Prokudin-Gorsky. Malorossiya, c.1905-1915.
In the 24 hours since the results of the second round of the Ukrainian Presidential elections became known, there has been a strange convergence of views on Ukraine’s course under President-Elect Zelensky from opposite sides of the barricades. Many “svidomy” Ukrainians are in tears over their “hoodwinked” or “stupid” compatriots electing a “clown” and Putler puppet as President. Meanwhile, a significant number of “Russophile” commenters – for once, not just Westerners, but even Russian nationalists – are besides themselves with glee, portraying this as a “rejection of the Maidan” and “anti-Russian hysteria.” This idea that the Dark Lord of the Kremlin has just subverted yet another plucky little democracy is also a major, if not dominant, theme in current discussions on large Western forums such as /r/worldnews.
As it so happens, all of these people are almost certainly wrong. Let’s recap some facts about Zelensky that I am sure will be rather inconvenient for all of these people:
- He is sponsored by Kolomoysky, a self-styled “Zhidobandera” (Jewish Banderist). He is the main sponsor of Dnepropetrovsk-based Right Sector, which played a key role in putting down pro-Russian rebellions in East Ukraine during 2014. He is also closely associated with hardline Dnepropetrovsk mayor Boris Filatov, whose proposed solution to the separatist problem is to “give the bastards all sorts of promises, guarantees, and concessions… And then hang them.”
- He is also supported by Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, the Kharkov-based sponsor of the far right Azov Batallion.
- He donated one million grivnas of his own earnings to the ATO.
- In the debates, he has stated that he supports Poroshenko’s work on building up the Ukrainian military, anti-Russian language laws, and his schismatic church. He said he would continue those policies, but with less stealing.
- His proposed Defense Minister, Ivan Aparshin, is staunchly pro-NATO, and his main beef with Poroshenko was his haplessness on military corruption. Many other members of his team are Maidan activists, including foreigns from the Baltics and Georgia, who were sidelined after the Maidan or left on account of disillusionment over continuing failures to tackle corruption.
- He has come out against autonomy for the Donbass, and against amnesty for the rebels. This effectively translates into repudiating Minsk II, just like Poroshenko. He has also ruled out against speaking to the rebels directly, and even wants to remove Viktor Medvedchuk – a politician with close ties to Putin who now plays a key role as a liaison between the Kremlin and the Bankova – from any negotiations.
- Moreover, he has stated he wants to expand the current Normandy Format to also include the UK and the USA, those well known epicenters of Russophile sentiment in the West.
- He intends to start paying out pensions to the Donbass again. While one can interpret this as an attempt at reconciliation, it is more logical – given the above – to interpret it as a statement that the Ukraine really is serious about getting those territories back. Many Ukrainian nationalists from Lvov don’t really view the Donbass as a core or integral part of the Ukraine; indeed, many of them are willing to accept cutting it off entirely as the price of consolidating their nation-state. Ukrainian nationalists from Dnepropetrovsk, the center of gravity of Zelensky’s support, do not share that outlook.
- “There are doubtless heroes. Stepan Bandera is a hero for a certain percentage of Ukrainians, and that’s perfectly cool and normal. He is one of the people who defended Ukraine’s freedom.“
Now just to be clear, I am not saying that Zelensky will be a “svidomy”, anti-Russian ideologue. He certainly cares much less for “culture war” issues such as Bandera, and soon after the Maidan, he even criticized the practice of banning Russian performers from the Ukraine. I allow that much of the above – especially the parts relevant to Donbass – are more campaign rhetoric than policy. There will now probably (hopefully) be fewer statues of Russian generals and statesmen getting toppled (generals who played a key role in opening up Novorossiya to Ukrainian settlement in the first place), there will be fewer gratuitous restrictions on the Russian language (most of which are not enforced), there will probably (hopefully) be fewer stupid, sovok-svidomy laws banning most of the Russian Internet (even if the Ukraine seems to be too incompetent to actually enforce them).
All I am saying is that the facts do not warrant getting ones hopes up about any imminent Russo-Ukrainian reconciliation.
Why? Because even if I am wildly wrong on all this, and Zelensky really is a hardcore Russophile in real life – as opposed to just in Poroshenko’s PR – there are a whole series of structural factors that will hamper any such efforts.
