Ukraine and Russia in 2018 and 2019

Analytics | David R. Marples | 18-12-2018, 05:40

The year 2018 has seen a serious deterioration in Ukraine`s relations with Russia, which were already tense as a result of the war in eastern Ukraine and events in Crimea. On paper, and in the words of Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko, the prospect of a new land war cannot be ruled out in the near future.

How seriously should one take this prognosis? How did the situation deteriorate over the course of the year?

The first point to note is the unpopularity both of the president and the main political parties. Poroshenko came to power following the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014 and defeated his rival Yulia Tymoshenko in a runoff in the second round of the elections. A coalition of parties, including the Poroshenko Bloc and People’s Front, won a majority with the Regions Party absent and the Communists failing to win any seats.

Four years on, Poroshenko’s popularity stands at less than 10%, while that of other figures prominent in 2014, such as Arsenii Yatseniuk, head of the People’s Front, is negligible. Moreover, the leading figure in polls for the 2019 presidential election is Tymoshenko, demonstrating the continuity of the Ukrainian oligarchic elite and the absence of a new generation of candidates. 

As for Parliament, which is subject to a mandatory election in 2019, Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna is leading all polls at between 20 and 22%, with Poroshenko’s ‘Solidarity’ Bloc well behind at between 7.5 and 11%, though still in second place. Voter turnout will likely be low, resembling the 51% turnout in 2014. The loss of the two main cities in the Donbas has removed the most enthusiastic voters from the electorate.

In short, the Ukrainian public has little faith in its politicians, and particularly their failure to end the war in east and eliminate corruption, which continues to pervade all walks of life. The government has responded with a series of seemingly unrelated moves that illustrate the desperation of the ruling circle to remain in place and enhance its popularity. 

Several events highlighted the year.

On March 22, MP Nadiya Savchenko was arrested on suspicion of a plot to attack the Parliament and carry out a coup d’etat. Savchenko had become a national heroine for her defiance against her captors following her arrest by Russia in the Donbas area in 2014. Reportedly, separatist forces feared her as a crack sniper. After her release in 2016 in a prisoner swap, she received the Order of the Gold Star award, and was feted in Ukraine, particularly by both Poroshenko and Tymoshenko. Her arrest in her home country suggested that the Ukrainian leaders had been duped, and that Poroshenko in particular was gullible. His Jack of judgment has been proven also with the defection of former Governor of Odesa Region, Mikeil Saakashvili in 2017. Poroshenko had brought Saakashvili the former president of Georgia, to Ukraine as a reliable reformer and friend.

A second scandal was the bizarre announcement in late May of the death of Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko in Kyiv, alongside a photograph of him lying face downward in a pool of blood. Babchenko has spent most of his career working for the Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and there was international outrage at Vladimir Putin’s Russia, believed by many to be behind his assassination. A day later Babchenko turned up alive and well at a Kyiv press conference, revealing that the Ukrainian secret service SBU had staged the event to draw out his genuine would-be assassins. 

The Babchenko affair overall reflected badly on the Ukrainian authorities, particularly their reputation for reporting honestly, in contrast with Russian agencies, which have used hybrid warfare as a means to pressure opponents and with little regard for truth. 

In late August, leader of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’, Aleksandr Zakharchenko was assassinated, leading to mutual accusations between Russia and Ukraine regarding the identity of the assassin(s). Most analysts consider Ukraine’s involvement improbable. Zakharchenko was notably independent from Moscow, holding broad ambitions for his republic for further expansion into Ukraine and hegemony over the ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’ to the north. The significance of this murder is debatable—sudden deaths of leaders has been a feature of the DPR—but Zakharchenko’s death arguably served Russia better than Ukraine. 

Three other events in the later part of 2018 raised tensions considerably between the two belligerents. The first was the formation of a Ukrainian independent Orthodox Church, announced in November and formalized with a ceremony at St. Sophia’s Cathedral in Kyiv on December 15. 

The quest for an independent Orthodox church originated formally in April, when the president declared that Ukrainians should elect the head of a new independent Orthodox Church. On November 2, after a meeting in Istanbul, Poroshenko signed an Agreement with the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, who supported Ukraine’s autocephaly. Metropolitan Epiphanius I (born Serhii Dumenko in Odesa Region in 1979) was elected as the new leader of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine by a Unification Council on December 15. Russia’s reaction was predictably angry, with Putin declaring that Russia would protect its Orthodox brethren in Ukraine. One can anticipate further Russian responses in the coming year.

