The EuroMaidan Revolution is a failure -- or so say some voices, with pedantic exaggeration. But let’s look at it another way. When did the world have a neat revolution the last time? The French Revolution, probably the greatest of them all, was not exactly a quick success, as it was devouring its own children with gusto, and culminating in the restoration of monarchy after Napoleon’s defeat, at least in the short run.
The American Revolution, which was simultaneously the War of Independence, was not very successful in its first year.
Washington’s rag-tag army was somewhat like Ukraine volunteer battalions last summer, and it had a difficult time against the English king’s Hessian professional mercenaries. It was only when the French expeditionary force under General Jean Rochambeau (“Rush them boys”) became decisively engaged, and the French fleet blocked the Brits from lifting the siege of Yorktown, did the Americans prevail.
Isn’t it ironic that today’s American media made an “Octoberfest” out of English Queen’s visit to New York in 2014, while some Manhattan dames were cheerfully curtsying? The French didn’t come close.
While speaking of failures, it is probably NATO that takes the cake, although U.S. President Barack Obama hails his own “strategic patience” in curbing Putin. Ukrainians at least are showing some class (besides dying at front lines), by being politely appreciative for the trickle-down of assistance from the West, while projecting at least 5 percent of GDP for defense spending.
The lesson is not to judge quickly, after only one year, what may actually be a momentous event (possibly the harbinger of the end of Russia’s empire). Ukraine’s ongoing war of independence sparked at Maidan looks like a pivotal remaking of eastern Europe.
Among criticism of Ukraine’s revolution is the no-strings-attached bashing of some of its volunteer battalions -- as in Adrian Karatnytsky’s piece (“Warlords and armed groups threaten Ukraine’s rebuilding,” Kyiv Post, Dec. 31, 2014). While some concern may be understandable, it sounds farcical when terminology is used such as “the neo-Nazi Azov brigade." What makes it neo-Nazi besides the 24-7 propaganda with internet trolling from Moscow? Is “right wing” or “far-right” description insufficient (if and when true)? The universe is full of right-wing spectrum (including Russia) -- and it is no crime. Even someone as liberal as I am understands that part.
Also, pointing to “the role of Ukraine’s interior minister Arsen Avakov” as lax towards volunteer units begs the question: Why not mention the much bigger problem of infiltration of Moscow’s spies in Ukraine’s security services (“Ukraine’s top intelligence agency deeply infiltrated by Russian spies”, Kyiv Post, Dec. 30, 2014).
Remarkably unrestrained is criticism of Avakov for providing some heavy weapons for volunteer battalions, which they did not have last August and took major losses during the Russian offensive in the Ilovaisk area near Donetsk. It may be recalled that incompetent high-level leadership was blamed at that time for not providing needed weapons.
The unusually harsh language used by Karatnytsky compels some reflection about the causes of friction between Poroshenko’s government and right-wing groups like the Right Sector. The languishing corruption in high circles in the government is the main cause of widespread resentment which also fuels the militants by far more than any ideology. It should also be recalled that the Right Sector (yes, mostly Russian speakers) gets high marks for its most active role at Maidan in overthrowing Viktor Yanukovych’s regime. As the protests were in a standoff in the most critical moment, credible e-mails from Maidan I am aware of read: Our chances are 50-50. Our last hope is Yarosh (Right Sector leader).
There may be more motivation than the ideological cloud to bash the right-wing militants. Such as: Is Karatnytsky reflecting the views of the Atlantic Council of which he is a Senior Fellow, and which is a microcosm of America’s commercial republic?
North American oligarchs always have warm feelings for Ukraine’s oligarchs. They themselves breed corruption in lobby-based American politics through economic power by legally financing Congressional campaigns and thus having a strong say in legislation (but no bribing of judges as in Ukraine).
At the time Viktor Yanukovych was elected president in 2010 and for a while longer, western big business world was impressed by his “free market ideas”. Yulia Tymoshenko was slighted for her populism and “lack of experience in economy."
Karatnytsky apparently was then similarly impressed by what seemed to be the free market glow in the Regions Party, at least as pointed in his American Interest article “Orange peels: Ukraine after revolution” (August 2010). He was also inclined to give Yanukovych “a benefit of doubt” about his authoritarian twist, six months into Yanukovych presidency, when the slide of democracy in Ukraine was already very clear.
And so did the Atlantic Council, inviting President Viktor Yanukovych to a luncheon with business elites in New York. He attended it on Sept. 24, 2010 with a prepared speech.
Alexander Motyl had presented a detailed argument disagreeing with Karatnytsky’s ambivalence for the Yanukovych regime at the time (“Would you buy a used car from Yanukovych?”, Kyiv Post, August 26, 2010).
Karatnytsky had shown poor judgment then and is doing it now.
Almost amusing is his exasperation at the Azov Battalion’s taking control of order in Mariupol in December without approval of local or national officials. What “local officials”? Most of them in Donetsk oblast either disappeared or quickly sided with the separatists last spring. In Mariupol area, only an early presence and initiatives of Ukrainian volunteer forces prevented it from falling under separatist control. As for the national officials outreach in Donbas, the less said the better.
