East of Odessa in Russian speaking Donbass, the story is again completely different. Life in the southeast of the country today bears few hallmarks of normalcy. Residents of Donetsk, a surprisingly verdant city for being the buckle of one the world’s greatest rust belts, are leaving out of concern for their safety. “I’m going to Crimea today to stay with family there because I don’t know what they will bomb next,” a young woman named Christina told me. “My father may go tomorrow, but I don’t know what will happen to my mother as she’s in hospital. Lots of people are fleeing. War is coming or maybe it’s already here.” The rising death toll there in the wake of Poroshenko’s intensified antiterrorist operations does little to instill local confidence in a president widely viewed as a false pretender and a friend to fascists. Citizens of the Donbass don’t deny that their cause is aided financially and militarily by Russians, but the anti-Maidan sentiment is real. I asked Christina if there was any reform in policy that would, in her opinion, restore trust in Kiev. “No,” she said, “Donbass will break off on its own or join Russia. It’s simply a question of how many people have to die first.”
What’s most startling about what’s happening in Ukraine today are the truths denied or left unsaid. Kievan optimism following the election of Poroshenko will wane if his administration fails to address the fundamental challenges facing the country. Having alleged that Russian-backed separatists wish “to turn Donbass into Somalia,” Poroshenko promised that the so-called antiterrorist operation “cannot and should not last two or three months. It should and will last hours.” This promise has struck a chord in the capital where there is a broad consensus that the separatist effort is “artificial,” a product of Russian propaganda, and entirely within the ability of President Vladimir Putin to control. While such thinking is seductive to a state desperately in need of appearing to be in control of itself, it is also evidence of the paucity of its strategies and, frankly, its options.
Every solution proposed to address the country’s problems—embracing austerity to promote fiscal order, deploying military strength against terrorists, seeking Western alignment to defend against Russia—seems to catalyze an equal, but opposite reaction. Make no mistake; tampering corruption and restoring order in the east are the central crises Poroshenko must confront, but forces within the Ukrainian elite pull him in too many directions and make impossible any frank and honest discussion of the causes underlying regional unrest. Instead of dialogue, there is an information war. Instead of good faith, there is name calling. Instead of rational strategy, there is myopic posturing. It is too often obscured that the political and economic dysfunctionality of the state is a large part of what drives anti-Kiev suspicion in the regions. It is so far unclear what Poroshenko intends to do to change any of this, though his reputation as a successful manager and a pragmatist may provide some cause for hope.
Russian manipulation is a necessary but insufficient factor in the Ukraine crisis today. Moscow is an enormous driver of instability in Donbass, even as it withdraws its uniformed troops from the border to mitigate the risk of further sanctions, but it is not the root of the problem. The answer, therefore, will not be found in the West, which has shown time and again that it is less interested in integrating poor and unstable Ukraine into its economic and security structures than it is in denying Russia a sphere of economic and political influence. Ukraine’s ethnic, linguistic and civilizational divide between East and West has been much noted, but less-often discussed are the crucial economic networks underpinning day-to-day life.
If there can still be a negotiated settlement to the crisis, it must take into account regional economic dissatisfaction. Today, the Donbass lives on state subsidies and many of its industries are run at a loss despite the shady deals that line the pockets of its controlling magnates. The older generation there remembers fondly a Soviet economy in which miners received salaries and perks unimaginable to laborers in most other industries. Today, many sense that they are at the bottom of Ukraine’s class structure, and when Ukrainian nationalism rears its head (as it did after the Orange Revolution a decade ago) they feel that their livelihoods and very identity are under threat. The provisional government that followed the ouster of Yanukovych, though foolish enough to attempt to restrict the use of Russian as a regional official language, was not so foolish as to cut pensions or subsidies. The fear remains, however, that networks of patronage and means of subsistence that parasitically flourished under Yanukovych will not survive economic reform. With salaries and pensions twice as high on the Russian side of the border, it is hardly surprising that in a period of state upheaval, in which all certainties are questioned, a powerful sense of envy and nostalgia should find violent expression. Throwing more money, money that the state does not have, at the Donbass is hardly likely to inspire Western donor nations to open their wallets, but it may be part of the fix in the short term.
Leaders in Kiev balk at the suggestion that federalization is the solution to the crisis because they fear further cementing the country’s divisions, giving Russia a veto over national economic policy, and finding themselves trapped in a cycle of subsidizing client regions without being able to control them. Worse, still, is the fact that the owner-oligarch class that robs these regions will likely be these regions’ governors or patrons. The idea of subsidizing a federal Ukraine is as preposterous to Kiev as are the voters from the Party of Regions, who today label the same parliament they elected under Yanukovych as “fascist.”
Kiev’s problem is not a lack of legitimacy; it is a lack of trust. Despite the lies of Russian propaganda, fascists do not rule the country, are not plotting to murder Russian speakers in their sleep, and are in fact a small contingent even among strong Ukrainian nationalists. Strategic voting may well explain Poroshenko’s first victory where moderate voters are concerned, but it stretches credulity to suggest the candidates of the right-wing Freedom and Right Sector parties polled abysmally for any other reason than that they are unpopular. Ukraine can demonstrate this by negotiating, listening, and building a political culture and constitutional structure in which the concerns of the southeast can be heard and respected.
Something’s gotta give in Ukraine, because the state cannot continue to drive headlong into a European community that does not want it and that is not wanted by millions of Ukrainian citizens. Ukraine cannot keep Russia, its long time source of cheap energy subsidies and trading partner, at arm’s length forever, whatever Moscow’s sins. And Ukraine cannot pretend that the slogan “A United Country” reflects a reality rather than an aspiration. We have yet to see evidence that Poroshenko has fully internalized these limits of Ukrainian power and constraints on the nobler aspirations of its people.
In 1985, Adam Michnik wrote from Gdansk Prison:
But ethos cannot substitute for a political program. We must therefore think about the future of Polish–Russian relations. Our thinking about this key question must be open; it should consider many different possibilities. Thus we must not rule out the chance of a change in Soviet foreign policy that would bring compromise within the realm of possibility. Let us remember that compromise between the Soviet Union and Finland was preceded by a war between these two countries.
If the hope of compromise is still alive, then Ukraine must find a way to appease its neighbor and those Ukrainian citizens who feel close to it.
John T. Nelson is a Research Associate at the Council on Foreign Relations. A Fulbright and a Marshall Scholar, he holds degrees in Soviet History and International Relations from Princeton University, the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, and the London School of Economics.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Sasha Maksymenko/CC by 2.0