Swimming or sinking in the Azov sea

By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

Many “friends of Ukraine” support the latest shows of authority by President Poroshenko. But they are also at pain to understand where he wants to go, as he looks growingly a man ready to grab a crocodile to escape a buffalo.

He certainly made good use of the Azov saga to feed the Western vision of Russia as the main threat to global security. Previous skirmishes between the two navies in the Azov Sea, mostly involving border guards and fishing boats, reached a climax when three Ukrainian military ships entered the Sea without the formal clearance. Russia decided to seize the opportunity to remember that Crimea is definitively its territory – while Ukraine by doing so wanted once more to assert its ownership of the peninsula.

By annexing Crimea and helping civil war in the Donbass, Russia provided Kiev with a solid rock from which to escalate its arguments towards the West. Mainly “Russia threat our country but you too”… , “not only with its military might, but with a vicious hybrid war”. In consequences, self-interest and respect for ‘values’ constrain the “democratic world” to help Ukraine to counter the growing strength of the “illiberal democracies” and the authoritarian regime of President Putin. Poroshenko even transformed himself as a champion of “repressed Tatars”, a group Kiev did not care much earlier, having reduced its autonomy in the name of national unity.

The Azov saga provided for an opportunity to further hammer the slogan “Help Ukraine the century old victim of Russia” – forgetting that a large part of Ukraine escaped any Moscow influence until WWII (and it was the Soviet Union, not Russia). The tempo was not innocent (see previous article) but Poroshenko used the incident not only for exposing Russian military threat but for putting on Russia the responsibility for Ukraine economic and social hardship.

In fact, the underdevelopment of Ukrainian potential is as old as independence thanks to resistance to reforms, corruption – and a flow of Russian money, including cheap energy, on the Kremlin naïve assumption one can base foreign policy solely on cultural and economic links, and Slavic brotherhood.

Under Poroshenko, the economic deconstruction was also linked to his nationalistic approach of all aspects of national life. The purges of Soviet/Russian trained personal in the state structures have deprived Ukraine of good professional in favour of nationals, trained by American and other Westerners too happy to undermine further Russian influence; but the multiplicity of the training formed poorly structured teams. Under the pretext that all Russian individuals and structures working or travelling regularly in Ukraine are potential fifth column, he destroyed commercial and economic agreements with Russia, confiscated bank and industrial assets, cut infrastructures links. On 6th December, Parliament votes not to prolong the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with Russia beyond 2019.

In a country divided by history and culture, it does not help national cohesion and reconciliation that the use of the Russian language has been constantly restricted, including in the media, a move extended to regional councils that revoke Russian’s regional status (the latest in Kherson).

Now Poroshenko claims huge financial losses due to the “blockade” of the Azov sea Ukrainian ports, such as Mariupol. In fact, the port was already in decline, having lost 2/3of its fret with the collapse of Donbass industries and because of infightings between rival oligarchs (some linked to the authorities, others not) for the control of the port.

Even religion is a tool in the machine. On 15th December, a synod to elect the first all Ukraine Patriarch was presided by Poroshenko himself. The president, not a religious leader, rushed to announce the result to the crowd gathered around St Sophie cathedral explaining that finally Ukraine was “breaking its chains” from Moscow. The 39-year-old head of the new Independent Church, Iepifani, is almost unknown but for his patriotic fervor including visits and blessing of the soldiers in the Donbass, support for Crimea independence. The Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate, that did not attempt the synod, has been accused of lack of support for the “fight against the invaders” and, on 22th December, Poroshenko signed a law obliging ‘religious organisations in Ukraine that are governed from an aggressor state’ to clearly indicate this fact. The president dreams of course of receiving the official document from Constantinople granting autocephaly on 6 January, allowing patriotic fervor during the orthodox Christmas celebrations.

Economic destruction

War is costly. The money spent for military equipment, with Western help, and the sale of old stocks put Ukraine back on the map of big exporters. But people expect more butter than canons.

Hence Poroshenko’s motto that Russia is not only as an aggressor, but also the destructor of Ukraine’s economy. This argument is supposed to distract voters in a country whose economy never took off properly, has been weakened (among others) by successive cuts of links and infrastructures with Russia. The argument is also supposed to attract more money from the West, to a country that is technically bankrupt, living on Western loans and aides. But those loans are deepening the national debt which will oblige Ukraine to depend of foreign patronages for a long time.

In another role, that of a Ukrainian Plato, Poroshenko salutes each new Western sanction against Russia as a personal victory and call for more with an almost religious fervor. If Ukraine is poor, at least Russian will go on its knees too. But Delenda Moskva smells more and more weakness and desperation, as illustrated in a recent New York Ties Opinion piece entitled “For Ukraine, Putin must be punished” in which Poroshenko quotes dramatic figures of damages inflicted by Russian on his people and proofs that Russia is preparing new military operations. The figures are extravagant, and he ought to know that the West possesses the real figures. Even NATO doubts that Russia based nuclear weapons in Crimea.

Tepid West

The fact is that Poroshenko hoped for more from the West after the Azov incident. Even the most anti-Russian westerners cannot forget the precedent of Georgia, when in 2008, to increase his political profile, president Saakashvili’army shoot Russian peacemakers in Ossetia, hoping that the inevitable Russian reaction will call NATO intervention. He lost the presidency, and even citizenship.

Despite that, Poroshenko is still certain that a Russian new operation could force the West to take more decisive actions. He is right to believe that the West went too far in its unconditional support for Ukraine to step back today. But Ukraine armed forces can not win a confrontation with the Russian army, and it is clear that even those who push for more NATO ships in the Black and the Azov Seas, exclude direct military actions.

The West (but also the neighbouring countries) are concerned by rumours that a “provocation” can take place on 24-25 December. In the meantime, a slow evolution is emerging in the West about the best way to help Ukraine and deter Russian aggression.

For instance, Thomas de Waal for Carnegie enlarge previous discussions about a new approach of secessionist regions without mentioning Crimea. It would consist in engaging with those regions, accepting the de facto situation without official recognition. There is also the proposition by Chatham House to deter Russian aggression not by sanctions, they do not work, but by helping Ukraine to live outside Russian might. This includes helping the development of new infrastructures, still mostly inherited from centralised Soviet system, to connect Ukraine with the rest of the world.

Russia wait and see

After the Azov incident, Russian has adopted a lower profile than expected, making the traditional protestations and accusation of provocation, but on a minor tone compared to some past episodes. Moscow sees all those developments as a fall back into the traditional and simplistic Moskal bashing (Moskal is the derogative name for Russian by Ukrainians). This is in line with the position adopted months ago: Putin considers that nothing can be done any more with president Poroshenko whose politic consists essentially in denouncing Russian hand behind all Ukrainian self-created problems.

Better to wait for the presidential elections. Putin knows that no “Russian-friendly” candidate can emerge after years during which Russia has been described as the arch enemy. In fact, a Russian-friendly president can boomerang. The ideal would be to deal with someone who is simply a non- Russian hater, allowing a “civilised dialogue”.

Bilateral relations have been reduced to a minimum, and discussions are regularly held (with a pause lately) directly between Russian and American special envoys, Kurt Volker who is a kind of vice-roi of Ukraine and Vladislav Surkov.

In the meantime, the law on citizenship has been modified to facilitate the acquisition of Russian citizens, essentially in direction of Ukrainian citizens.

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