The Kremlin’s Restrained Optimism in Relation to Ukraine

The style of the Russian President’s Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov assumes that after having communicated with him, the press has more questions and conjectures than concrete answers. However, this in general corresponds to Putin’s style.

Despite the extreme concreteness and unambiguity of the statements of Vladimir Putin, each of them becomes a reason for numerous conjectures and gives rise to another discussion about what he wanted to say and what exactly was said by the Russian president. In general, for the country this is even useful, because with such a spread of “expert opinions” and “insider information” no investigation in the world is capable of understanding what is really happening and what “these Russians” want. When it becomes clear that the “small chest just opened”, it’s already late: Crimean cats thank polite people, S-400 systems are deployed in Turkey, and in Syria the Russian Aerospace Forces very constructively bomb the no less “constructive” opposition.

This time, however, commenting on the condition of the prospects for Russian-Ukrainian relations, Peskov was so concrete and exact in his formulations that he practically didn’t leave any place for conjectures. He, of course, paid tribute to the Kremlin’s traditional diplomacy (which in the West is for some reason called Byzantian) and reported that “there is reason for very muted optimism”. But this was all positive. And then even this very reserved optimism is extrapolated to a distant unknown future that has to come after complex and long work, the result of which is unpredictable. In the meantime, from the point of view of Peskov, “it is premature to speak about some normalisation effect”.

This was said in response to the wave of euphoria that swept through the Russian media and expert community, the reason for which was an absolutely insignificant event — the latest exchange of held persons. Despite the fact that there were already many exchanges. They happened during Poroshenko’s reign too. There were prisoner exchanges with the DPR/LPR, and they were much more populous than the one that just took place. There were mutual (counter) releases of Russian citizens held in Ukraine and Ukrainian citizens who received sentences in Russia. In one of such exchanges Kiev received Nadezhda Savchenko as a gift. I.e., Zelensky did not bring anything new into the process of bilateral relations in this case, having just resumed the practice of exchanges that was interrupted with the Ukrainian electoral campaign and the reformatting of the authorities.

The statements made by Kiev concerning key issues on the bilateral agenda completely correspond to similar statements from the era of Poroshenko. It would be possible, of course, to accept the point of view of optimists and to assume that Zelensky “is forced to hide his true intentions”, but he was about to seize all power, put it in his pocket and immediately start to govern, but not reign. But in order so that these assumptions were something more considerable than starry-eyed dreams, systemic changes in the organisation of the Ukrainian government are needed. A change of ideals is possible if interests change. In order to change goal-setting, it is necessary to change the principle of the distribution the benefits within the system. But what do we see?

Precisely in unison with Peskov’s statement, in Ukraine there were two, different in scale, events that are not connected with each other at all, which when combined perfectly illustrate the general state of affairs in the country.

Firstly, the worker of “Gromadske TV” Bogdan Kutepov called on his Facebook page to ruthlessly beat up journalists possessing an oppositional opinion directly at press conferences. Male/female Journalists, according to Kutepov, have to beat up other male/female journalists, for the purpose of “self-control”.

This is no difference from the appeals made on “Maidan” to physically punish (up to destruction) political opponents. It is the same idea that inspired the organisers of the “Odessa massacre” and the Mariupol executions. Neither the “handshakeable” journalistic community of Ukrainian grant-eaters, nor the Kiev authorities designated their relation to this appeal in any way. They just preferred to not notice it. And this means that the extremist street not driven into Podolia has not disappeared from active Ukrainian politics. It is simply inactive for the time being because in 2014-2015 it solved all the tasks that were set before it: the political opposition to the regime was destroyed (it was expelled from the country, killed, or jailed), self-censorship dominates in the media (it wasn’t even necessary to force it, they know what they can and can’t write).

But speeches like the one made by Kutepov show that at any moment extremists, with the full approval and support of most media outlets, can still be used to suppress not the opposition to the regime, but the opposition within the regime. So that persons interested in removing Igor Kolomoisky and taking his place as the chief controller of all branches of the Ukrainian government don’t relax, tiptoe, and watch their mouth. And one never knows if Kutepov will switch from words to deeds, and Kolomoisky won’t care at all.

Secondly, Kolomoisky himself didn’t just visit Zelensky in his office, but also worried about getting a photo report about this meeting in the press, for all those who need to know who’s boss.

It seems to be nothing special. Well, the president wanted to meet a successful businessman, to discuss problems of economic growth with him, and pretensions of business to the authorities and the authorities to business, etc. Why didn’t he gather together all businessmen at once? Or maybe Zelensky likes to talk to them in turn. They are so more frank. Some Ukrainian former politicians who are frantically trying to find for themselves a place at least on the rug in the hall of the new authorities already even started to praise Zelensky for openness, explaining to the people that everyone went to all the presidents, it’s just that no one, apparently, published photos.