The second was the 85th anniversary of the Holodomor—the Ukrainian Famine of 1933—which has become a foundation stone of the modern Ukrainian state, which saw a major international conference in Kyiv, and a ceremony at the National Memorial Museum on November 24. Since 2008, when the Museum opened, Russia has protested against its depiction as the main perpetrator of the Famine, a result of the implicit association of the former Soviet Union and the contemporary Russian state. The Famine has also been linked to the current war in Ukraine as a symbol of Russia’s continuing malevolent intentions toward Ukraine.

Third and most significant was the confrontation in the Azov Sea on November 25, when Russian ships fired on Ukrainian ships crossing the Kerch Strait on a route between Odesa and Mariupol. Russia detained the Ukrainian crews and took them to Moscow for interrogation. Two Ukrainian sailors were seriously injured. Initially, Poroshenko asked for NATO support and announced his intention to declare martial law for a two-month period. Following discussion in the Parliament, where the president faced accusations of wishing to delay the March 31 elections, the time period was reduced to one month and the application of martial law confined to 10 regions on the border with Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea.

Ukraine and Russia in 2018 and 2019

In fact, Russia has stepped up military activity in the Azov Sea, especially following the construction and operation of its controversial bridge over the Kerch Strait, which has not only linked Crimea to the Russian mainland, but also prevented much of Ukraine’s naval and trading ships from access to Mariupolships are too large to move under the bridge. The bridge, which is 18 kilometers in length and cost an estimated $3.7 billion, was opened in May and is the only Russian road link to the annexed peninsula.

Following the Azov crisis, Poroshenko declared that Putin was refusing to speak to him, revealing indirectly that the two had been in communication hitherto despite the severity of the rift between the two countries. He maintained that Russia has violated the 2003 Azov Treaty that allowed joint control of the Azov Sea. On December 10, he announced further that the 1997 Treaty of Friendship between Russia and Ukraine—signed by presidents Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Kuchma—would not be renewed when it expires on March 31, 2019. 

Subsequently, there have been reports of a massive military build up on Russia’s western border with Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and that Russian-backed Chechen snipers have been seen outside Mariupol. It is not unusual for Western analysts to project large-scale Russian aggression against Ukraine at the end of a given year, and perhaps that theme will be especially prominent at the end of 2018. Moreover, in the past Russian military buildup has not signaled a full-scale invasion.

The reality seems somewhat different, though undoubtedly very serious. Communication between the two states has never ended: Russian exports to Ukraine actually increased in 2018, though Ukraine has maintained high levels of trade with the European Union and sought to increase its links with China. Moreover, Russia is unlikely to start a new land war. There are few advantages to be gained and there is little incentive to annex the Donbas, which requires extensive state investment to recover from the long years of conflict, mass migration, and crippled industrial factories. It serves Russia far better to have Ukraine take up this economic burden.

More likely is systemic pressure on Ukraine in the shape of cutting off Mariupol from ports in the Black Sea, control over the Azov Sea and the Black Sea in the north center and east, maintenance of the current border between the breakaway states and Ukraine, and efforts to destabilize the government of Ukraine as far as possible. The Russian leadership would dearly like Ukraine to restore the water supply to Crimea but is unlikely to make political concessions to achieve this goal. The fall of Poroshenko, on the other hand, is an attainable quest.

For Putin, a weak Ukraine is essential, and Poroshenko, even when struggling for reelection, has proven an obdurate and determined opponent, albeit at times with maneuvers that seem more symbolic than effective. Tymoshenko as the next president is a better prospect from Russia’s perspective and she has occasionally proven cooperative in the past. Today her platform is one of seemingly contradictory goals: ending the war and restoring relations with Russia, promoting a new generation to prominent positions to replace the old oligarchic system, revamping the army, and joining the EU and NATO (!). 

Tymoshenko claims that the 2010 election results in the runoff with Yanukovych were counted unfairly and that she should have been declared the winner. She has twice served as Prime Minister and been a prominent figure in Ukrainian politics for more than 20 years. Yet her claim to be operating from outside the ruling elite has seemed to elicit positive responses. She is above all a populist who can discern the minds of her audiences, the pony tail in 2018 seems more appealing than the trademark braids of the 2004 Orange Revolution and 2010 presidential elections.

At present, Ukraine has few political alternatives and a repeat of the 2010 presidential runoff seems the most likely outcome. Political tensions are high, and a number of armed groups operate with relative impunity, some of which support another Euromaidan, others even more radical alternatives. Yet Ukraine has usually opted for the political center at critical times, as happened in 2014. What we do not know is how Tymoshenko would attain peace with Russia, particularly while Putin remains the president. She stands at the threshold of real power and few know what she would do with it. 

About the author:

David R. Marples

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