Rostislav Ishchenko: Post-Hamburg Ukraine

Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard


Rex Tillerson arrived in Kiev to say what specific agreements were reached by Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump in Hamburg “about Ukraine without Ukraine”. We can already outline the main canvas now.

Firstly, a serious breakthrough in Russian-American relations from the meeting in Hamburg wasn’t expected even by the most inveterate optimists. This time the expert community (not only the Russian one, but also the world’s) was uniform in the opinion that a positive result will be reached already in the event the meeting takes place in a constructive benevolent atmosphere.

The main task consisted in giving start to a long and difficult negotiation process, and so that this process will receive a positive impulse at the beginning. This task is fulfilled and over-fulfilled. The Presidents not only longly and enthusiastically discussed complex problems, but were able to reach limited agreements on the Syrian settlement.

The inclusion in the ceasefire regime of the regions of Quneitra and Daraa, and also the obligation of the US to provide a constructive position of Israel and Jordan can’t be considered as an extraordinary achievement. It is a small compromise between both parties on the secondary direction, where the strategic victory of Assad is already predetermined, but a lot of time and forces must be spent for the final establishment of control over border territories.

Both parties were objectively interested in a ceasefire in this direction: Assad – in order to transfer the freed-up troops to more important areas in the strategic plan, and the US – so that their defeat wasn’t so obvious.

Thus, the current agreement on Syria is even not a step towards a solution of this crisis, but rather a signal to the world community that the leaders of Russia and the US, despite all contradictions, are able to come to an agreement. The fact that Trump and Putin were able in two hours to outline the parameters of this deal, and, above all, they found it necessary to do it in order to show the successfulness of the meeting, testifies to the considerable potential of Russian-American negotiations on a global settlement. At least, the leaders of two countries are set for negotiations, and not a confrontation.

For Ukraine this is a very bad sign. The entire Ukrainian policy was built on the thesis about an eternal increase in the number of contradictions and confrontations in relations between the US and Russia. In such an option Ukraine had the right to count on its anti-Russian position being in demand in the American political market and paid for with diplomatic, military and technical, and financial support. But, as the parties tried to find the road to rapprochement, the Russophobic position of Kiev becomes not only in demand — it starts to impeach American diplomacy.

Secondly, that’s why the situation in Ukraine was put outside the brackets of the current negotiations. On the table, besides the Minsk Agreements, there is no other offer on a settlement of the Ukrainian crisis. At this time it is known to all that Kiev doesn’t intend to implement the Minsk Agreements and so far nobody managed to convince it to refuse its destructive position. The US can transfer Ukraine over to the balance of Moscow. But this is a product for which it is necessary to pay extra, while Washington still wants to sell it, although cheaply. The space of decisions in Ukraine is brought to zero, while a change in the internal political situation in Kiev is necessary both for Washington and Moscow in order to again obtain space for maneuver.

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Thirdly, the format of necessary changes from the American side will be coordinated by Kurt Volker. This high-ranking American diplomat in May, 2008, replaced Victoria Nuland as the ambassador of the US to NATO. Now came the time to replace her as the special representative of the US in Ukraine.

Journalists already managed to create from Volker the image of an anti-Russian hawk. It is necessary to say that the pigeons in the State Department in general aren’t kept. And as a whole pro-Russian characters somehow don’t take root in American politics (as, by the way, a pro-American one in Russian politics).

Volker is as rigid as all American diplomats who got used to representing the world empire, a global hegemon with who negotiating isn’t possible, and only his instructions are taken into consideration. Volker is professional, to the extent that it is possible to call professional the classical American strategy of pressure. Volker will be able to work all his talents on the Kiev authorities. Because Volker’s task will consist of, and this is the most important thing, bringing Kiev to the common denominator needed by Russia and the US. And this is one more piece of bad news for Ukraine.

There is also another small difference between Volker and Nuland. Victoria found herself dragged into the Ukrainian crisis through the State Department. She was the representative of one of the factions of Obama’s team (faction Clinton-Biden). This faction in fact monopolized the right to define the policy of the US in the Ukrainian direction and its actions didn’t always stay within the common foreign policy strategy of the Obama administration.

With Kurt we have an appointment at the will of the President, and, judging by the time of the announcement, Trump especially waited for the meeting with Putin to have the opportunity in a personal conversation to characterize the aims, tasks, and volume of powers of the new representative of the US on the Ukrainian question. In order to avoid a lack of understanding and negative interpretations.

This is the third negative signal for Ukraine. The US President not simply discusses “Ukraine without Ukraine”, we can’t say that he considers it necessary to coordinate with Putin the officials who are responsible for the Ukrainian direction, but, at least, to explain to the Russian President the motives and aims of his decisions relating to personnel.

I mentioned above that Russia and the US need a change in the internal political format of Ukraine in order to expand the space of possible decisions and to restore the maneuverability of the policy in this direction. It doesn’t mean at all that a change of format will be directed towards improving the situation.

The trick here is that any change is necessary, because it will provide a way out of the political and diplomatic deadlock and allows to resume the search for a solution from new positions. A negative change of the Ukrainian internal political format also will be suitable. Moreover, a negative change of the format is the most probable, if not the only decision. It is the least resource-intensive, the easiest achievable in a short period of time. Besides this, it removes Ukraine from the game not only as a subject, but also as an object of international law, which considerably simplifies the negotiation process because the interests of the Ukrainian elite (which were presented up to now as the interests of the Ukrainian State and people) can not be taken into account.

