As Ukraine ramps up for its upcoming March, 2019 presidential election, what’s the political mood in Kyiv? In the midst of escalating tensions with Russia in the Azov Sea, which has even prompted president Petro Poroshenko to declare martial law, what are the chances that the West has Ukraine’s back? Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a lavish meeting of the Yalta European Strategy (or YES) meeting in Kyiv, which draws together hundreds of elite politicians, economists, experts and business leaders. Though participants projected a façade of political unity between Ukraine and the West, behind the scenes I detected a certain degree of unease, a reflection no doubt of underlying political malaise in Europe and the U.S. which has in turn exposed fractures within the western alliance.
Ukraine’s respective presidential candidates are in the midst of a high stakes game to demonstrate their western bona fides and reformist, Maidan credentials. Speaking at Kyiv’s grand Mystetlyk Arsenal museum, major contenders made their pitch to the crowd. Yulia Tymoshenko, leader of the Batkivshchyna party and grand dame of Ukrainian politics, said she would not compromise Ukraine’s borders or tolerate any form of Russian control. Glancing around the audience, I observed that many young people from the Maidan generation regarded Tymoshenko warily and only provided tepid applause once the politician finished her speech.
In contrast to Tymoshenko, Anatoliy Grytesenko of the Civil Position Party seemed to cast himself as the more rightful heir to the Maidan by emphasizing the need for effective protection of citizens’ rights, freedoms and property. This time, the crowd applauded somewhat politely. But it wasn’t until pop musician Slava Vakarchuk took the stage that the audience really perked up. Regarded as a possible “dark horse” candidate, youthful Vakarchuk nevertheless refused to be pinned down on whether he might drop his hat in the ring. After he spoke, the younger generation, particularly women, swooned and applauded loudly.
Mood in the Baltics
Emblazoned across huge banners in the conference hall was the grandiose title of this year’s YES conference: “The Next Generation of Everything.” But while individual panels sought to clarify what the future may hold for Ukraine, E.U. and NATO, participants seemed somewhat unsure about where wider geopolitics may be headed. In an effort to get a sense of the mood within the western alliance, I caught up with Estonians who were attending the conference. Unlike Ukraine, Estonia is a member of NATO as well as the E.U., and the Baltic nation has sought to shore up Kyiv’s cyber-defenses.
On the margins of the conference, I caught up with Marko Mihkelson, Chairman of Foreign Affairs in the Estonian parliament. “It would be a surprise,” he told me, “if Russia didn’t attempt to sway hearts and minds” by conducting some sort of hybrid intervention in advance of the Ukrainian presidential election. The Kremlin could make use of any number of underhanded means at its disposal, for example by trying to influence politicians or mounting disinformation campaigns. The Estonian argued that NATO as well as the E.U. should pay more visible attention to Ukraine, adding “I would like to see more official visits from Brussels and Washington.”
Despite the gathering storm clouds, Mihkelson seemed more or less bullish on the political challenges moving forward. To be sure, there was a great degree of political uncertainty in the aftermath of the Maidan revolution several years ago, but today Ukraine is bolstered by more western support and is better equipped to deal with outside threats as a result. If Mihkelson was worried about Trump’s unusual pro-Russia leanings in foreign policy, the official gave no indication. “You need to contrast rhetoric with reality,” the Estonian remarked. “If you look at the situation on the ground, you see U.S. defense commitments in the wider region over the past few years. In Poland, for example, the U.S. has boots on the ground. That matters: a solid and visible deterrence is the best way to keep Russia from asserting itself in its border hinterland.”
Gert Ansu, Estonia’s ambassador in Ukraine, seemed to agree with his colleague’s assessment. When I asked the diplomat if Tallinn was concerned about Trump’s pro-Russia statements at the recent Helsinki summit, Ansu replied “I don’t think Helsinki changed the overall trajectory: our ties to the U.S. remain as strong as ever and Washington remains the main pillar of the Trans-Atlantic alliance regardless.” But surely, I pressed, the Baltics must have been concerned when Trump seemingly questioned U.S. commitment to defend Montenegro, a NATO member? Hardly batting an eye, Ansu said he believed the U.S. would still observe Article 5, NATO’s collective defense clause.
The View From Kyiv
In contrast to Baltic officials, Vasyl Filipchuk was far less upbeat about the west. A former diplomat and senior adviser at Kyiv think tank International Center for Policy Studies, Filipchuk told me that western support for Ukraine had been disappointing and
“much less than what we would have expected.” Bear in mind, he added, that after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine voluntarily gave up its nuclear arsenal at the behest of the U.S. and its western partners. In response, the latter provided security guarantees to Ukraine which seem to have been forgotten in the midst of Russian aggression in Donbas. Of course, Filipchuk added soberly, in the Machiavellian world of realpolitik, “one must understand that Ukraine has never been perceived as being purely part of the west like the Baltic states, which should be protected and defended.”
So, just what are the chances that Russia will try to take advantage of Ukraine, which has received lackluster support from the west? In true cloak and dagger fashion, Russia could disperse cash from undisclosed accounts to provocateurs or political groups in Ukraine. “These groups might even be patriotic,” Filipchuk noted, “but they would be ‘played in the dark’ and do Russia’s bidding, that is to say increase the political temperature so that Ukraine explodes.” Having said that, the political expert believed the Kremlin wouldn’t try to meddle at nearly the same level as before. Furthermore, it’s doubtful whether Moscow has much influence over Ukrainian journalists or Russian media has much leverage over voters.
