Shock over Ukraine

February 22, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.
Image Removed
Pawel Kuczyński

[Update: I am pushing this live a few days early, because the Ukrainian situation is evolving so rapidly. One political corpse (Yanukovych) is out; apparently he has fled to Russia. Another political corpse (Tymoshenko) has been hastily rehabilitated and is ready to be put on the ballot for elections in May. Question is, Will there still be a country for her to (pretend to) run? Financial reserves are down to a few days, federal structures are being dismantled throughout the country, regional governors are fleeing, and a default on some €60 billion of Ukrainian bonds, many held by Russian banks, seems likely. Could this be just the kind of financial contagion needed to finally pop the ridiculous US equities bubble? At least two Ukrainian provinces are openly talking secession; one (Crimea) wants to immediately join Russian Federation.

A question for US State Dept. flunkies and EU functionaries: What does that do to your geopolitical calculus? At risk are five nuclear power plants and a lot of Russian gas that transits Ukraine on its way west. Ukraine is shaping up to be a lot like Yugoslavia, except with more than twice as many people, lots of crazed street fighters who think they now own the place, and a role critical to European energy security. If you aren’t in shock about this, then you haven’t been paying attention.]

I’ve been receiving a lot of emails asking me what I thought was happening in Ukraine. It took me a while to formulate an opinion, but what I now think is happening is this: a complete and utter failure of politics on every level.

Everyone has failed: the EU representatives, the US State Department with its Victoria “Fuck the EU” Nuland, the Yanukovych government, its political opponents, and the Kremin. And now they are all in shock and nobody knows what to do. Except for the protesters, who do know what to do: continue to protest. Most of them don’t even know what it is they are protesting, but, in essence, they are protesting the very existence of their country, which is made up of two parts: Eastern Poland, which is Ukrainian-speaking and predominantly Catholic, and Western Russia, which is Russian-speaking and predominantly Orthodox. The “Russians” outnumber the “Ukrainians” two to one. The ultimate resolution to the crisis lies in partitioning the country. Nobody has the stomach to even talk about it—yet. But until that happens we will continue being subjected to this strange spectacle, where every single actor in Ukraine does everything possible to undermine the country’s political system. Deep down, the Ukrainians don’t want there to be a different government in Kiev—they don’t want there to be a government in Kiev at all.
I now turn it over to Andrey Tymofeiuk, a Kiev resident who posted the following on his Facebook page, in obscenity-riddled Russian. (The Russian language is remarkably rich in obscenities, which pack tremendous expressive power but don’t translate into English with its paltry collection of four-letter words.) I think he provided a good, information-rich summary of the situation from all the angles, his graduate-level potty-mouth notwithstanding, so please give him props. Translation and clean-up are mine.
I think that the current situation is such that everyone is in terrible shock over what’s happening.
The EU representatives are shocked most of all. They were playing at being skillful diplomats, who stooped to work with the barbarous dictator of a third-world country. He was supposed to quiver with anticipation over his handout, in the form of an EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, which would have allowed him to don the mantle of the great Euro-integrator and win the 2015 elections.

Gazing down from their lofty diplomatic perch, these experts were blindsided when the barbarous dictator suddenly decided to do a bit of arithmetic, spotted a flaw in the deal (Ukrainian national bankruptcy) and swiftly decided to take his 46 million slaves away from the EU and give them to Moscow instead. And then, due to their ridiculous bureaucracy and complete lack of understanding of Ukrainian reality, they allowed an initially peaceful protest to develop into something like civil war.

