BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
It’s been a tough week for the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko. On November 7th, Mikheil Saakashvili loudly resigned as governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region, decrying rampant corruption under Poroshenko’s leadership and vowing to fight it. Three years earlier, Saakashvili – much admired in Western capitals for his sweeping reforms as ex-Soviet Georgia’s firebrand head of state – had gone into exile from his home country, fleeing criminal charges he said were political. In mid-2015, Poroshenko extended Ukrainian citizenship to Saakashvili, his old friend from university, appointing him governor of one of Ukraine’s most corrupt territories and welcoming his help in building the post-Maidan state.
Then on November 12th, Saakashvili announced a new opposition movement, the ‘Platform of New Forces,’ to push for early parliamentary elections and ‘drain the swamp’. Fuelling Saakashvili’s fire, two days earlier Ukrainian journalists had uncovered a villa owned by Poroshenko on Spain’s Mediterranean coast that they said did not feature among the recent ‘e-declarations’ he had released with hundreds of other top officials. A video showed a neighbor in Malaga saying he’d occasionally caught sight of Poroshenko coming and going at his secret-yet-ostentatious pied-à-terre, usually for two or three days at a time. The president refuted the claim he’d failed to declare, but the political damage was palpable.
Saakashvili’s whirlwind political moves coincided with global hubbub over Donald Trump’s election. Already, the day after the US election, Saakashvili had publicly boasted of his 20-year friendship with Trump. Poroshenko, by contrast, had failed to meet with Trump in September during a visit to New York, meeting only with Hillary Clinton. He later said he’d tried to meet the Republican but had received no answer. The picture on the front page of his party newspaper’s October issue shows a gleeful Hillary shaking hands with a proud Petro, American and Ukrainian flags behind them. In the printed interview, Poroshenko mentions Obama and Clinton in the context of Ukrainian national interests, but not Trump.
On the morning of November 9th, I was trundling south in the back of a small Chevrolet from the eastern city of Kharkiv toward the ‘Anti-Terrorist Operation’ (ATO) Zone, a buffer area adjacent to the Russian-controlled separatist territories. Glued to my iPhone screen, in a few hours I would be entering an area in which the biggest response Trump’s victory could elicit was a shrug. ‘Internally displaced persons’ from territories now in pro-Russian rebel hands had in many cases been separated from friends and relatives for more than two years. Who sat in the Oval Office wasn’t high on their list of concerns.
Millions of Ukrainians view the entire war with suspicion: it’s all a scam, and the ‘regime’ is in on it, treating the war like just another ‘business’ opportunity. Many in the ATO Zone wonder why local government officials surrendered power so quickly to rebels who had entered their offices in the spring of 2014. After all, the legitimate authorities had been better armed, and it would have been easy – some say – to resist takeover. They view the Obama administration’s refusal to supply Ukraine with lethal weapons as correct because, they fear, US arms would be resold for a profit on the local market, possibly even to the separatists. The mindset is symptomatic of one of the Soviet era’s most tragic legacies: mass mistrust. Passing innumerable dilapidated buildings with roofs collapsed from neglect, one of my fellow travelers told that the government used images of such condemned structures on TV as examples of shelling damage, and the separatists’ barbarity.
The ATO Zone itself is a strangely still and dreary place. Glumness is the norm, and my companions told of having received stares when they laughed too loud. It doesn’t take long to find someone complaining about ‘the government,’ and among those who’ve lost relatives to shelling or suffered injury or severe damage to their homes, more seem to blame the pro-Western authorities than the rebels. That the death and destruction is overwhelmingly the result of mortar or ‘Grad’ fire from the ‘people’s republics’ to the east doesn’t faze them.
Some of the area’s residents claim the separatist war would never have happened if Poroshenko and his allies hadn’t pursued ‘fascism.’ They complain of pensions and salaries being too low or not paid on time. At the end of a solitary lane, past a home with blown-out windows and a large crater in the front yard, I found an old woman raking leaves into small fires. With the front line a few hundred yards away, nightly artillery fire was depriving her of sleep. She ranted about the government’s villainy, declaring Putin a ‘great man’ who had ‘protected his people,’ and saying she didn’t understand why the Kyiv ‘junta’ viewed her as a ‘separatist’. In desperate confusion, she croaked: ‘Glory to Putin! Glory to the militias!’