First, despite a few tentative signs of improvement, Russia and the Russian vector is much less popular in the Ukraine now than it was before 2014.
These elections showed that the pre-elections polls were very accurate. According to those polls, Poroshenko would have lost to any of the major opposition candidates, with the sole exception of… Yury Boyko. Now Boyko is a classic representative of the old Party of Regions (now Opposition Bloc), complete with the pre-elections flight to Moscow to ask for lower gas prices. Between Boyko and Vilkul – the latter is an Akhmetov-sponsored spoiler to ensure that Boyko wouldn’t make it into the second round in Poroshenko’s stead – this “Blue” or “sovok” faction gained 15% of the votes in the first round*. For comparison, the division was around 50/50 before 2014. Moreover, Boyko was the only major politician projected to lose in a head to head against Poroshenko, while anybody else was projected to win with handsome margins. So even a “classic” Party of Regions-style candidate would have lost to an extremely unpopular politician who jacked up gas prices and failed to do anything about corruption while reading the hoi polloi lectures about “Army. Faith. Language”, multiplying his wealth many times over, and sending family members gallivanting around London.
Legend: Ukrainian attitudes towards Russia [blue]; Russian attitudes towards Ukraine [orange]
As I have previously explained in rather exhaustive detail, this is part of a general “westwards” shift on the Ukrainian political compass. This shift occured as a result of both demographic change – the loss of Crimea and the most pro-Russian, urban part of the already Russophile Donbass; and of social change – Ukrainian anger over Russia stoking civil war in their lands, or outright “invading” them (opinions differ). The combined effect equals an approximately one standard deviation decline in “Russophile” sentiment. Before 2014, Ukrainians were 50/50 on joining EU vs. Eurasian Union, ~85% against joining NATO. Now the EU is vastly more popular, while opinion on NATO is 50/50.
Now on the Ukrainian political compass, Zelensky is a centrist; neither a svidomy, not a sovok (as was the old division). But as per above, that “center” has moved much further west after 2014, as Kiev became like Galicia used to be, Dnepropetrovsk became like Kiev used to be, and Kharkov/Odessa became like Dnepropetrovsk used to be. Zelensky, in this situation, is as centrist as can be – for instance, whereas the “svidomy” late Poroshenko enshrined the goal of NATO membership in the Constitution, Zelensky now promises a referendum on the matter. A hypothetical “centrist” Ukrainian President would not be raising that issue at all before 2014.
Second, there are long-standing structural factors ensuring that Ukrainian politicians – even those that campaign on a pro-Russian platform – rapidly drift west relative to their constituents. That is because the Ukrainian elites are much more Western-orientated than the proles – adjusting for geography (the famous west-east Russophile gradient), and for age structure (younger people are more pro-Western), both pro-Western and Ukrainian nationalist sentiments increase with education**. Even a large percentage of Party of Regions elites (if not rank and file voters) are Westernizers. And the oligarchs, of course, hold their offshore accounts in Western jurisdictions. This means westwards drift in the wake of any election.
Third, Zelensky’s political capital is meager, only appearing large in relation to Poroshenko’s trainwreck. Ukrainian voters will soon realize he is not a miracle worker who will defeat corruption in a day, actualize their “tyscha v den'” (1,000 grivna per day, or 1,000 Euros per month), and end the war on Ukraine’s terms while forcing Russia to cough up reparations. So his ratings will start plummeting like those of all previous Ukrainian leaders. One area of particular concern is Kolomoysky, who has – in an event of impeccable timing – just won a series of court cases that allow him to stop contributing surety payments towards financing PrivatBank, which was nationalized by the Ukrainian state to save it from bankruptcy in December 2016. Apart from the direct effects of allowing PrivatBank to collapse, it also threatens an immediate cutoff of almost $4 billion worth of IMF funding. And come the end of this year, Nord Stream II is projected to come online, which will annul the great bulk of Kiev’s $3 billion worth of annual gas transit revenue. These are serious sums for a state with a nominal GDP of not much more than $124 billion.