The EU representatives really don’t need a bloody quagmire with a humanitarian crisis, hundreds of thousands of refugees, terrorist attacks, tanks on the streets and other such joys, and they will try to do all they can to prevent it, even if this means that the thick-headed barbarous dictator has to stay in power. But the problem is that the barbarous dictator seems to have lost his mind.
Now the EU representatives will have to answer some very difficult questions from television viewers back home. Such as: “Why are the people waving EU flags wearing Nazi emblems? Are we supporting Nazis?” or “If they are peaceful, then why are they throwing Molotov cocktails at policemen and taking them hostage?” That’s just for starters. Here is a more serious question: “Do we really want 46 million of these violent barbarians to join the EU?” And how about this one: “What makes you think that the five Ukrainian nuclear power plants will remain safe if the country falls into chaos?” Just one more, but it’s a doosie: “If Ukraine becomes ungovernable, how are we going to get our fix of Russian natural gas next winter? Are we going to freeze to death?” But the EU representatives may not have to field such questions much longer because their diplomatic careers may be at an end. After all, they haven’t been too effective, have they? To transform a perfectly peaceful protest into a bloody mess is not exactly the pinnacle of European diplomacy. A few mid-level al Qaeda operatives could have managed the job just as well.
Ukrainian opposition leaders are in shock as well. They were all ready to use the energy of the demonstrators to advance their own political ambitions—but now these ambitions seem rather beside the point. They are politicians, not field commanders, and now they don’t know what to do. Their task is an immensely intricate one: on the one hand, they must act like ardent revolutionaries, or the crowd will turn against them, haul them off the podium and string them up; on the other hand, they have to placate the Europeans and somehow make them believe that they still have influence, that this is still a peaceful protest, and that they are not leading illegal combatants to overthrow lawful authority, but legitimate, peaceful protesters. They still hope that the Europeans will give them jobs in the new puppet government once this is all over. So far, this is not working, and they themselves no longer believe that they are in control of anything. They sign agreements to end hostilities, and hostilities continue.

The barbarous dictator, Yanukovych, is in shock too. His luck has been quite good until now, but has suddenly run out. He rose from low ranks, became one of the kingpins of the Donbass region, survived the collapse of 2004 and then got rich and built himself a palatial estate complete with a Solid Gold Toilet. Up until now he had several different ways of winning the elections in 2015. After that, he could have borrowed a page from Lukashenko’s playbook and fashioned himself into Ukraine’s president-for-life. But now that dream is gone.

He had a couple of chances to resolve the situation, but he made missteps, constantly listening to the hard-liners in his administration, and now the situation is serious and his options quite limited. After the events of February 18 there is no way for him to even claim to be a caretaker president, in power until the 2015 elections. His special forces can’t disperse the protesters. He was counting on Putin’s help, but Putin is less than pleased with his avarice and stupidity, and is noncommittal even about granting him asylum should he need to escape from Kiev. Plus, he’d be leaving behind the Solid Gold Toilet. But if he sticks around the people might hang him. He has gone from trying to survive the next election to trying to survive until the next election.

The administration’s hard-liners are in shock too. They sincerely believed that all they have to do is wave some night-sticks and the crowds will disperse. They trucked in special forces, traffic cops, criminals under their control, assorted zombie idiots, and ordered them all to attack the protesters. They tried it once—nothing; tried it again—still nothing. Protesters aren’t dispersing. Just the opposite: the more they beat on the protesters, the more their numbers grow and the more violent their tactics become. Once they saw an armored personnel carrier —a symbol of their invincibility—engulfed in flames, their hands started to shake. They don’t think that Yanukovych will abandon them, but what can he do? Order in the army? But the army people haven’t been placated with special privileges like the special forces and the police, don’t have much to lose, and could easily cross over to the other side.

The special forces are in even greater shock. A lot of them also worked as policemen, happily beating up football hooligans and collecting bribes from businessmen. And now they are confronted with a most unwelcome situation: the hooligans and the businessmen are united against them. In the beginning it was fun for them—beat on defenseless people in the center of Kiev, receive medals and money, and go home. But things have dragged on and on. The the stupider ones (the majority) are now furious, can’t understand why they haven’t been ordered to just shoot everyone, and think that Yanukovych is a sissy. The smarter ones (the minority) understand full well how dangerous that would be. First of all, success is not guaranteed and losses are likely to be high on both sides—but they have no desire to lay down their lives in defence of the Solid Gold Toilet. Second, even if they manage to suppress and disperse the protesters, the day after that they would start getting killed off one by one, because there exists a database with their names and addresses. Unlike the higher-ups in the administration, they won’t have the chance to flee abroad, and will stay to experience popular anger firsthand. They really want Yanukovych to magically return the situation to the way it was before, but the probability of this happening is dropping every day.

