Why Everybody Suddenly Has a Ukraine Plan

Map of Ukraine, Including Crimea, and Neighbors, Including Russia

(Bloomberg – bloomberg.com – Leonid Bershidsky – February 27, 2017)

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

Andrii Artemenko, a little-known Ukrainian populist lawmaker, became a name in the U.S. after The New York Times reported he’s worked with Donald Trump confidantes on a peace plan for Ukraine. He didn’t necessarily deserve these 15 minutes of fame: Suddenly, lots of Ukrainian politicians have plans to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine. They are born of U.S. chaos and local frustration as the country enters the fourth year since the 2014 “Revolution of Dignity” with little to show in the way of achievements and with existential dangers undiminished.

The New York Times report cost Artemenko membership in the Radical Party faction of the Ukrainian parliament, led by Oleg Lyashko. His party accused him of seeking to compromise the country’s integrity. Artemenko’s idea was to lease Crimea out to Russia for 30 to 50 years, if a national referendum allows this, and then let Crimea residents decide which country they want to belong to. The legislator also proposed holding a referendum on whether to let eastern Ukraine have broad autonomy; Russia’s lease payments for Crimea would be used to fund the rebuilding of the war-torn region.

This wasn’t a realistic plan: The Kremlin considers annexed Crimea its own and it would never agree to rent it from Ukraine, much less pay for it. But realism levels are similarly low in other recent attempts at peacemaking.

Viktor Baloga, who used to be emergencies minister under deposed President Viktor Yanukovych, has proposed referendums in east Ukraine and, separately, in the rest of the country to decide on east Ukraine’s status, resulting either in its unconditional takeover by Kiev or in the construction of an Israel-style wall on the region’s border. Sergei Taruta, the multimillionaire who was appointed governor of the Donetsk region in 2014 but who failed to stem the Russia-backed separatist rebellion there, published his own plan earlier this month, calling on parliament to take away President Petro Poroshenko’s powers to negotiate a deal, appointing the last freely elected local councils in eastern Ukraine — those formed in 2010 — as an officially recognized party to all talks and sending in United Nations peacekeepers.

There may even be a plan calling for Yanukovych, who fled to Russia three years ago, to return to Ukraine as the leader of the rebellious eastern regions. Radio Liberty has reported that Konstantin Kilimnik, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s man in Ukraine, has developed such a scenario, though Kilimnik himself denies it. Yanukovych, for his part, has sent global leaders, including Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin almost identical letters (published by the Kremlin’s propaganda outlet, RT), in which he calls for international pressure on Kiev to hold elections in eastern Ukraine, as envisioned by the Minsk peace deal, and if that fails, for a self-determination referendum in eastern Ukraine.

There have been other, more cautious Ukrainian attempts at a compromise with Russia, including a widely-criticized Wall Street Journal article by Viktor Pinchuk, one of Ukraine’s wealthiest people. None of the people putting forward these proposals have any influence with Poroshenko or his government, and they are definitely not thought leaders for Ukrainians. There’s also little chance the Kremlin wants to compromise at all, since medium-term destabilization is its strongest weapon against Ukraine’s attempts to leave its orbit.

But there are good reasons why these bit players and has-beens feel it might be time to lift the taboo on a substantive dialog with Russia. The idea isn’t to have a peace plan accepted — it’s to play on the contrast with the government’s helplessness.

Poroshenko and his ministers are caught in the unenviable position of allowing business with the pro-Russian side in eastern Ukraine, which supplies coal for Ukrainian power and heating plants, and being unwilling to crack down on nationalist activists who have organized a citizen blockade of train traffic between rebel-held and government-held parts of Ukraine. The blockade has the separatists threatening to take over Ukrainian-registered factories in the areas they control, which would result in a fresh economic nosedive for Ukraine.

Above all, the authors of the various proposals feel the mood in Ukraine may be shifting after years of exhausting local fighting and unsuccessful reforms, and they see a political opportunity Poroshenko and other government figures cannot seize because they’ve drawn their red lines too firmly.

A recent poll by the Kiev International Sociology Institute shows large pluralities in the southern and eastern Ukrainian regions (those under government control) consider the 2014 revolution a coup d’etat and blame the Kiev government, to a greater extent than Moscow, for undermining the faltering Minsk peace deal. Russian propaganda probably plays a part in sowing discord in Ukraine, but government corruption and the lack of meaningful change for most Ukrainians outside the creative class are at least as important. In one recent poll, almost three-quarters of Ukrainians said the situation in the country and their own well-being changed for the worse in 2016.

Without ending the war, Ukraine is unlikely to see quick economic improvement even under the best of external circumstances.The policy vacuum in Washington and Europe’s preoccupation with internal problems undermine the Poroshenko government, which had made its biggest bet on Western support. If that support fades, anti-Poroshenko forces, including Yanukovych revanchists, have improved chances of a comeback.

The post-2014 political elite needs quick wins and new ideas that could inspire Ukrainians. In a recent speech, Oleksandr Turchynov, Ukraine’s acting president immediately after the 2014 revolution and now head of the the National Security and Defense Council, said Ukrainian society didn’t need “fairy tales of a bright European future” but would do better to concentrate on building a strong, well-armed national state. That, however, is not an easy sell to a country that is still divided along ethnic lines, suffering from war fatigue and experiencing a comedown from the EU-centered hopes of 2014.

This year, ideas of armed sovereignty will square off against those of neutrality and flexibility. It’s a more complex choice than the old Russia vs. Europe dichotomy, and Ukraine’s post-Soviet political elite is ill-equipped to navigate it. Meanwhile, Putin is poised to do what he can to steer the country back into the Russian fold.

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