The last few weeks have witnessed an acceleration of Ukraine’s downward slide.
Following the bitter fighting in and around Avdeevka and the angry telephone exchange between Russian President Putin and German Chancellor Merkel, an attempt was made to bring the fighting in the area around Avdeevka to an end and to arrange for a mutual pullback of forces to the starting lines.
As always the Ukrainians proved unwilling to comply with their commitments to do so, and yesterday the whole process was thrown into chaos when militants from the far right Azov Brigade stormed and took over a water filtration plant from the local Ukrainian authorities, seeking to cut off the water supply to Donetsk without apparently realising that large areas of Ukrainian controlled territory also depend for their water on the plant.
Latest reports say that they have been forced to withdraw from the plant, but the episode once again shows how little control the Ukrainian authorities have over those who are supposedly their most fervid supporters.
If the situation on the front line in the Donbass remains catastrophic, elsewhere in Ukraine it is becoming disastrous.
Far right groups and people who the Ukrainian and Western media euphemistically call “activists” have initiated a blockade of coal imports from the Donbass, claiming that such imports are “treasonous”. Since the Ukrainian energy system depends heavily on Donbass coal the result is to cause an energy emergency in Ukraine, risking another downward spiral in Ukraine’s economy. The government however appears too weak to do anything about it.
Meanwhile fresh from her meeting with Donald Trump in Washington, Ukraine’s perennial political challenger Yulia Tymoshenko sought to present to the Ukrainian parliament a no confidence vote against the Ukrainian government. The government however used procedural methods to prevent the motion from being debated, whilst Ukraine’s Prime Minister, President Poroshenko’s long serving henchman Volodymyr Groysman, let rip at Tymoshenko at a cabinet meeting, reportedly calling her
The mother of Ukrainian economic weakness, destruction of Ukrainian independence, corruption, populism and inefficiency…
Ukraine was handed an unexpected and undeserved gift in 2014. This was not the Minsk Protocol of 5th September 2014, which briefly ended the fighting that year, but rather the collapse in oil prices which took place in the second half of the year. This was by far the single most important factor in my opinion in averting the Ukrainian economy’s total collapse, and gave the Ukrainian economy a further lease of life.
The Ukrainian government has however failed to use effectively the brief time window the oil price fall afforded it, and given the paralysis of Ukraine’s riven and corrupt political system it is impossible to see how it could have done.
In passing, my view is that the “help” Ukraine has received from the IMF since 2014 has made the underlying condition of its economy not better but worse, just as IMF “help” to Russia in the 1990s also only made the condition of Russia’s economy at that time not better but instead much worse. The IMF has little understanding of either the Russian or the Ukrainian economies, and the various prescriptions it has handed out to them (in both cases taken from its standard handbook) were not only wrong ones but in my opinion actually worsened their problems. As for the sums of money the IMF from time to time doles out to Ukraine, these in my opinion simply prolong and deepen the agony, ensuring that the underlying situation goes on getting worse for much longer.
Certainly IMF “help” to Ukraine has come nowhere close to compensating Ukraine for the loss of its long established trade links with Russia.
With oil prices now possibly creeping up again, and with the positive effect of 2014’s oil price fall anyway running out, it is likely Ukraine will face renewed economic pressure this year. If so the political system is in no condition to deal with it.
Ukraine’s tragedy is that after repeated political crises its governmental system lacks legitimacy or authority.
The Maidan coup was the third in a succession of three unconstitutional overthrows of the government which have taken place in Ukraine since independence (the others took place in 2004 and 2007). Independence itself seems to have been only genuinely wanted by a probably quite small minority of Ukrainians. Moreover the form of the 2014 Maidan coup – with a constitutionally elected President violently removed from office midway through his term, and with a wholesale purge of the police and the bureaucracy happening thereafter – has demoralised further what was an already demoralised and inefficient police force and bureaucracy.
To compound the trouble the war in the Donbass has burdened Ukraine with a bloated and angry military it cannot afford, whilst adding to the already dangerously large number of violent men in Ukraine with guns. Not only do many of these hold openly Nazi views but as the episode at the filtration plant shows they are difficult to control if only because they feel the war has given them licence to behave as they please. As the coal blockade shows, the government seems to lack both the will and the means to control them.
There are some people in Ukraine who occasionally show some glimmers of understanding of the dead-end into which the country now finds itself.
A Ukrainian politician, Andrii Artemenko, recently tried to interest the Trump administration in a plan for ending the Ukrainian conflict through a lease by Ukraine of Crimea to Russia. The Russians immediately rejected a plan which is completely unacceptable to them.
Though his plan was completely unrealistic and even fantastic, Artemenko was – however incompetently and even stupidly – at least trying to find some way out of Ukraine’s crisis, which is more than anyone else in Ukraine is doing. His reward is that he now faces treason charges.
Possibly a more convincing though surprising figure who also appears to be acting as if she was looking to find some way out of Ukraine’s crisis (though she has yet to come up with any plan) is Nadiya Savchenko, the former Ukrainian pilot convicted by a Russian court of killing Russian journalists, who was then exchanged by the Russians for two of their own men.
To everyone’s surprise Savchenko – once lionised by the Ukrainian and Western media as a Ukrainian “Joan of Arc” – has metamorphosed since her return to Ukraine into a peace campaigner. She has recently visited Donetsk where she met with Ukrainian prisoners and where she undoubtedly had at least some contacts with the militia. Savchenko however is not a politician and even if her ‘conversion’ from warrior to peace campaigner is genuine (which many doubt) she seems altogether too marginal a figure to lead Ukraine or have impact there.
That leaves Tymoshenko who is simply too compromised to convince many people.
In 1943 the writer Gerald Brenan wrote The Spanish Labyrinth, a book about Spain’s social and political crisis which led to the civil war. For the moment, as its crisis deepens, Ukraine’s remains trapped in its own labyrinth, and there is no visible sign of an exit.