This is not the truth. There are photo reports of Poroshenko’s meeting with Kolomoisky and on Yanukovych and Akhmetov’s joint actions. The press regularly reported about meetings between oligarchs and Yushchenko, Kuchma, and other presidents. But there is a nuance. When the president wants to talk to an oligarch (whether it be with one or with the entire gang) he invites the oligarch to his place and talks to them either confidentially or in the presence of the corresponding assistant (at maximum – the head of administration). In this case, not only the president and the head of his Office with the first assistant are sat at a table with Kolomoisky, but also the Prime Minister (in an absolutely informal setting). I don’t know whether the speaker of the parliament Razumkov stayed behind the scenes, but in principle, in such company it is possible to do also without the chairman of the Rada.

Key decisions on economic problems are made by the Cabinet of Ministers. It (at the level of government office and offices of separate departments) studies justifications of new draft laws introduced in the Rada). The president can give a draft law priority status (so that it is adopted by parliament out of turn). In addition, the president controls the parliamentary majority, his informal instruction is enough for any law to be adopted almost by a constitutional majority.

Those people who sat with Kolomoisky at a table in Zelensky’s office are enough to resolve any issue in the country. And it’s not the oligarch who travelled around in turn (like earlier). All of them gathered in one place to listen to the wishes of the oligarch and to accept them for implementation.

This means that at the highest level of power there were only cosmetic changes, the essence of inter-relations didn’t change. Poroshenko was an oligarch and the president in one person, therefore the oligarch Poroshenko used the power of president Poroshenko in order to solve especially private issues (like squeezing other people’s business affairs in his favour). In the new government, the posts of the oligarch controlling the government and the President are divorced. But Igor Kolomoisky controls not only the presidential power, but also the government, parliament, and every minister and deputy separately, and intends to establish control over local government soon. He has manyfold more real opportunities than Poroshenko had, but he bears no responsibility, because he is not authorised to make decisions, he can only give “advice”. But this advice instantly becomes the law.

Poroshenko’s governance was Russophobic not because Poroshenko personally doesn’t like Russians. He loves nobody except himself. It was Russophobic because it advocated the interests of the Ukrainian oligarchy to which Poroshenko also belongs. Zelensky’s governance also advocates the interests of the Ukrainian oligarchy, specifically the oligarch Kolomoisky. The interests of the oligarchy don’t change with the name of the oligarch controlling the government.

Moreover, in Poroshenko’s presidency metallurgists/coal miners (Akhmetov, Novinsky, etc.) defeated gas workers (Firtash, Levochkin, Boyko), having driven the latter into opposition. This is not political, but economic opposition. They want not a change of regime, but a change of their role in the regime. But objectively, the interests of the gas workers interested in maximising the supply of cheap gas to Ukraine and the transit of gas through Ukraine coincide with the interests of Gazprom (at least there is a lot of common ground). For metallurgists/coal miners, on the contrary, it is more profitable to replace in the domestic market cheap gas with expensive coal. For this purpose it is necessary to replace in Ukraine cheap Russian gas with expensive “European” and “American” gas. At the same time, schemes like “Rotterdam+” work both for coal and for gas, and allow the participants of the scheme (and this is both the Supreme power and certain oligarchs) to profit exclusively from the margin price. The higher the price, the better it is for them. The fact that industry, which consumed three times more gas than the population, consumes already twice less doesn’t frighten them. The population will pay for everything.

The gas workers [the oligarchs who control Ukraine’s gas industry – ed] who were pushed aside from power placed their last stake on Medvechuk, trying to jointly break through the resistance of metallurgists/coal miners [the oligarchs who control Ukraine’s coal/metallurgy industry – ed] and to reach an agreement with the Kremlin on resuming the direct supply of gas to Ukraine. The delivery price in that case can significantly fall in comparison with the “American” gas. Respectively, the numbers in the bills of Ukrainian citizens will decrease. It seems that such an option is profitable for the authorities, which promised exactly this plus the normalisation of relations with Russia.

But Kolomoisky, having forced out Poroshenko from the scheme “Rotterdam+”, now stands in his place and forces out Akhmetov. He is already personally interested in everything remaining the same in Ukraine. He is ready to tame gas workers, having allowed them to earn a little money from direct ties with Russia provided that he will also be involved in this business. At the same time, no significant changes are planned in either the volumes of purchased gas or in the pool of suppliers. Since gas workers are dissatisfied with such a situation, they start to be destroyed like a fifth column, and threats are made to ban trips to Moscow, to declare them enemies of the people, and to jail them.

As we can see, at the highest level (decision-making level) the situation in Ukraine remained unchanged, and at the lowest level (the level of forcibly suppressing opposition) everything remained the same, and Kolmoisky and Zelensky’s statements to Medvedchuk correlate amazingly with Kutepov’s statement to oppositional journalists. It is not surprising that the Kremlin in such conditions does not expect anything good from Ukraine. This, of course, doesn’t prevent to exchange people (whilst there is still the opportunity). Even a mangy sheep has a tuft of wool. Tomorrow it may not be possible to pull out even a tuft from Kolomoisky.

Rostislav Ishchenko

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