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Savchenko and the coming Autumn Heat

Nadiya Savchenko speaking to journalists after her arrival to Kyiv. (Photo: RFE/RL)
Nadiya Savchenko speaking to journalists after her arrival to Kyiv. (Photo: RFE/RL)
Savchenko and the coming Autumn Heat

The last few days have been emotional. On Wednesday Nadia Savchenko arrived in Kyiv to a hero’s welcome, and a plethora of speculation as to her impact on Ukraine’s political scene. Her speech at Boryspil airport was uncompromising; her body language in Poroshenko’s presence was defiant (respectful of the award she was given by the President, but derogatory to his persona); her insubordinate reaction to Tymoshenko spoke volumes. Savchenko is a symbol, and has a powerful charisma. The only people she seems to hold in any regard are those in uniform who have direct experience of war against Russia. Her fondness for “patriots” and suspicion of “politicians” is understandable, and it resonates in a population tired of the current elite’s gradualist reform agenda. Whether Savchenko’s uncompromising patriotism will turn out to be a good or bad thing for Ukraine is yet to be seen.

On an international level, analysts have been quick to point out that Savchenko’s release from Russia in exchange for two military intelligence officers captured while fighting in the Donbas seemingly vindicated the Ukrainian side (Russia has always professed that is has not deployed its troops to Ukraine). However, her arrival in Ukraine has also been called a “game changer” for domestic politics, and the man who signed her amnesty in the Kremlin must have known this would be the case. Putin may be improvising his aggression in Ukraine, but the Russian President is not blind to the obvious: Savchenko in Russian captivity was a symbol and rallying point for global public opinion in support of Ukraine as the underdog against its more powerful neighbor; Savchenko free in Ukraine may well develop into a leader that shifts the country’s domestic political landscape towards a more radical discourse – one that strengthens the “fascist junta” image that according to the Kremlin’s information machine supposedly defines the post-Maidan Kyiv government.

If I were Vladimir Putin, what would I be planning next? This question paraphrases what has become a popular past-time for political scientists and journalist-analysts who have lately rekindled the seemingly lost art of Cold War era “Kremlinology”. I don’t wish to add to the seemingly endlessly growing number of Putin psychotherapists within the global social science community. The thoughts laid out below are simply speculation – no more and no less. However, given the recent doomsday prediction by former deputy commander of NATO Sir Alexander Richard Shirreff of a war between Russia and NATO next year (the former British general’s book was launched May 18), and given the analysis published in the U.K.’s Guardian and Observer newspapers last week (both articles predicted Putin would have no qualms starting WW3 in the not too distant future – one based on analysis by Kremlin watcher Pavel Felgenhauer, and the other by Guardian foreign affairs columnist Natalie Nougayrede), one cannot be faulted for joining the game. After all, if global thermonuclear war is indeed among the options being considered, shouldn’t we all be concerned?

A couple of days ago I met for beers with a very good friend – a Flexian, like me (see J. Wedel’s “The Shadow Elite” for a definition of the term) who has regular access to the highest levels of Ukraine’s government. We both agreed that the current state of Kyiv’s political class can best be described as “apprehensive”. Ministers and deputies all seem to be waiting for something to happen – no one knows what, but autumn seems to be the agreed timeframe. That “something” may take the form of a backlash by opposition politicians against the increasingly centralist and micromanagerial style of President Poroshenko (accusations of a return to kleptocratic practices are not uncommon in Ukraine, though no hard evidence of presidential graft is ever presented publicly); it may take the form of a violent reaction by demobilized Donbas war veterans against western powers’ foisting the idea of holding elections in the DNR and LNR (supposedly as a sign of Ukraine’s fulfilment of the Minsk accords, but in reality as a concession to Russia); it may take the form of mass protests against increasingly difficult economic conditions (the average citizens’ savings are now all but exhausted, but the long-awaited economic uptick has been very gradual). Whatever form it takes, the autumn months are expected to be difficult in Ukraine.

