Petro Poroshenko's REAL Problem (And It's Not Russia)

"If basic rule of law and tolerance for dissent are not observed, what chance does Ukrainian democracy have?"

Never one to miss an opportunity to point fingers westward and score political points, Vladimir Putin on Thursday used the recent killings of pro-Russian public figures in Ukraine to scold Kiev and its allies. Whereas the murder of Russian oppositionist Boris Nemtsov in Moscow is being solved, he said during a four-hour call-in show, “In Ukraine, which is laying claim to the status of a democratic state and is seeking to become part of a democratic Europe, we are seeing none of this. Where are the killers of these people? There is no sign of them...Both Europe and North America choose to turn a blind eye to this.” Such cynicism and obsessing over foreign enemies is what we expect from Putin. What was troubling was how similar Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko’s reaction to the murders was. “It is evident that these crimes have the same origin,” read Poroshenko’s official statement. “It is a deliberate provocation that plays in favor of our enemies. It is aimed at destabilizing the internal political situation in Ukraine and discrediting the political choice of the Ukrainian people.” In other words, these crimes are the work of foreigners seeking to undermine his government, not evidence of dangerous tendencies within the country.

Ukrainian officials have presented no evidence as to who is behind these murders, but Poroshenko, like Putin, has used them to remind people about external threats and distract from serious internal problems. Of course Poroshenko has a stronger argument than Putin. Russia has forcibly taken land from Ukraine and may still take more, while the West has yet to attack Russia. Still, just as Putin solves nothing by blaming everything the West, Poroshenko solves nothing by blaming everything on Russia. The war Russia started in Ukraine’s east has done much to exacerbate the country’s existing divisions, radicalize it and make its politics more violent. But these problems are chiefly domestic ones, and by not acknowledging them as such, Poroshenko is missing an opportunity to address them. And it is these problems, not Russian aggression as such, that will present the biggest threat to Ukrainian democracy and statehood.

Ukraine has had a string of opposition figures die in 2015. Between late January and early March, seven former officials associated with deposed President Viktor Yanukovych died in apparent suicides, but many suspect they were murdered. Then this week, Oles Buzina, a pro-Russian journalist, Oleh Kalashnikov, a former member of parliament from Yanukovych’s political party, and Sergey Sukhobok were shot and killed. On Friday, Kiev political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko wrote on his Facebook page that he had received a letter from a group called the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) claiming responsibility for the murder of Buzina and Kalashnikov and for three of the seven “suicides.” UPA, incidentally, was the name of the Ukrainian partisan paramilitary force that fought Soviet and German armies in the 1940s, suggesting Ukrainian nationalists were taking credit. For Fesenko, this letter proves what he had believed all along about the murders: that Putin did it. “This strengthens my suspicion that Russia’s secret services are behind these people (although the actual murderers may not even know it),” he wrote. “Even if these people…believe they are ‘Ukrainian patriots,’ objectively they are acting in the interests of the external enemy . . . .” Earlier, Fesenko had suggested that Russia’s intelligence services had planned the murders to give Putin something to talk about during his call-in show. "It's as if the proof of political terror in Ukraine was specially delivered to him. These are ritualistic victims for Russian propaganda, although they did not play any serious role in the opposition movement," he told Reuters.