As the Chevy rumbled back to Kharkiv over stretches of road torn up by tank treads, I racked my memory for encounters over the previous three days that hadn’t radiated tragedy and despair. I was about to give up before it hit me. The soldiers. At each of the dozen or so checkpoints we crossed, the Ukrainian troops were not only upbeat; they actually cracked jokes. At one post, the soldier checking our documents had a patch on his uniform that read (in English): ‘Will Kill For Food’. At another, a soldier insisted on showing my US passport to his brothers in arms (none of whom had evidently ever seen one) and remarking how ‘beautiful’ it was. Yes, a few checkpoints flew the controversial black-and-red flag of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, a WWII-era group that naively believed the Third Reich could be a vehicle to independent statehood after it defeated Stalin’s USSR. But if a flag helped some of these troops make it through the night, who was I to judge?
The soldiers’ accommodations were often cinder-block ‘shacks’ with tarps draped over them, a fire visibly flickering inside after dark. In one place, a burned-out petrol station had been converted into makeshift barracks. The rattly Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders were reminders of the West’s refusal to supply them with modern weapons, yet morale was high, unmistakably. If I could take anything uplifting out of the Zone, it was that the most battle-hardened force in Europe today actually has spirit.
The creation of a viable army in less than three years is the biggest feather in Poroshenko’s cap, and it is a big one. Whatever Poroshenko’s other priorities, he has this one right: in time of war, the army comes first. The number of combat-ready troops at the time President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia in February 2014 was around 6,000. Poroshenko has presided over both a dramatic increase in the prestige of the professional military and an expansion in the number of permanent service personnel serving on the front by a factor of ten. Another 140,000 or so reserve troops rotate in and out of the Zone in shifts.
The long shadow Russia casts over Ukraine makes political and economic reform a precarious business, and history offers some guidance. Almost a century ago, attempts to introduce ‘social democracy’ in Ukraine led to Lenin’s abomination of a regime overrunning Kyiv. The naïve, fledgling Ukrainian government dismissed the need for an army, since the Lenin’s government in Moscow was ‘socialist’ too, and socialists didn’t wage war on each other. So it abolished Ukraine’s armed forces. By the time competent military leadership arose in the form of an absolute monarch backed by the Hohenzollerns and Habsburgs, it was too late. The Central Powers surrendered to the Allies, Ukraine’s monarchy collapsed, and its hapless socialists proved no match for the Red Army.
Mikheil Saakashvili isn’t the only person in Ukraine who thinks change is alarmingly slow. On the streets of Kyiv – capital of a country with an average monthly wage under $200 – it feels as if there are more Porsche Cayennes and other six-figure-price-tag vehicles per capita than in, say, Washington, DC. Representative democracy still feels hollow; wealth inequality feels obscene. Nevertheless, before the West gets behind radical reformer Saakashvili to deliver a blow to Ukraine’s foot-dragging authorities, it may be worth remembering that the Georgian ex-head of state’s experience doesn’t necessarily apply to his adopted country.
Many times the size of Georgia, Ukraine varies widely in political demographics. Vox populi in the Zone testifies to Kyiv’s losing battle for hearts and minds, to ‘two countries in one’. Oligarchs’ regional fiefdoms portend further division in a state without collective security guarantees. Saakashvili, when he enforced reform in his small Caucasian mother country, wielded dictatorial power. But whereas 30 years ago an absolute military dictatorship in Ukraine – a real ‘junta’ – would have been widely accepted as justified, one can only imagine Western reactions to autocracy in Ukraine today. As Poroshenko complies with Western busybodies’ demands for reform and democratization while fending off Russian subversion and a restart of full-scale war, his presidency is becoming the most difficult job in Europe.
Corruption in Ukraine makes it tricky for any Western leader to be the country’s champion. But while the incoming US president has given no clear signal of his policy toward Ukraine, there’s still hope he will continue penalizing Moscow while prodding Kyiv to be better. Ukraine is moving – slowly – in the right direction. The notoriously bribery-driven police have been revamped, and a judicial-branch overhaul is (on paper, at least) a model of constitutionalism. What Ukraine needs more than anything now is time.
Of course, as Saakashvili launches his anti-corruption insurgency (which he vows to do ‘peacefully’), many Ukrainians will see just another scam, pre-arranged between him and Poroshenko, for venal ends. They could be right. But in case they aren’t, the preoccupied West should encourage Saakashvili and Poroshenko to remain civil and constructive, and to avoid tipping over the ship of state.
Chad Nagle is a lawyer and freelance writer based in the Washington, DC area.