Whatever the case, Filipchuk warned that Russian intervention has left Ukrainian politics dangerously polarized. “We have to get rid of this black and white mentality of either you are a pro-western patriot intent on prosecuting the war with Russia, or you seek peace with Russia and you’re a traitor.” Donbas, the expert argued, should not be framed as a “zero-sum game,” in which Russia gets everything or to the contrary receives nothing. “This black and white picture,” he added, “is convenient for some political forces but it’s creating more splits within the country.”
Perhaps, such splits explain why Tymoshenko received such a tepid response at YES: the veteran politician has been linked to Russian interests, an accusation which can certainly represent the kiss of death in the present political milieu. And yet, Filipchuk noted, there’s no proof of such “fake news” allegations which can ultimately prove to be quite dangerous. Imagine a scenario, the expert remarked, in which Tymoshenko won the election and yet her opponents framed her as a Russian stooge?
Liberal German View
Having spoken to experts from the Baltics and Ukraine, I was eager to get the German perspective on east-west conflict and the political stakes in advance of Kyiv’s 2019 presidential election. On the margins of the YES conference, I caught up with Marieluise Beck, Director for East-Central and Eastern Europe at Berlin’s Center for Liberal Modernity. To be sure, she told me, the west should play more of a role in shoring up Ukraine’s cyber-defenses to counteract electoral disinformation, “yet a bigger problem, and this is of course rumor, is that Russia might disperse cash payments to individual candidates.”
Speaking to Beck, I got the impression that Germany as a whole might not be such a reliable partner for Ukraine. Buffeted by the rise of the far right and collapse of the political center under Angela Merkel, Berlin is navigating uncharted political waters in which the old order doesn’t hold as much weight. The problem, Beck explained, “is that vast segments of German society don’t feel like NATO is very important to them anymore, but what they don’t realize is that the Trans-Atlantic alliance is their life insurance.” But failure to protect such alliances, she warned, could give rise to more authoritarian impulses and very quickly “you can say goodbye to your ‘western values.’”
Beck went on to say that out of all the presidential contenders, possible dark horse candidate Vakarchuk tended to present himself as the most forward-looking and liberal. “The only question,” she added, “is whether it’s too soon for him or whether he has the requisite skills, support and tools to defend himself” in the murky and nebulous world of Ukrainian politics. “I’m a little worried for him,” the German remarked, “because we honestly don’t know who all the players are behind the scenes.”
Perhaps, a candidate like Vakarchuk could inspire Maidan’s youthful generation, which has soured on the country in recent years. But realistically, Beck explained, it will take Ukraine some time to turn the page and join the ranks of the west. “This country will need twenty years to really build up institutions, reliable public services, and a sense of responsibility within the collective population,” she remarked.” The key, Beck added, is to prevent youth from getting so discouraged that they wind up going to Germany to pursue a medical career. “If we manage to get these people to stay, or they leave but come back, then this country has a chance. I think one of the most important things is demonstrate a little patience.”
Black Sheep in the Crowd
Stefan Liebich, a member of the Bundestag from the leftist Die Linke party, further underscored the uncertainty over Germany’s role and future of the western alliance. Liebich, who is also a foreign policy spokesman for his party, has intimate knowledge of east-west tensions since he himself grew up in the old East Germany. Though he conceded that many older members of Die Linke condoned or excused Russian behavior, Liebich distanced himself somewhat from such elements, remarking that he was merely on the side of peace activists in Russia, Ukraine and the United States, while opposing oligarchs and billionaires in all these countries.
In the midst of YES, which is sponsored by billionaire Viktor Pinchuk and hosts its share of western defense and NATO hawks, Liebich sounded like a bit of a black sheep in the crowd. Differing from the consensus status quo at the conference, Liebich declared forcefully that “our party and me personally believe that NATO is completely the wrong actor here.” Rather than ramp up conflict through NATO, which would only “aggravate” the problem in Donbas, Liebich favored working through the OSCE, which counts the U.S., Russia and Ukraine as members.
While hardly excusing Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine, Liebich remarked that “Kyiv is paying the price for a lot of mistakes made by the West over the past few decades. During a Paris conference in 1990, the OSCE drafted a statement about joint common security, “but in reality, NATO kept expanding.” The problem with YES, he added, was that it was too centered upon the U.S., which “could wind up being more of the problem rather than the solution.” Ukraine doesn’t want to be a U.S. satellite but rather seeks a closer relationship to the E.U., so it would make sense for Pinchuk to invite fewer U.S. officials and ambassadors, and more politicians from Berlin and Brussels.
When I asked Liebich to comment on the current day Ukrainian milieu, the politician seemed unimpressed by the country’s electoral prospects. “In Eastern Europe as well as Ukraine, being a leftist isn’t so popular in the post-Communist era,” he said, adding that establishment politicians in Kyiv fail to call out right wing extremism. With a dearth of leftist parties in the Rada or any candidates who could realistically win the election, Liebich has tended to look elsewhere for a silver lining, focusing for example on NGO’s advocating for women’s rights, LGBT activists or trade unionists.
With Ukraine overwhelmed by a looming sense of foreboding and the west buffeted by unpredictable political winds, it’s unclear what may hold for the transatlantic alliance and western support for Kyiv ahead of next year’s election. While some participants at YES believed that fundamental western institutions such as NATO would hold together despite the tremendous turbulence of recent years, others seemed less certain about “The Next Generation of Everything.” Whatever they may say publicly, the experts are finding that their usual prognostications and formulations don’t hold as much water anymore.