There are indications that Ukraine’s new president is anxious to ease tensions with Russia and resolve the conflict in the Donbass along the lines of the Minsk peace accords.
It was by distancing his campaign from former president Petro Poroshenko’s unrelieved diet of Russophobia and militarism that Volodymyr Zelensky secured his election victory in May, riding a popular tide of war-weariness.
How committed to peace he really is remains an open question however. And in any case, whatever President Zelensky’s personal agenda may be, imperialism continues to require Kiev’s services as a permanent provocation against Russia, putting wind in the sails of ultra-nationalism.
Imperialism emphatically does not want to see the restoration of neighbourly relations between the two countries.
It’s a year ago now since Ukraine’s navy staged a provocation in the Kerch strait, sending three of its ships up the narrow channel that links the Black Sea and the Azov Sea. In a clearly pre-rehearsed confrontation, the Ukrainian crews, flouting maritime safety rules, refused to take normal directions from border guards and insisted that they had the right to pass through willy nilly.
This stage-managed confrontation led to an altercation that ended with the border guards impounding the ships and detaining the crews pending investigation. Happily, this incident passed off without bloodshed, doubtless to the chagrin of the schemers back in Kiev.
The Ukrainian crews were finally released on 7 September as part of a large-scale prisoner swap, and then in November Moscow also released the three ships. These developments have been widely interpreted as prefiguring a thaw in relations between Kiev and Moscow.
This thaw seemed to be confirmed by the announcement at the end of September that Kiev, along with Moscow, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the breakaway Donbass republics had all signed up to the Steinmeier formula, an addendum to the second Minsk peace agreement that gets into the practical detail of how to organise elections in the Donbas and secure autonomy (or ‘special status’) for Donetsk and Lugansk within the national framework.
Former president Poroshenko throughout his term of office paid lip-service to the Minsk agreement, but in practice heaped up obstacles to its implementation. Now in sullen opposition, the former president likes to call the Steinmeier formula (named after a former German foreign minister who tabled it in 2015) the ‘Putin formula’.
On the heels of the Steinmeier announcement, a fascist mob demonstrated outside Zelensky’s office demanding “no capitulation”.
Meanwhile, on the battlefront, some limited progress has been made in disengaging troops from both sides.
At the end of October, Kiev confirmed that its troops had begun to pull back from the village of Zolotoye in Lugansk. Zelensky had earlier paid a personal visit to the area, confronting armed veterans and Azov fascists who threatened to sabotage the withdrawal.
The situation was complicated by the fact that the interior minister Arsen Avakov (a hang-over from Poroshenko days) is head of the national guard, of which the Azov fascist militia are a key part. Zelensky ordered his interior minister to pull his thugs out of Zolotoye, earning himself fresh accusations of treachery.
It was back in 2016 that it was first agreed, as a pilot scheme, to create three security zones, around Zolotoye, Petrovskoye and Luganskaya, but it never happened in Luganskaya, while in the other two zones some early progress was reversed as Ukraine forces reneged on the agreement. In summer this year disengagement efforts resumed, and – as of now – all three security zones are in place.
It must be stressed, however, that elsewhere on the frontline the shelling by Kiev forces on civilian areas like Gorlovka and Yasinovataya continues to take its toll.
Welcoming the signs of progress, Russian president had these words of caution: “Disengagement should be completed along the whole contact line, so that cannons are not used, and people don’t die.
“This should definitely be done as soon as possible,” adding: “It is good that forces were disengaged in those two places, and we welcome that – both the actions of Ukrainian authorities and unrecognised republics. However, some ambiguity emerges here, as the Ukrainian foreign minister, if I am not mistaken, said that Ukraine may give up the Minsk agreements completely.
“What does this even mean? What will we discuss in the Normandy format then? We see statements by officials that other armed units – police and national guards – may return to the zone where heavy weaponry was withdrawn. In that case, DPR and LPR self-defence forces will do the same. Is this necessary if forces were already withdrawn? I don’t think that it is.” (Putin calls for soonest completion of disengagement of forces in Donbass, Tass, 14 November 2019)
So the jury is still out on Zelensky’s new broom. To hear him talk at the recent Nato jamboree in Odessa, he comes across as a complete and willing slave of imperialist warmongering.
With four Nato warships parked outside in the harbour, Zelensky displayed his value-for-money credentials. Ukraine, he said, is an integral part of the Euro-Atlantic security space where it “is not just consuming but has also been supplying security for many years”.
He begged his masters to let Ukraine join Nato’s Enhanced Opportunities partner programme and the Nato membership action plan – anything to get an inch closer to the promised land of Nato membership.
Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg patted him on the head, reassuring him that Nato highly appreciated its partnership with Ukraine and complimenting Kiev on its assistance in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. On this showing, the west has Zelensky safely in its pocket. (Nato-Ukraine commission meets in Kiev, uacrisis.org, 1 November 2019)
But what, then, should we make of a recent New York Times interview with Igor Kolomoyskyi, the stupendously wealthy oligarch who is widely credited as fronting the money behind the presidential throne?
Owner of, among many other things, the television station that showcased Zelensky’s acting talents, Kolomoyskyi chose this opportunity to publicise his own view on the direction in which Ukraine is currently heading. Kolomoyskyi, initially an unbridled Euromaidan enthusiast, fell out with fellow-thief Poroshenko over the nationalisation of PrivatBank.
This disgruntled gangster, described by Putin as a “swindler”, is now turning his bile on the west. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is reported to be withholding an aid package until such time as the Kiev government gets on with prosecuting Kolomoyskyi for embezzlement.
(Curiously, this attempt to make IMF assistance conditional on the hounding of Kolomoyskyi is not greeted with the official outrage aroused by Trump supposedly threatening to suspend an aid package were Hunter Biden allowed to dodge justice on corruption charges.)
Kolomoyskyi’s remarks about the west are doubtless prompted by this personal animus, but in his rage he has let slip some home truths that will make for uneasy reading for imperialism. In the interview, he said that he now believes Kiev should get closer to Russia, arguing:
“They’re stronger anyway. We have to improve our relations. People want peace, a good life, they don’t want to be at war. And you are forcing us to be at war, and not even giving us the money for it. You all won’t take us, there’s no use in wasting time on empty talk.” (‘Nato will be soiling its pants’: Ukrainian tycoon seen as power behind president calls for ‘new Warsaw Pact’ with Moscow, RT, 13 November 2019)
How far if at all Kolomoyskyi’s protege might quietly share some of his erstwhile boss’s noisy frustration remains to be seen.
Whichever president holds office, it is clearly in Ukraine’s national interests to implement the Minsk peace agreements, recognise the autonomy of Donetsk and Lugansk, restore neighbourly relations with the Russian Federation, extricate itself from its unequal trade relations with the EU and cease to be a patsy for imperialist provocations.