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In addition, the negative decision turns out to be practically the only productive one, as the Ukrainian elite itself strives for it, which more and more actively transfers the internal political fight to a format of a military confrontation. At the same time, the US and Russia practically have no leverage on the situation in Ukraine or leaning points in local politics and in society.

I will explain.

The influence of Americans was based on their opportunity to assist the political careers and financial-economic wellbeing of Ukrainian elites. But we know that after 2014 only Petro Poroshenko managed to increase his fortune while the others’ reduced like a landslide. I.e., political orientation to the Americans doesn’t provide financial and economic interests any more. In Ukraine one unconditionally profitable position remains — the President and, also some more conditionally (corruption) profitable places in the government.

These remaining profitable positions don’t satisfy the interests of wide layers of oligarchy and politicum. It is from here that there is an aggravation in the fight for the presidency, which gives access to the remaining resources. At this time the Ukrainian elite become more and more aware of the simple truth — the Americans will try to come to an agreement with any real power in Kiev on the format of the settlement needed by them. Because they have neither the time, desire, nor the need for a change of power. Therefore, in the event of a successful putsch against Poroshenko, Washington won’t punish the putshists, but will continue to keep contact with them (like how they continue to keep contact with Syrian jihadists).

Thus, it’s not the Americans who control the development of events in Ukraine, but it is the development of events that dictates to the Americans the forms and methods of their work. The expert and journalistic community created by Americans for huge money, which effectively carried out Maidan’s and pro-European propaganda, can’t influence the formation of public and political priorities any more. Their weight in society was based on the fact that the elite, providing further relaying of the corresponding positions in society and their registration as the official political line, voluntarily listened to them as the translators of the opinion of Washington.

Now, as was already said, all elite groups have only one purpose — presidency. That’s why they are united in the non-perception of Poroshenko, but they are also divided and hostile to each other, as each group has their one and only candidate for Poroshenko’s place. And the opinion of the Americans interests them only so far as they will be ready to support the claims of a specific group. However, by supporting one, Washington automatically opposes itself to all others.

So from the point of view of positive influence on the situation, the Americans are in a deadlock. An exit from this deadlock is possible only after various groups of the Ukrainian elite will pass into a hot phase of the standoff against each other. Here the space for influence at the expense of supplies of arms, fuels, and lubricants, and political support of one to the detriment of the others, etc. opens. Moreover, the vast majority of warring groups will have a clear understanding that only those groups that will receive external support will be able to win in the internal conflict and be legitimised.

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Russia has a similar situation vis-a-vis influence on Ukraine. Moscow is often reproached for “not working in Ukraine” (unlike the Americans). And in Russia many sprinkle ashes on their heads concerning this topic. However, if we address reality, we will find out that frankly there was nobody to work with, and there was nobody to create a pro-Russian political force with.

In Kiev, for years, all actual pro-Russian activists could be gathered at one table, and there was less than 100. Kharkov, Donetsk, and Lugansk totalled approximately the same number of actual pro-Russian activists, and not the employees of Dobkin, Kushnarev, Akhmetov, and other “owners of regions”, who used pro-Russian slogans to ensure their political interests, but having brought their political forces to power, they carried out the most pro-European and pro-American policy.

Even in Crimea real pro-Russian moods didn’t rise above the household level. Crimeans liked well-off Russian tourists and didn’t like greedy and impudent Galicians. But Crimea was governed by these same pro-European and pro-American collaborators. Just in Odessa alone, thanks to Igor Markov, who created the although regional, but rigidly ideologically pro-Russian party “Rodina”, it was possible to estimate the number of local pro-Russian active persons at 500. And this in a city with a million inhabitants.

The moods of this same part of the Ukrainian population, which is used to being called pro-Russian, represented a wide range of different levels of Ukrainian sovereignty, and all their pro-Russianness was reduced to understanding of the unbiased fact that it is more profitable to milk two “cows” (the West and Russia) than just one.

That’s why the only actual pro-Russian Ukrainian political party (PSPU – Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine) never collected more than 3.5% of votes. That’s why in Ukraine there was no systemic politician and no parliamentary political force that could act from a position of joining the Union of Russia and Belarus. That’s why even the regionals, calling themselves supporters of rapprochement with Russia, opposed joining the customs union, and the position of the leadership of the Communist Party of Ukraine was vague.

Even if earlier the groups of those who really supported rapprochement with Russia on the Belarusian example were weak and too few, after the coup of 2014 the majority of them found themselves in the grave, emigrating, or in the underground. Those “oppositionists” now afloat in Kiev are ready to use the Russian resource to come to power, but after this they again intend to be turn towards the west.

That’s why Russia, as well as the US at present moment, has no (and never had an) opportunity to conduct a positive game in Ukraine, while the option of a negative (for Ukraine) scenario, amongst other things, provides the dumping of the ballast that is the current discredited and not capable of anything elite, and, respectively, the emergence of the opportunity to participate in the cultivation of new elite from scratch, from a blank sheet — which, by its status, by its wellbeing, and even by its life will be indebted to Russia, and which without Russia won’t be able to exist neither in a political nor physical sense.

The most important thing is that for the implementation of the negative scenario, neither Russia nor the US has a need to strain. There is a need to simply wait a little for the natural development of events.

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