Now I am not saying that the Ukraine necessarily faces a serious fiscal-debt crisis. I am expressly not one of those people who have predicted all ten of Ukraine’s zero collapses in the past half decade. However, what it does mean is that the Ukraine should not count on any extra cash coming in, so the austerity that killed Poroshenko’s popularity will have to continue for the indefinite future (just one day in, Zelensky has already poured cold water on his more rosy-eyed supporters by rejecting any decreases in utilities tariffs). Neither the Ukrainian deep state nor the oligarchs (insofar as they are even separate) are interested in a genuine anti-corruption campaign, and both hardcore svidomy nationalists and the military establishment view him with suspicion (the General Staff Tweeted an implicit condemnation of him after he called the LDNR forces “rebels”, instead of the politically correct “terrorists”). There are vested interests in keeping the Donbass War gig alive – neither hot, nor frozen – as it enriches many people through contraband, kickbacks on supply contracts, etc.
It is hard to see how Georgian libertarians, reactivated Maidan activists, and promises to legalize weed and gambling can be competitive with entrenched oligarchs, suspicious siloviks, and an electorate subjected to indefinite austerity. Once Zelensky’s approval rate begins to plummet, his position becomes precaurious and his options on pursuing any radically new policies with respect to Russia will dwindle.
Finally, there is also, of course, the banal fact that even though there is scant evidence that Zelensky is Putin’s stooge in any sane definition of the word, the association has still been made. This make provoke a similar dynamic to what happened with President Trump after the 2016 US elections, who was forced to pursue a much harder line than he wanted to as a candidate on Russia just to “prove” that he was not beholden to the Kremlin.
In my previous post on the future of Russia-Ukrainian relations, I posited a “Georgization” of Ukraine’s relations with Russia:
However, I think it is reasonable to posit that – all else equal, and with no drastic developments (e.g. a Democratic President in the US that has it out for Russia and starts to energetically lobby for Ukraine’s NATO membership, like George W. Bush in his second term) – that Ukraine’s course and social attitudes will converge to some point between those of Moldova and Georgia. This means the resumption of normal economic relations between Russia and the Ukraine, and direct flights between Moscow and Kiev. However, the victory of pro-Russian forces in the Ukraine has been ruled out for the foreseeable future, it will be consistently voting with the Western Powers at the UN, and deepening its security integration with NATO and EU structures as the opportunity presents itself.
This is still a possible – and, of course, positive – scenario.
For instance, Igor Ivanov, the head of a prominent foreign relations thinktank RIAC, has just written an article in Kommersant by (summarized in English here) in which he argues that the Ukraine crisis has effectively blocked productive relations between Russia and the West for the past half decade, to the detriment of both. One of his suggestions is to form a high-level Contact Group, as was the case in Bosnia. It even suggests expansion of the Normandy Format to include the US. This would be a stepping stone to discussion of “broader issues of European security architecture,” which is “indispensable for a complete resolution of the Ukraine crisis.”
That said, I don’t know how much pull (if any) these people – mostly systemic liberals who want reconciliation with the West – have within the Presidential Administration.
So far, I would make a couple of perhaps more germane observations. First, Putin has yet to congratulate or even to recognize Zelinsky as the winner of the elections (he took a month to recognize Poroshenko in 2014, whereas Yanukovych was congratulated and recognized after a couple of days). Zhirinovsky has even suggested that the disenfranchisement of Ukrainian voters in Russia could be used as a pretext not to recognize Zelinsky at all. Second, as I have mentioned, there have been rumors of mass giveouts of Russian passports in the Donbass since early this year; rumors which have just recently made their way into the Ukrainian media. This would effectively complete the LDNR’s Transnistrianization. Considering their current status of legal limbo, and the political impracticality of shoving them back into Ukraine unconditionally, this would also be the humanitarian thing to do.
In any case, today’s report in Komsomskaya Pravda suggests that no final decisions have yet been taking, and that the kremlins are now waiting for Zelensky to clarify his contradictory statements on the Donbass (i.e. promising to end the war, but rejecting autonomy and amnesty). One of the key questions going forward: Was Zelensky serious about ignoring Minsk II, or was it just campaign rhetoric?
* Speculative alternate history path of victory for Poroshenko: Get somebody with a similar cool/populist profile to Zelensky to run as well, and split his vote (e.g. Vakarchuk); don’t rig the vote in Donetsk, and allow the Ukrainians in Russia to vote, propelling Boyko just ahead of Tymoshenko; beat Boyko in the second round.
** Incidentally, as I have pointed out, the latter correlation in particular is very unusual in the modern world, though it was common in the age of European nationalism during the late 19th century.