An essay on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, part #2: domestic political manouverings

Russia’s principal problem with Ukraine is that Kyiv’s current political leadership is seeking to strike out in a direction independent from Moscow’s foreign policy, causing perceived damage to Russia’s national interest as Kyiv’s actions raise the possibility of NATO troops coming ever further towards Russia’s borders. Hence Russia is now moving her troops ever close towards NATO’s borders. The concept of Ukraine as a buffer state in which there is neutrality between the two sides is dissolving.

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By Matthew Parish

The politics of Russia and of Ukraine have been intimately intermingled ever since the formal divorce of the two countries from the Soviet Union in 1991. As with many collapses of larger states into smaller ones, the old political habits do not just disappear overnight and power relations between the two capitals remain. Russia’s principal problem with Ukraine is that Kyiv’s current political leadership is seeking to strike out in a direction independent from Moscow’s foreign policy, causing perceived damage to Russia’s national interest as Kyiv’s actions raise the possibility of NATO troops coming ever further towards Russia’s borders. Hence Russia is now moving her troops ever close towards NATO’s borders. The concept of Ukraine as a buffer state in which there is neutrality between the two sides is dissolving.

The principal reason for Russia’s imminent invasion of Ukraine is Moscow’s antipathy towards the strongly pro-western regime in Kyiv, led by President Volodimir Zelensky who is mere puppet of one of the wealthiest and most powerful Ukrainian oligarchs, Igor Kolomoisky. If one doubts this, recall that Mr Zelensky had no previous political career, no political party, no substantial funds of his own, and virtually the entirety of his political campaign to become Ukrainian President in 2019 was funded by Mr Kolomoisky. Zelensky won the election over the incumbent President, Petro Poroshenko, because votes were straightforwardly bought. Carousel voting in the amounts of 10 to 20 EUR per vote is common in Ukraine. (Carousel voting is a form of electoral corruption in which a voter is given a pre-marked ballot paper by an agent to place in the box and brings the blank ballot paper out of the polling station in his pocket, in exchange for his fee.)

With some 22 million people voting in that election, of which some 17 million voted for Zelensky, we might estimate the costs of buying that election at some EUR 250 million: an acceptable fee for Kolomoisky, whose precise wealth is not known but conservatively stands at some EUR 2 billion. The bank was used to paying dividends in the region of EUR 1.5 billion per year or more to its shareholder (Privatbank is the largest bank in Ukraine, some 50% of Ukrainians banking with it). It was nationalised on dubious legal pretexts (legal pretexts in Ukraine are always dubious; it must have the worst legal system in Europe bar none) in 2016 by the Poroshenko regime. The same happened to Ukrainian International Airlines, the flag carrier that was curiously owned by Igor Kolomoisky as well. which while never hugely profitable holds a valuable asset base of airport infrastructure and aircraft. Hence the expenditure of some EUR 250 million to remove the Petro Poroshenko regime from power and obtain de facto renewed control of his bank and his airline, Kolomoisky bought the election.

To understand how a renewed civil war emerged from disputes involving two commercial entities, we must go back at the very least to the Maidan Revolution of 2014. This western-backed and western-funded revolution against the Presidency of the Russia-leaning Viktor Yanukovich was surprising in its timing, taking place only a few months before he was due to stand for re-election. The Ukrainian political classes had come to understand the Presidency to represent a very delicate balance of power between those in Ukraine who look west and those who look west, with Presidents alternating between these two peoples in subsequent elections. In each case the President would be backed by one or more of the small class of Ukrainian oligarchs (there is only a handful) and the election results would proceed accordingly.

The Maidan Revolution upset that delicate status quo, and represented a real danger of a break-up of Ukraine. The political classes in Kyiv were wondering why there should be a revolution then, when a western-leading President would be installed only a year later in elections. However the western leaders had missed the point that Ukraine is not a democracy at all but rather an anarchy in which elections are purchased with money, and they feared that a pro-Russian President such as Yanukovich might stay in office in Kyiv indefinitely. Moreover Yanukovich, a rough and boorish man, made a lot of mistakes, aggravating both west-leaning Ukrainians and Moscow. So the west funded a revolution, and he went.