I have written previously that Ukraine’s revolution did not end with the culmination of the Maidan protests in February 2014. The ‘ancien regime’, and the neo-feudal, clientilist (i.e. dependent on the Kremlin) post-Soviet system that Yanukovych presided over no longer exists, but the ongoing process of revolutionary transformation seems to be following the natural lifecycle of revolutions identified in Crane Brinton’s classic work “The Anatomy of Revolution”. After a period of moderate reform similar to what Ukraine has witnessed of late, one should expect increasing radicalization.

In her classic work “On Revolution” Hannah Arendt pointed out that in revolutionary societies, evolutionary erosion of the political order is a logical result of a shift of popular demands from a discourse of freedom, rights, and dignity to one of equality, justice, and welfare. According to Arendt, the reason the US in the 1780’s was able to avoid a Robbespierrian and/or Leninist “terror” (i.e. social disintegration leading to the “revolution swallowing its own children”) was because the founding fathers were able to forestall a shift from idealist to materialist discourse. In Ukraine, support for leftist-populist parties (Tymoshenko and Lyashko) has been steadily rising of late…

Brian Whitmore, RFE/RL’s Moscow-based political commentator, suggests that “Nadia Savchenko could – and I stress could – just turn out to be Ukraine’s Vaclav Havel; or its Lech Walesa; or its Nelson Mandela. She returns home a hero at a time when Ukrainians are deeply disillusioned with their post-Euromaidan leaders, frustrated by the slow pace of reform, and angry about the persistent stalling the battle against corruption.” Kateryna Kruk, writing for the Atlantic Council echoes this view: “(Savchenko) is a living legend, a symbol, and a national hero. She has immense support from society and international leaders. At the same time, she is not a politician. She is straightforward and honest in telling exactly what she thinks—a rare quality in politics unlikely to bring her more political friends.”

I have no wish to dampen the enthusiasm over Nadia Savchenko’s persona. However, given her directness, lack of patience with the pace of legitimate political decision-making, and the unquestioning authority and broad-based popularity that she currently enjoys, one cannot help but wonder whether last week we witnessed the triumphant arrival of Ukraine’s Havel, Walesa or Mandela, or perhaps of its Robbespierre, Lenin, Mao, or Castro (though without the intellectual prowess of any one of these purveyors of violent revolutionary lustration).

Savchenko’s core political base of support consists of politically inexperienced “patriots” – recently demobilized Donbas war veterans who are widely believed to have kept some of their weapons as “souvenirs” after returning from the front. Last year, former “Right Sector” leader Dmytro Yarosh was the logical symbolic leader of this constituency, but he withdrew himself from public politics after realizing that much of the financing for his party’s political activities originated from banditry and mafia-style control over contraband (not to mention widespread suspicions of key Right Sector leadership positions in Ukraine’s regions having come under the control of Russian agents that had infiltrated the organization). The leaders of other volunteer battalions who were elected to Parliament in 2014 (e.g. Semenchenko, Teteruk, Bereza) have not really amounted to much. Savchenko is now the new figurehead for Ukraine’s radical patriots. How she decides to structure her inner circle, and what ideological and organizational structure she chooses to establish remains to be seen. But in my opinion, some degree of trepidation is warranted.

Some contours of how Savchenko’s future (and that of the military-patriotic political movement she will inevitably command) are likely to become evident by the end of the summer. As someone who spent almost two years in captivity (much of it in solitary confinement), and several months on hunger strike, Savchenko will require medical treatment and convalescence. In the meantime, Ukraine’s political scene will quieten: summer temperatures have already arrived; kids throughout the country are now on vacation; people’s minds are on dachas and shashlik-filled holidays, rather than on politics. But by late August (“normality” tends to return to the political scene just after Independence Day), social tensions will take center-stage once again. By that time, Savchenko will have made some decisions, and Ukraine’s more traditional political class will have made theirs.

Telling evidence of the general direction in which the traditional political class is thinking can be found in the recently published priorities of the Groysman government. The document is well structured, and concrete, but its action plan is expressly structured to include 2016 only (no plans beyond the end of the year). Furthermore, the reforms the Prime Minister’s team have included into the plan are limited to those which can be enacted without Parliamentary support. In other words, Groysman understands that he does not have a majority in the Rada, and if he is to accomplish anything in office, he and his team must do so within the bounds of current legislation.

