Kyiv Again

Have spent a most engaging four days in the Ukrainian capital. Went out today to Межигір’я, the residence of overthrown President Yanukovich. Just remarkable. I’ll try to muster substantially more photos in time from the road, as we’ll be leaving tomorrow. Межигір’я, meaning something like between the hills, is a tribute to excess.

President Yanukovich lived at Межигір’я on his official salary of 800 Hryvna/month, about $1000 at pre-revolution rates, while upkeep of the grounds ran closer to $4 million/month.

Ukrainian folks have been most engaging. I’m sorry to leave.

Kyiv

The first time we visited Kyiv was in the month of March. There’s quite a difference in summer. Here are just a few low-res snapshots from day one. No post-production, no links to larger versions yet, just a few random shots from walking around town.

Dollars? Euros? Rubles?

The Maidan Square looks lovely at night.

At Maidan Square.

St. Sophia’s Church. Parts of it date from 11th century, most from 18th.

St. Sophia’s Church detail.

The Maidan.

Along the Dnieper River.

Pedestrian bridge across the Dnieper.

Friendship of Nations arch, from 1982, Soviet era.

Behind the lucky couple, St. Michaels Monastery. Unlike St. Sophia, which is a museum piece, St. Michael’s holds services.

And the exterior of St. Sophia.

Friday Photo #13, Kyiv

Most all of us grew up with the Russian spelling, “Kiev,” but in solidarity with a Ukraine under fire, let us recognize that “Kyiv” is how it’s spelled in Ukrainian, and use that spelling. Here we have a service at St. Michael’s Cathedral, on a hill above the Maidan, in March, 2013. In Photoshop, I’ve tried to make it look like an old oil painting. Click it to enlarge.

FridayPhotoKyiv

There are more photos from Kyiv and Odessa in the Ukraine Gallery at EarthPhotos.com, and here are the rest of the Friday Photos. A good weekend to you!

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

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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.

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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.

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

Ukraine: What to Do Now

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War Museum, Kyiv

Eleven weeks after Viktor Yanukovich fled Kyiv the stakes for Ukraine, and geopolitics, are clear. A set of shrewd western responses may or may not keep Ukraine whole. More broadly, the international norms of state sovereignty and territorial integrity are under assault, and will come undone at the world’s peril.

Russia seeks to dismember Ukraine using a unique, hybrid strategy that just might work. If the U.S. leads from behind, Russians in eastern Ukraine lead from the shadows, cloaking thuggish revanchism in the language of human rights and self-determination.

Ukraine’s inability to govern itself, every single dreary day since independence, is its original sin, and the pending election between the “gas princess” and the “chocolate king” doesn’t hold out much prospect for progress. When Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorsky says “I think Ukraine is paying the price of 20 years of strategic illusions of being able to be neutral and of not paying enough attention to their security sector,” you can almost see his lips mouthing “raving, criminal incompetence.”

In a virtual tie for second biggest problem, Russian perfidy leads European ambivalence  by percentage points. Who do you favor to pull into the lead in this race? The authoritarian, deniable mystery troops, or the herd of 28 finicky EU cats led from behind by you-know-who?

Russia’s advocates (including top-notch liberal columnists) argue that the expansion of NATO and the failure of the West to find a role for Russia in Europe, especially during the humiliating years of post-Soviet economic collapse, bred a resentment in Moscow that manifests in the Putin of today.

It doesn’t hold up. Russia is a charter member of the OSCE (even as its proxies in Slavyansk held OSCE observers for a week). It joined the Council of Europe in 1996. From 1998 until the present crisis Russia was a member of the G-8. The Russia–NATO council was created in 2002 at Russia’s request, and Russia joined the WTO in August 2012.

Participation in these clubs hasn’t promoted Russian integration into Europe because Russia’s priority is not integration with Europe. The real cause of Russia’s behavior, Jan Techau argues, “is its archaic understanding of what constitutes a sovereign nation….”

Techau writes, “Moscow could never accept a structure that gave Luxembourg or Portugal, Georgia or Poland the same legal rights as Russia.” European organizations just aren’t Russia’s style.

Let’s be clear: Russian disinformation notwithstanding, the Maidan was no Pravy Sektor-inspired Nazi uprising. With a generation and counting lost to corruption, at long last Ukrainians young and old rose up and said, enough. That is what happened.

When Russia calls the interim government in Kyiv illegitimate, recall that the country was left in its current predicament when the Kleptocrat-in-Chief Mr. Yanukovich fled under cover of night. To Russia.

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