Moscow was not prepared to tolerate this slap in its face to Russia’s right to exercise political influence in Ukraine which had been shared between Moscow and the West for several years by then. Hence Moscow implemented a long-dormant plan to occupy Crimea and claim it as Russia’s; and Russia funded and provided logistical support to Ukrainian oligarch militias based in Donbas, thereby creating what we now called the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (two entities that might be reaching the end of their lives most shortly). As to the successor President to Yanukovich, a rough deal was hashed out whereby a wealthy Ukrainian businessman Petro Poroshenko (not in the circle of top oligarchs but nevertheless of some limited influence in Ukrainian business and political circles) would be elected as a compromise President. In practice Poroshenko would criticise Moscow before the West, in order to obtain aid and development funding and foreign policy concessions such as allowing Ukrainian passport holders to travel visa-free in the Schengen Zone. But at the same time he would hold regular (some said daily) talks with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to ensure that Ukrainian trade and foreign policy actions were private coordinated with Moscow. Hence peace of a sort was reached in Donbas, and the annexation of Crimea was completed.

Mr Kolomoisky was one of the oligarchs with influence in what is now the semi-autonomous regions of Donbas. He also controls the industrial city of Dniepropetrovsk and its surrounding oblasts (regional areas). Kolomoisky with Poroshenko’s dealings with the Kremlin, because his bank in particular flourished on the basis of its leaning westwards, being one of the most disciplined and well-run banks in Ukraine and opening financial markets between Ukraine and the West. Likewise, Ukrainian International Airlines had become a reasonably tolerable Western European carrier. Kolomoisky’s business interests had become co-aligned with those of Western Europe, particularly after the Donbas’s descent into chaos in 2014. Therefore the centrist President Poroshenko, who spoke in public as a western-leaning patriot but acted in private in coordination with the Kremlin, became unappealing to him. Kolomoisky found his influence diminished, as his own lines direct to the Kremlin had been foreclosed by Poroshenko. The nationalisation of the bank and the airline were blatant moves by Potroshenko to weaken Kolomoisky. Kolomoisky therefore started plotting to remove Poroshenko from office, as a result of which Poroshenko nationalised Privatbank and UIA in 2016, and placed Kolomoisky under criminal investigation. Kolomoisky had to flee to Israel, Ukraine issuing warrants against him that could have touched him elsewhere in Europe.

Nevertheless, even deprived of his bank and his airline, Kolomoisky maintained sufficient wealth to cast a long hand into Ukrainian politics from his place of temporary exile in Israel. He would not suffer being removed from Ukraine, and so, as the Ukrainian oligarch with perhaps the largest reserves of liquid funds, he decided to enter into the Ukrainian election to remove Poroshenko and replace him with a robustly pro-western figure. The way he did this was to fund a popular television show in which the main character acts as the President, in order to give facial recognition to Volodymir Zelensky; and then to buy him into office. He also paid for the campaign of an earlier disgraced western-leaving Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, to give the appearance of a genuine three-way competition. Poroshenko, not having access to anywhere near the funds in Kolomoisky’s war chest, did not stand a chance despite having served as a tolerably good President in times of extreme stress for the country. He had picked a cabinet mixing pro-western and pro-eastern names, and managed to keep them working approximately together insofar as that is possible in a country like Ukraine. But he had chosen a powerful enemy in Kolomoisky, who removed him.

Because Kolomoisky’s politics had tipped toward the European Union and the United States, once he was back in power via his proxy Zelensky he caused Zelensky and the Ukrainian central government as a whole to take a whole series of anti-Russian actions and to deliver bouts of anti-Russian bile across the western world. This made it virtually impossible for Russia to achieve its principal foreign policy goal, the lifting of western sanctions imposed after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, in exchange for which Moscow would gladly have cleared out the People’s Republics in Donbas and handed that territory ambiguously back to Ukraine. Hence from Moscow’s perspective, Kolomoisky had become a problem. He had bought an election – that is fine from Moscow’s perspective, it’s the sort of thing Russians are used to – but he had put in place a viscerally anti-Russian President who was inviting US clandestine troops into Ukrainian territory and sounding the need to increase the number of NATO troops on Ukraine’s western borders: something Moscow wishes to prevent at all costs. Kolomoisky had become an irritation to the Kremlin. And the one thing you don’t want to do when you were formerly close to and under the protective umbrella of the Kremlin, is to disappoint the Russian President with your disloyalty.

