Ukraine and Russia. How We Got Here. What’s Next?

maidan

Before the invasion of Crimea, the European Union followed a policy of benign neglect toward its former Soviet neighbors Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine and the states in the south Caucasus. It did so through modest funding of its so-called Eastern Partnership. Happy to help, but don’t expect us to go out of our way.

The idea seemed to be that spending some obscure foreign policy money wouldn’t cost much relatively, while at the same time EU states could claim they were engaged. EU leadership knew their modest investment wouldn’t bring its former Soviet neighbor countries up to EU standards, but they reckoned they might discourage Russia in the Bloodlands. With their hands full during the Euro crisis, EU states essentially did the least they could do, in effect ceding to Russia just the thing Russia loudly demands, a tacit sphere of influence.

But after the invasion of Crimea, ten months on from the fall of the Yanukovich government it looks as if President Putin’s impetuous pique at the Maidan uprising may squander just what Russia has long sought.

If the EU can be criticized for half-measures when it comes to winning hearts and minds, so can the Russians. In part because of Russian influence, every day in the more than twenty years since the Berlin Wall fell, citizens of the largest of the former Soviet states, Ukraine, have continued to endure petty, low grade, daily Soviet-style corruption.

Let me give you an example. Our car was once pulled over for speeding on a highway outside Kyiv. Igor, the driver, climbed out into the snow to engage with the traffic cop and when he returned, gave us a lesson in Ukrainian daily life.

He explained that while the fine wasn’t astronomical, about $30, he would have to go to the bank to pay the fee then to the police station to show them he had paid, so slipping the cop some cash would save him a whole day’s pay at work. It was a system, he said, built for bribes.

He knew it and the cop knew it and he didn’t even begrudge the cop, miserably paid and standing outside all day in the snow, because he had a family to feed, too. Endemic, daily petty corruption wears you down.

•••••

Americans hardly noticed when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich cast his lot with Moscow by declining to sign the Ukraine–EU Association Agreement at the Vilnius summit in November, 2013, but Ukrainians were having none of it. They demanded better. Enough was finally enough and Kyiv’s Independence Square, the Maidan, erupted to life.

Twice in ten years events have galvanized the common folk to make a stand on that bitterly cold promenade in central Kyiv. This time they sustained their agitation (even employing a medieval catapult!) right through the long, bitter winter until ultimately Yanukovich fled Kyiv one Saturday in late February, 2014.

On that particular day President Putin kept his host’s grin fixed tightly in place at the Winter Games in Sochi, much as it must have galled him, as the medals were awarded for cross-country skiing, biathlon and Alpine skiing.

But scarcely a week after the closing ceremonies, little green men started appearing on the Crimean peninsula. Using a new, unique brand of organized unpredictability and a complete mastery of media to feed the fog of war, Russia quickly had its way with Crimea.

Months later, official Russia remains angry enough about the Maidan uprising and the expulsion of Yanokovich to foment and maintain the frozen conflict in the region of eastern Ukraine known as Donbas.

Russia has induced three other frozen conflicts, in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are in Georgia, and in a part of Moldova called Transdnistria. In each it rules by mafia-style corruption and extracts tribute.

It is a mystery whether the Russian leadership believes that giving Russia’s criminal networks another place to do business by creating a further mafia statelet in the Donbas is a strategic win. Or is the rot so pervasive in the Kremlin that nothing else comes to mind?

That is an important question since the lawlessness itself has had consequences for Russia. Once its hardware caused the crash of MH17, Russia felt unable to admit its obvious culpability or to offer to make amends. Which is appalling, uncivilized and has done more than anything else to galvanize the Europeans behind sanctions.

As for the future, Dmitri Trenin thinks that the German position on Russia has materially changed and that “(T)he course for Russia’s gradual Europeanization has come to an impasse.” Mark Galeotti believes President Obama should demand more from the Russians than he fears the U.S. may settle for. And there is a new dynamic for the new year, dramatically lower oil prices and their effects on both the Russian and European economies.

We’re off to a new year. Let’s watch and see what happens next.

•••••

See my photos from Kyiv, Chernobyl and Odessa here. This story on Medium here.

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