Ukraine Putin’s Playground

A Grand Panjandrum

I have always subscribed to ‘cock-up’ over ‘conspiracy’ at virtually any level of history or current affairs. Just look at Archduke Ferdinand, shot by a spectacularly badly organised Serbian nationalist in June 1914 whilst on a drive around Sarajevo – the ripples of that assassination caused a World War and arguably the Bolshevik revolution. With this philosophy of happenstance, it has been increasingly frustrating to listen to friends – newly interested in the Ukraine – sit back in their chairs and admire the strategic thinking of Vladimir Putin, praising Putin’s ability to manipulate events and get what he wants for a resurgent Russia. Oh really? Quite apart from the fact that many of Putin admirers are somewhere on the unsavoury spectrum of Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen, there is in fact little truth to the narrative of grand master Putin moving the pieces around his Eastern chess board. Indeed it always a tricky proposition to argue for the intellectual prowess of a leader who finds it necessary to keep his opposition leader under house arrest – Tony Blair never had to resort to that.

As someone who has carved out a living in Ukraine for the last number of years, I think it is safe to say the general attitude of Russia to Ukraine has been one of benign neglect. Rather like England’s current view of Scotland – it’s nice to know it’s there and to feel some sense of ownership. The unfortunate fact for Russians is that despite the presence of their Black Sea fleet and their habit of holidaying in Odessa every summer, Ukraine has been an independent country for over 20 years. It is Russia’s failure to adjust to the post-Soviet era and to abandon her sense of the ‘Near Abroad’ which so aggravates her neighbours – even ones as Russified as Ukraine.

The origins of the Maidan revolution – the uprising in Kiev which ultimately led to the demise of Ukraine’s President Yanukovych (Putin’s favoured despot) – do not lie in nationalism or any anti-Russian agenda. The pro-EU demonstrators in Kiev – a stance which makes up the majority of the country’s voters, and the vast majority of those under 50 – do not want a war with Russia. The demonstrators wanted better living standards, a right to be paid the going rate for their skills, the right to travel and work abroad, the right to elect a government that worked for their interests rather than to line its own pockets.

To go back to the exit of Yanukovych. It was interesting that the shooting of dozens of demonstrators by paramilitary snipers in Kiev’s streets was not the only factor in the President’s demise. In the end it was the multi-million dollar Presidential dacha which destroyed him politically. The pictures of locals trooping widemouthed round the llama pens and peering into the be-chandeliered dining room with its personalised vodka bottles and gold cutlery were the real coup de grace. It is difficult to understate the anger such extravagance causes in a poor country. The political elites have stolen with impunity for so long – but this was the first time the evidence was so clearly visible and thousands went to see it by car and on foot.

A few months before this revelation of Presidential graft, your correspondent was fortunate to be invited by some well connected locals to a ‘banya’ – a traditional sauna. He was surprised on driving out of Kiev not to see some small wooden hut by a lake, but in fact to roll through the barriers to a large car park apparently operated by the National Oil Company. On being ushered into one to neighbouring buildings, we found a fully staffed private spa. The cold buffet laid out with the obligatory horseradish vodka, a personal masseur, and a full-length heated indoor pool with slide. On enquiring we were told this spa had been built with public money and was only available to what was called ‘the family’, the President and friends. Indeed the excellent masseur was allegedly used to far more illustrious flesh than ours. We paid a reasonable amount for our use of the spa – but we were probably one of the first parties ever to do so!

In this culture of graft and poverty it is no surprise to feel anger and bewilderment in Ukraine. The new President elect – Petro Poroshenko – a local chocolate baron, has recognised this anger. He says he will be the first President to pay his taxes. The new government knows it has major challenges ahead, but it views Putin’s posturing as just that. Putin did not like the sight of a pro-Russian President being kicked out of power by general acclamation. A revolution in Kiev as the second most important Russianspeaking city after Moscow represented a major challenge to Putin statist model of control and a threat to his political survival. That is the real truth here.

“There is in fact little truth to the narrative of grand master Putin moving the pieces around his Eastern chess set.”

In many ways Ukrainians are quite a docile people – it takes a lot of provocation to produce violence along the current lines. But it should not be forgotten that the cause of the revolution and their first wish was simply to have the right to the things that most of us take for granted.

The average monthly wage in Ukraine is $250, a miserly level that hasn’t changed much in the last five years. Since the turn of the millennium by contrast per capita incomes in neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Poland or Russia have more than doubled – in Russia to levels four times those of Ukraine. This is the main impulse behind the calls for change in Kiev; people look around at other countries and ask – ‘why don’t we have that?’ The answer in Ukraine was wholesale corruption and a sclerotic post-Soviet economy designed to produce coal and rocket parts rather than IT engineers. Of course it is also that economy and those differential income levels which have helped cause trouble in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Imagine the conflicted thinking of a Ukrainian soldier or policeman on let’s say $500 per month, when he knows that the going rate in Russia for their job is more like $2,000. Just how hard are you going to fight to stay Ukrainian?

As such he has sought to destroy the interim government that resulted. He has not succeeded. Crimea will come to be seen as the poisoned chalice that it is for Russia. Putin’s reputation, puffed up by the annexation of the peninsula, will not survive the reality of governing a poor, multi-denominational, crimeridden province. Think Northern Ireland with added Tartar Muslims.

We should all wish Ukraine well. Her people have suffered almost innumerable indignities at the handsof  invading armies of various political persuasions. We should stand up for her independence, for the right of her people to gainful employment, free travel and free elections – the right to improve their lot. The EU from their perspective is a guarantor of these things. Our current scepticism about the EU is just that, a privileged doctrine of relativism. Sometimes there is a right side to be on. Take a side and tell the Putin admirers to think again. Russia has floated back to her current status on a sea of oil. Her bullying stinks of unearned wealth. Putin can avoid his inevitable fall from grace probably only as long as the oil price stays above say $60-70 a barrel – not much of a longterm vision really. Neither he nor Russia should expect too much sympathy if the oil money stops flowing. ●

Comments are welcome