26 June 2014
Russia's recipe for a tactical success in the proposed Trilateral Contact Group is quite simple: the more proxies, the better. If the West is prepared to play that game, it should know what is at stake.
For the first time since the Orange Revolution in 2004, Putin has no credible representative in Ukraine’s executive. Following Yushchenko being sworn into office in 2005, the Firtash group served as an gas intermediary between Kyiv and the Kremlin, and Tymoshenko built a separate rapport with Putin even despite Russia’s aggression against Georgian in 2008. In the 2009 presidential election, Ukrainians had to choose between an allegedly pro-Russian candidate Yanukovych and Tymoshenko, with whom Putin “could do business”. In terms of foreign policy, that was a choice without a choice. Indeed, the gas contract signed by Tymoshenko in 2009 suited the Kremlin just fine, and Tymoshenko’s imprisonment by Yanukovych’s regime meant the elimination not only of the political opponent inside the country, but also a rival for the Kremlin’s attention. For Putin, Yanukovych’s toppling from the presidential post by the Euromaidan is not a problem per se. It is that the Kremlin has fewer options now that Ukrainian society and elites are increasingly unwilling to elect any openly pro-Russian politician. But those options are still there, and one of them is being played out right now.
"Trilateral": As in "Four Sides"?
Poroshenko’s unilateral announcement of ceasefire this week was met with a declarative consent from some militants and the continued attacks on Ukraine’s armed forces from the others. Despite the growing uneasy inside Ukraine over the suspension of the fighting against the militants, it opened an opportunity for the meeting of the so-called Trilateral Contact Group to be held. For all it’s worth, the “trilateral” is a misnomer given that the number of parties appears to be at least… four. The participants of the meeting with the representatives of the in Donetsk on Monday made a weird company, to say the least (Ukrainian paper Day went as far as claiming it was a “parade of political monsters”.
Viktor Medvedchuk (first from the left), Leonid Kuchma (former Ukrainian President), 2nd left, OSCE Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini, center, and Russian Ambassador in Ukraine Mikhail Zurabov, 2nd right. Photo: Dmitry Lovetsky, AP
Trying to untangle who represents whom in this “triangle” is an interesting exercise. According to Ukraine’s authorities, only the former president Kuchma represents the Ukrainian side. Given his dormant status in Ukraine’s politics, Kuchma’s appointment attests to Poroshenko’s unwillingness to nominate anyone close enough and avoid the criticism at home, if (or rather) when the spectacle fails. Technically, Nestor Shufrych, an MP from the Party of Regions (PoR), could claim he represents the local populace of the Donbas. However, the PoR lost the remnants of its political support after Yanukovych’s flight from the country, a move that was seen as a “betrayal” even by his own power. So both Kuchma and Shufrych are marginal figures.
Russia’s delegation at the table was not limited to Mikhail Zurabov. He was but the eyes of the Kremlin, sitting there to lend credence to the lie of Russia’s “engagement in the peace process”. Alexander Boroday, a Russian citizen, is a spokesperson for the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” and comes closest to Russia’s “man”. But that is also not true: as a political consultant (or rather “technologist” to translate it from Russian literally), he is only a crisis manager sent earlier to ensure some coordination of the indigenous criminal groups and Russia-origin professional militants who came across the border. It is actually the Ukrainian citizen Viktor Medvedchuk who speaks on behalf of the Kremlin in this five-partite meeting, in which three seats are reserved for Russia. Zurabov and Boroday are just necessary inventory to play this act of the piece.
Medvedchuk: Something for Everyone
The presence of Viktor Medvedchuk at the table raised the most vehement discussions in Ukraine. As a former chief of President Kuchma’s administration in the early 2000s, he has been accused of several cardinal sins (such as helping to fraud the presidential election in 2004). The fact that Vladimir Putin is a godfather of Medvedchuk’s daughter, adds an important personal relationship with Putin that has kept him immune from any persecution before and after the Euromaidan. Medvedchuk’s current pocket organization, Ukrainian Choice, has long been as a proxy advertiser for Russia’s Customs Union in Ukraine: one can still see its advertisements even in Kyiv.