But calendars inevitably advance. A new budget for 2017 must be passed by Parliament in November-December. Furthermore, real systemic changes in Ukraine’s tax and judicial systems (both highest priority) cannot be accomplished without Parliamentary support. By mid-autumn it will surely become obvious that progress with the current Rada is simply not possible, and early elections will be the only viable political option. According to one highly placed source, former PM Yatseniuk’s team expects a Parliamentary vote by March 2017 at the latest (probably earlier). Incidentally, by that time Savchenko will have had ample time to assemble a viable political alternative to the current factions and party brands. So will Saakashvili. So will Kolomoyskiy. So will Medvedchuk… Street protests are likely in the run-up to the election; possibly (some say likely) accompanied by violence.

Knowing the above (and I have little doubt that the Kremlin gauges social mood in Ukraine at least as well as I do), if my name were Vladimir Putin, I would be wringing my hands with glee. The stars seem to be coming together – finally, evidence (and press imagery) proving that Ukraine is a failed state!

But Putin’s thinking is likely not limited to Ukraine (although this county does seem to represent a kind of fetish for him). One of the dangers of focusing strictly on domestic Ukrainian political commotion, is that one neglects the wider picture within which the Kremlin operates. Putin has made it amply clear that the end goal of his foreign policy strategy is a “new Yalta” – an agreement with the US as to spheres of influence in Europe and the world. The current US administration has shown that it wants no part of this plan, but Obama’s term in office is coming to an end. In the meantime, Russia has been working hard to destabilize EU institutions by funding the activities of right-wing parties, and most recently by covertly undermining the leadership of Angela Merkel in Germany. All of these activities may well be coming to a head in the autumn.

October will be the time when Russia’s perceived adversary, the US, will be most politically vulnerable. By this time polls will show which candidate for the Presidency will be in the lead, and the serving President will be focused on winding down international commitments, rather than extending them. A Trump Presidency would likely give Putin the opportunity to strike the deal that he craves, but if pre-election polls show Clinton leading, Kremlin strategists might well consider overt military action against the Baltics in order to finally test the durability of NATO’s Article 5 (this is former general Sir Alexander Richard Shirreff’s scenario).

It is widely known that the Latvia and Estonia are effectively undefendable in case of direct Russian attack, and a politically weakened Merkel, a lame-duck Obama, and an ISIS-occupied Hollande, may well opt for negotiating with Putin under such circumstances, rather than responding militarily. The strategic fact that NATO would be ruined as a result of their inaction would likely fall victim to political expedience of the moment. Weakness in the face of Russia would certainly boost Trump’s chances of election (the US electorate could doubtless be encouraged to vote against the “weak” Democrats), and Putin would face a more amenable US rival after January 2017. Checkmate for the Kremlin…

Now back to Ukraine. If western leaders balk at the risk of triggering nuclear war by defending the Baltic states, Putin will certainly feel emboldened in Ukraine, and a renewed attempt to occupy a land bridge to Crimea (via Mariupol and Berdiansk) may well be in the cards. The Ukrainian electorate, faced with a very real external threat, would likely turn to more radical political figures (e.g. Savchenko) for solutions, but this choice will be uneven territorially. The popular backlash against “three years of lost time” (possibly violent) would likely target the entire political elite (i.e. anyone holding political office), but the alternative figures that could come to power are unlikely to enjoy national support. Effective disintegration of the country into individually ruled fiefdoms cannot be ruled out…

I have been criticized for scaremongering before, but ignoring scenarios is never healthy. More than anything I hope I’m wrong about Savchenko, and that I’ve given way too much strategic credit to the Kremlin. Ukraine and Ukrainians will (of course) survive, and even prevail. But the autumn is shaping up to be hot – both domestically and internationally.

God help us!
Mychailo Wynnyckyj PhD
Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.


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