The Kremlin is in a bit of shock as well. They were carefully masterminding the situation, supporting the Donbass thugs, gradually ramping up their influence in Ukraine and buying up key stocks. They were methodically planning to annex half of Ukraine as a “voluntary incorporation.” But then this idiot Yanukovych started giving them a hard time trying to extort money in return for joining the Customs Union, and then he made a series of mistakes leading to the current disaster—in the middle of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, no less! The right thing to do would be to send tank columns into Donbass and Crimea, but that would put a damper on the Olympics. Plus, nothing is ready—Ukraine is not tiny Georgia, and a beautiful textbook military operation would not be possible without preparation. And a less-than-stylish military operation could lead to visa problems and international banking difficulties for the Russian leadership at a minimum, and World War III at a maximum.

The Kremlin’s propaganda people are observing the formation of the contemporary Ukrainian nation right on the streets of Kiev, and they are crying bloody tears. How are they going to be able to explain to these people that their country is not Ukraine but “Little Russia,” that their national language is made up, and that they should come home to Mother Russia and start sending their taxes to Moscow? More importantly, what about the average Russian, who is used to thinking that “nothing can be done” but is now seeing right on his television screen how for three months now special forces, armed to the teeth, haven’t been able to do much of anything to put down a ragtag mob of provincials? Thoughts are starting to course through his brain—dangerous thoughts. And the average Belarussian is even further ahead in his thinking. He has stopped looking at the television screen, has walked over to the window, and is looking at the door of the nearest government office, where local officials recently beat a bribe out of him.

The Americans and the Brits are also in shock. They couldn’t possibly care any less about the sufferings of the Ukrainian aborigines. All they care about is that Russia doesn’t grow stronger. Until recently Yanukovych seemed like a pleasant sort of dictator—not too accommodating toward the Russians, and willing to talk business with the West, about shale gas and other natural resources in particular. But now there’s a bloody mess, with Molotov cocktails, troop carriers on fire, catapults, snipers… They could dismiss Yanukovych, but then who would honor all the agreements and contracts he has signed? And who will they talk business with? The guerilla warrior nationalists from The Right Sector? The club-wielding Cossacks? And what if the Russians achieve some kind of breakthrough, absorb Russian-speaking Eastern Ukraine into the Russian Federation, and grow even stronger?

Even China has something to think about. China has its own interests in Crimea, and is not so much shocked as perplexed: why can’t the local barbarian put down his opponents? There was a similar problem in China in 1989 on Tiananmen square, but there they mowed down hundreds of unarmed students without any undue excess of emotion and it was all over quickly. The West grumbled for a bit, but then resumed economic cooperation as if nothing happened. The Chinese can’t grasp why this dictator can’t do the totally obvious thing, but in general they don’t care. Ukraine is far away, and they have no desire to play a part in Eastern European conflicts. They have more important things to think about, like winning every single medal at the Olympic games in 2016 and putting a red flag on Mars.

The active population of Kiev has been in shock for a few months now, continuously, more and more every day. But at some point shock was replaced with active enthusiasm: it is better to go carry medicine to the wounded and to hurl shingles at police on Independence Square than to watch horrors unfold on television.

The passive population of Kiev is still quietly drinking beer and poking around with social networking apps. They don’t understand what’s happening yet. But if the unofficial state of emergency (including limitations on access to the city) last a few more days—and food and drink running out—then they will end up in a state of shock more serious than anything they have ever experienced.

So, who isn’t in shock? I saw him today on Independence Square: a Cossack dressed in national garb, who, with a smile on his face, was marching off to skirmish with the special forces. In one hand he held a shield with “Glory to Ukraine” written on it, and in the other a frighteningly big club. He was singing a patriotic song. It occurred to me that this man isn’t bothered by questions such as “How will I get home tonight?” or “What if something happens to me?” or “What is going to happen to us all?”

He isn’t in shock. He no longer gives a damn, bless him.

Tags: geopolitics, Natural Gas, Russia, ukraine