Hence the forthcoming war is about removing Igor Kolomoisky from his de facto position as President of Ukraine. Under Zelensky, former President Poroshenko had been the subject of “corruption investigations” and had fled the country. (The reader may be spotting a pattern about the fates of Ukrainian politicians who fall from grace.) However on 18 January 2022 Poroshenko flew back into Boryspil, Kyiv’s main airport, went straight to court, and was released on bail despite having fled the charges abroad over an extended period. Obviously the Judges understood the politics of this act very clearly. Poroshenko will be exonerated of his “corruption investigations” once Zelensky (and hence Kolomoisky) have been removed from office by actions of the Red Army. No doubt some “corruption investigations” will then be opened against Volodymir Zelensky, who at some point would do well to flee Ukraine in the time-honoured tradition of Ukrainian politics.

What happens next to Poroshenko remains something of an enigma. Presumably Moscow has promised him something to return to Kyiv amidst a frankly dangerous political dynamic. The Kremlin may have him in mind for a return to the Presidency; or if not, then another senior role in which he may continue to serve as a private liaison with Moscow. Poroshenko undertook the role of national healer once; the Kremlin may think he can do it again. Unlike Yanukovich, who Moscow was unimpressed with because his rhetoric was blatantly pro-Russian and Moscow saw no value in that (President Putin does not need his fur stroked; all such rhetoric could do was upset the West), Poroshenko knows what to say to western powers to serve as a useful mediator between the West and Moscow. Whether he will obtain the top job will depend upon whether the Kremlin wants him to have it and how much money they are prepared to throw at the problem (presumably a lot, given that they already have a standing army of some 100,000 troops and corresponding armour amassed on the Ukraine-Russia border).

Once a satisfactory candidate for President is installed in Kyiv, Moscow may well withdraw. It depends upon how much political resistance the west puts up to the installation of a candidate in the vein of Mr Poroshenko. Russia will assert that she has “stabilised” the political situation. The Ukrainian army will be “restructured” with Russian military “technical assistance”, to remove foreign influences and to step back from proximity to the Russian border. The People’s Republics will be abolished, either being handed back to Kyiv if Russia receives something in exchange for that; or being absorbed into the Russian Federation if not. And we will get back to something approximating to the political situation in 2014.

And what about Mr Kolomoisky. He is too senior, and too great a traitor, to be placed under “corruption investigations”. He might find himself having an unfortunately prepared meal at a very particular type of Russian restaurant. Or (which amounts to the same thing) he might be invited to commit suicide. The Russian President usually gives betrayers that option, on the basis that after their deaths their glorious deeds will be written up in the media and in the alternative who is to say which family members and friends will be hunted down by GRU (elite Russian military intelligence) units for assassination across the world. Mr Kolomoisky in particular needs to consider his next moves very carefully indeed, if he is not to suffer the fate of many an oligarch or unwise senior official who Mr Putin concluded to be a betrayer. The game plays out rather as though an episode in the history of the Roman Senate, the wealthiest oligarchs serving as conspiring Senators who the Emperor periodically catches and invites to poison themselves. The politics of Russia are a rough business, and those of Ukraine are, alas no better.

The West needs to understand this final point, if it is to get its Ukraine policy right. The Ukrainian state is an appalling impoverished shambles with the lowest GDP per capita in Europe, of GBP3,700. There is no central government of significant effect. The country is divided up between oligarch Dukes who compete for influence both East and West. Ukraine is a constant sponge for aid money from the west and hydrocarbon subsidies from the East. The country makes virtually nothing exportable in any quantities to speak of. She is important solely because she is a buffer state; and now she is getting buffeted around. In time the West will come to understand, and they will not impose substantial sanctions because significant sanctions would be self-defeating: Europe relies upon Russian gas that flows through Ukrainian pipes. A careful power-sharing arrangement is therefore necessary for Ukraine, and sophisticated diplomacy will be required to record the accord given the parties’ implacably hostile publicly stated ideological divisions. Let us hope that diplomacy succeeds sooner rather than later, to mitigate loss of life that is the inevitable corollary of war.

Matthew Parish is the Managing Partner of The Paladins,, a private firm of legal, security and intelligence consultants. He is the author of three books and over four hundred articles  on international law, international relations and geopolitics. Follow the author on Twitter @parish_matthew.

This article was originally published by The Paladins and is available by clicking here

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.




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