You would presume that he campaigns hard on behalf of the emerging Eurasian Economic Union stands, but you would be wrong: Medvedchuk has no visible public following, rarely appears in public and limits his communication with the voters mainly to a (presumably outsourced) Facebook page. Medvedchuk has always been a politician who operates behind the curtain, and therefore has been useful for every new ruler in Kyiv, both Tymoshenko and Yanukovych. It is all the more interesting that he should appear in such talks right now, when Poroshenko needs a back-channel of communication with the Kremlin and Putin predictably starts to build a political façade to the military operation in Eastern Ukraine.
What does Medvedchuk get of this? In his excellent piece, Sergiy Leshchenko of Ukrainska Pravda, the leading Ukrainian paper, writes that Medvedchuk will try to re-enter the active Ukrainian politics using his status as a mediator for Russia. Given the background of personal contacts between Poroshenko and Medvedchuk, that version appears very likely. I would admit that “representing” the Eastern Ukraine may be such a formal platform for him ahead of the snap parliamentary election (rumoured to be appointed in October). But the plan of turning Medvedchuk into the Russian-Donbas icon omits one important detail: he has never been associated with the Donbas and most locals have barely heard of him. Shaping him into a newly-found leader of the Donbas” to replace the Russian citizens (such as Borodai) and local criminals (such as Ponomarev in Sloviansk) will require some intense work from Russian TV channels broadcast the Donbas for him to be elected. There’s always an easier way though: appointing him. Granted, the current Donetsk mayor refused the offer to take the gubernatorial position in the Donetsk oblast’.
Sanctioned To Mediate
All this is well understood in Berlin. Angela Merkel’s agreement to appoint Medvedchuk as a mediator in the Contact Group caused an even bigger outrage in Ukraine, but that is probably on the bottom of Germany’s concerns at the moment. Some decried it as playing into the hand of Putin in Ukraine, while others quickly recalled her resistance of the sanctions before the shooting of the Maidan protestors. Emotions aside, the agreement to give an “official status” of a mediator to Medvedchuk is conspicuous not because of his ill reputation as a Russian stooge in Ukraine. It is the fact that Medvedchuk is already an object of the US sanctions that raises questions as to the coherence of Germany’s stance in Ukraine with that of the US. A quick reminder is in order: in addition to a number of Russian and Crimean officials, the Executive Order of Barack Obama as of March 17 imposes sanctions on Viktor Medvedchuk with the following justification:
Medvedchuk, leader of Ukrainian Choice, is being designated for threatening the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine, and for undermining Ukraine’s democratic institutions and processes. He is also being designated because he has materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, or technological support to Yanukovych and because he is a leader of an entity that has, or whose members have, engaged in actions or policies that undermine democratic processes or institutions in Ukraine and actions or policies that threaten the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine. (Full Text)
So far this mismatch induces me to ask more questions than to suggest answers. If Chancellor Merkel really has a plan (the brilliance of which we all fail to comprehend), has she first persuaded the US to come on board? And if not, is she really so sure that she can pull off the micromanagement of the proxy-negotiation process? We will not have to wait for long: I expect this weekend to give the first signs of whether the expectations were met.
Careful what you wish for
In this extremely precarious situation, the international actors should mind their limits: for fear of “losing Russia”, you may well antagonize Ukraine. Understandably, the OSCE, represented by Ms. Tagliavini in this company, now trades the political affirmation of the militants’ representatives for the chance to save its own employees. A month ago, 8 civilian monitors from the OSCE were abducted by the militants in Donetsk and Lugansk regions; they are still missing. Indeed, as decisions in the organization are made by a consensus, OSCE will not achieve anything that goes against Moscow’s red lines, but releasing the monitors may be the achievable bare minimum, after which one would have to be a bit more picky over who to invite.
Finally, this will not be an easy scenario to pull off for Poroshenko,
even if he seriously considers it. The domestic backlash of striking a deal
with Putin’s proxy over the dead bodies of Ukrainian servicemen killed in the Donbas
even during the “ceasefire” might be the beginning of the end of his presidency.
If Poroshenko wants to avoid Yushchenko’s and Yanukovych’s fate, he will have
to prove that he is not just the fourth puppet in Putin’s show for the tired, yawning public.