Also, as I recall from World War II days, military commanders usually take responsibility for law and order in the war zone, as civilians take cover. It is martial law in practice. Some folks don’t get it.
The vehemence of Karatnytsky’s words condemning the right-wing militants as “a threat to Ukraine’s rebuilding” remains puzzling. First, a country needs to exist to be rebuilt. First there has to be unity and force to defend Ukraine against Russia’s aggression. Yes, Ukraine still needs those battalions.
Boris Danik is a retired Ukrainian-American living in North Caldwell, New Jersey.
Kiev is abuzz with creative reforms in governance, major anti-corruption initiatives and budgetary clawbacks against rent-seeking oligarchs. Civic activism is on the upsurge, and a new government team -- populated with many foreign-born and Western-educated ministers -- is largely free from the control of the country’s super-rich, who dictated policy in the past.
In recent months, Ukraine’s defenses have strengthened since the Russian takeover of Crimea and the eastern industrial Donbas region. Ukraine’s security service, formerly riddled with corruption and Russian infiltration, has rebuilt its leadership. Combat readiness has improved and weapons production is on the rise, as are the refurbishment and modernization of tanks, artillery and armored personnel carriers. With winter in full swing, the danger of a major Russian offensive has faded.
In many ways, Ukraine is intelligently addressing its key challenges: restructuring the national budget to avoid default and meeting the military threat posed by Russia. Despite such important progress, however, a new threat is emerging: independently operating warlords and armed groups.
After the collapse of the Yanukovych regime in February 2014 and subsequent Russian aggression, Ukraine’s new government was saddled with an ill-prepared military and required the help of thousands of volunteers. These volunteer fighters were motivated by a patriotic desire to protect their homeland. Many were veterans of the Maidan civic protests. The fighters were mainly supported by grass-roots financing from civic initiatives and small and mid-size businesses.
A minority of the fighters were ideologically motivated members of far-right movements. These included the ultra-conservative Right Sector and the notorious Azov brigade, whose members had been shunned during the Maidan protests because of their white-supremacist, anti-democratic views. Other volunteer brigades, such as the Dnepr-1, were recruited by business oligarchs, who financed them and commanded their loyalty.
During the spring and summer, many of these volunteer forces exhibited remarkable courage and helped stem the Russian-backed offensive. In the months that followed, most were integrated into the interior or defense ministries as special-status units.
But now several of these units, especially those linked to oligarchs or the far right, are revealing a dark side. In recent months, they have threatened and kidnapped government officials, boasted that they will take power if Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko fails to defeat Russia, and they served as armed muscle in illegal attempts to take over businesses or seize local governments.
In August 2014, members of the Dnepr-1 battalion kidnapped the head of Ukraine’s state land fund to prevent him replacing an official deemed inimical to business interests. On Dec. 15, 2014, these volunteer units interdicted a humanitarian convoy destined for the Russia-controlled Donbas, where a major emergency is emerging.
On Dec. 23, 2014, the Azov brigade announced that it was taking control of order in the eastern port city of Mariupol, without official approval from local or national officials.
Government prosecutors have opened 38 criminal cases against members of the Aidar battalion alone.
A pattern of blatant disregard for the chain of command, lawlessness and racketeering is posing a growing threat to Ukraine’s stability at a critical juncture. Concern about volunteer groupings is widely shared in the Poroshenko administration, which reportedly raised the question of dealing with these dangers at a meeting in November 2014 of his National Security and Defense Council.
Most alarming, however, is the role of Ukraine’s interior minister, Arsen Avakov. Instead of reining in these fighters, conducting background checks on their records and reassigning those who pass muster, he instead has offered them new heavy weapons, including tanks and armored personnel carriers, and given them enhanced brigade status. Amazingly, in September he even named a leader of the neo-Nazi Azov brigade to head the police in the Kiev region.
Equally worrying is the activity of Ihor Kolomoyskyy, the governor of Dnipropetrovsk oblast. Kolomoyskyy, who played a crucial and widely respected role in stabilizing his East Ukrainian region, is now flouting central authority by interdicting aid convoys headed to the Donbas and permitting brigades he finances to engage in activities that contravene the law.
What can be done? Poroshenko clearly wants this problem resolved but has been reluctant or unable to act. For him to succeed will likely require coordination with Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who has also been slow to address the threat, possibly because Avakov is one of his key political allies.
Western donors, however, must make countering incipient warlordism a top priority and press Ukraine’s leaders to reassign qualified members of the volunteer brigades into regular militia and military units.
Ukraine’s elected leaders can no longer sweep this emerging threat under the rug for fear of stoking resistance or stirring up negative international headlines. Ukraine faces many challenges, but it is heading in the right direction. Nipping the problem of warlordism in the bud can only add to the country’s strength and resilience.Adrian Karatnycky is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, where he co-directs the “Ukraine in Europe” initiative.