 17] and a mass of other unattractive affairs or be the fighting leader of ‘the Russian world’ who throws a challenge to the entire West.”

In this changing environment the asymmetrical waiting that Kyiv, Moscow, Berlin, and Washington are currently practicing might best be summarized as follows.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is braced for a “full-scale invasion” by Russia from the estimated 9000 heavily-armed Russian troops inside Ukraine’s Donbas and 50,000 massed just over the Russian border. He expects a Russian/separatist attempt to seize more Ukrainian land at any moment, probably starting with an offensive like last week’s 12-hour battle in which a Russian/separatist attack on Maryinka, despite the truce, tried (but failed) to dislodge Ukrainian defenders.

The biggest potential spoiler of Poroshenko’s hopes to defend Ukraine is that contingent of 59,000 Russian soldiers in and near the Donbas. Last summer Ukrainian forces came close to routing eastern separatists that at the time were only thinly buttressed by Russian regulars and officers. Putin therefore showed he would not tolerate defeat of his proxies by sending elite Russian airborne troops into Ukraine in late August to repulse the Ukrainians in one short week. Since then he has steadily funneled ever more Russian T-72 main battle tanks, multiple rocket launchers, artillery, and armor over the border into Ukraine, while rotating Russian troops and generals in and out of the Donbas in varying numbers. Poroshenko realistically acknowledged Russia’s vast military superiority and Putin’s red line by immediately agreeing to the first Minsk truce of September 5. The barely disguised Russian forces in the Donbas–despite all the OSCE monitoring, photo, Facebook, and electronic evidence, Putin still denies flatly that any Russian forces are there–are now poised either for mere intimidation or for a blitzkrieg, should Putin so decide.

President Putin, according to German Kremlin-watchers, is expecting the Ukrainian government to collapse from its own–to use Soviet-speak–“contradictions.” He rightly sees Kiev’s basket-case economy as far worse off than Russia’s. He also expects fratricidal instincts among Ukrainian oligarchs and politicians to grow in a repetition of the meltdown of the government elected after the first pro-European Maidan protests in the 2004 Orange Revolution. He might therefore just prefer to wait for the Kiev government to fall instead of launching an offensive that would surely increase combat deaths among those Russian soldiers who supposedly aren’t in Ukraine, and whose deaths Putin is at pains to hide from their mothers and wives.

Moreover, the Russian president expects that the Europeans will soon feel Ukraine fatigue and ease their sanctions–much as he (wrongly) expected the Russophile German business lobby to block imposition of sanctions after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and as he (wrongly) expected Ukraine’s chaotic interim government and provisional president Poroshenko to fail before Poroshenko’s first-ballot election to his post a year ago. He could very well make the same decision he made in spring of 2014, when he mobilized some 80,000 troops on high alert for a month on Ukraine’s north, east, and south, but then chose to forego invasion for the cheaper alternative of letting Ukraine, as he (wrongly) anticipated, self-destruct.

Potential spoilers of Putin’s hopes to win by waiting are Merkel’s ability so far to hold the 28 EU members together on unanimous sanctions; Russia’s growing financial losses under the sanctions, which are hurting Russia’s economy faster than any of the sanctions’ authors dreamed possible; and Ukraine’s surprising resilience in the 15 months of Russia’s war.

Chancellor Merkel, as the leader of Western diplomacy in the Ukraine crisis, has always played the long game in the Ukraine crisis. Last year she succeeded in offsetting the West’s utter military absence in Russia’s neighborhood–and the West’s public refusal to put it own boots on the ground of non-ally Ukraine–by orchestrating a deescalation of violence in the initial September 5 Minsk truce. This averted any dangerous spiral of escalation that Russia would always win in its own environs. For her the truce was never an end in itself, but a search for a tacit equilibrium at a lowered level of violence. This first equilibrium held uneasily for four months, until the Russian/separatist forces resumed an offensive in January that captured a ring of towns and villages on the Ukrainian side of the 400-kilometer truce line. At that point Merkel and Poroshenko sued Putin for a new equilibrium in the February “Minsk-2” implementation that tacitly recognized the new Russian gains.

Merkel still hopes that the longer the West can confine Putin and his separatist protégés to a quasi-frozen conflict in the war-ravaged seven percent of Ukrainian territory that Moscow controls in the Donbas, the sooner Putin will be compelled to see the economic, international, and even domestic costs to Russia of his bullying of Ukraine. She has always offered to help the Russian president save face if he reverses his aggression, and she continues to do so, even if face-saving has become ever harder as he has narrowed his own options by reflexive resort to enhanced violence in response to setbacks.

The greatest potential spoiler to Merkel’s scenario of restoring heartland Europe’s seven-decade peace order, then, is Vladimir Putin’s 19th-century fixation on national military greatness.

For his part, President Barack Obama is pairing his reluctant direct reengagement with Russia with conspicuous NATO exercises to reassure Poland and Baltic NATO members of their collective security under the alliance’s Article 5 pledge and with steadily increasing non-lethal military support to Ukraine. And the administration is floating the ideas of modifying the missile defense it is now building in Europe against any Iranian nuclear breakout to target Russian missiles too–and possibly even returning intermediate-range nuclear-capable missiles to Europe on British bases.

The greatest potential spoiler of American hopes for Ukraine is perhaps distraction by all the other world crises and by the all-consuming 2016 presidential campaign that has already started.

At this point all are waiting to see what the key player of Vladimir Putin will do next. In this confrontation, Andrey Piontkovsky concludes that emotionally, Putin will indeed be drawn to play the role of “the fighting leader of ‘the Russian world’ who throws a challenge to the entire West.” But Piontkovsky senses that some of his entourage may finally be starting to think that his “political death” might be a preferable alternative.


A version of this blog was published by the Berlin Policy Journal on 12 June 2015 at

http://berlinpolicyjournal.com/the-waiting-game/