Poroshenko’s ‘Hail Mary’ Pass

August 8, 2014
Kiev bets everything on military victory, may cut off gas and oil to Europe
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, AIU

For those not acquainted with American football, a “Hail Mary” pass is the desperation move of a losing team. The quarterback sends downfield all possible receivers, says a quick prayer, and hurls the ball high and far in the direction of the opposing end zone with the hope that one of his players will catch it. It rarely succeeds.

This roughly describes the position of Petro Poroshenko, installed in Kiev as president barely two months ago. Amid uncertainty over a pledge to cease hostilities around the MH17 crash site to allow investigation and recovery to proceed, Ukrainian military and “National Guard” forces continue to insist they can wrap up within weeks the anti-Kiev insurgency in the southeast and capture the insurgent strongholds of Donetsk and Lugansk. In choosing a completely military approach to what it calls “terrorism” by “dirt” and “parasites,” Kiev is keeping the door closed on any negotiations toward a political resolution to the conflict, which is taking an increasing toll of civilian lives and has forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.

Whether this exclusively military “solution” can succeed remains to be seen. Meanwhile, on the international front, the Kiev administration now appears ready to add its own somewhat paradoxical contribution to the growing sanctions war between the West (primarily, the United States and the EU) and Russia. Today (August 8) Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk announced that new sanctions legislation against Russian interests would include “the possible halting of all types of transit, from air flights to transit of resources” – in other words, Russian natural gas and oil to European customers. The evident hope would be that European governments and consumers would not blame Ukraine – already shut off from gas imports due to nonpayment of its bills – but Russia, as was the case in earlier cutoffs in 2006 and 2009.

Like its military approach to the eastern Ukraine’s political problems, Kiev interruption of energy deliveries to European countries would be a big political gamble, one that could easily backfire. But looking at the broader picture, it’s not hard to see the confluence of circumstances that are forcing Kiev to risk a “long pass” towards the end zone:

Politics: Yesterday (August 7) violence returned to the Maidan when police and municipal workers trying to reopen normal traffic attempted to dismantle the tent city diehards have maintained since the violent demonstrations that led to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych earlier this year. Today, two people were injured in an explosion of unknown origin near the square. Recently, Poroshenko accused members of the Verkhovna Rada of being a traitorous “fifth column” for refusal to accept his demand that they recognize the Lugansk and Donetsk “peoples republics” as terrorist groups. Ukraine’s legendary corruption is a continuing concern:

Yehor Sobelev, a journalist and Maidan activist who now leads the Lustration Committee – a body that wants to force all Ukrainian public officials to undergo checks for past links to corruption and misgovernance – says Poroshenko has not done nearly enough during his time in charge.

“I see little evidence that he wants to change the corrupt system, just that he wants to lead it,” says Sobelev. “I think there will be a new Maidan led by the people who come back from the front lines in the east, who have seen the effect that corruption and mismanagement has first hand. And I'd be surprised if all our current political leaders make it through that Maidan with their lives intact.”

Economy and finances: Due to lack of fuel, hot water has had to be shut off even in Kiev. The free fall of the economy is accelerating: according to the Wall Street Journal, Ukraine’s GDP will decline 6% to 7% this year, and the country’s unemployment rate (even according to official statistics, which no doubt are low-balled) has already jumped from 7.7% last year to 9.3% Government bond offerings of up to 16.75% coupon yield reportedly have gone begging. According to Bloomberg, the hryvnia has depreciated 34 percent against the dollar this year (the second-worst performing currency tracked) and the corporate bond market is roiled by uncertainty about the country’s future.

In short, even if the current offensive in Donetsk and Lugansk is successful – and there is no guarantee it will be with reports of high casualties and in locations across the country protests, led mostly by women, against the call-up of soldiers – Kiev will hardly be out of the woods. Indeed, any such victory may only presage the beginning of a protracted brushfire rebellion, comparable to those against “the PKK in Turkey, ETA in Spain or the IRA in the Northern Ireland.” And if the offensive does falter, the other problems tearing the country apart can only become worse.

Once again, the available “off-ramp” is staring Poroshenko in the face: to halt hostilities and begin genuine negotiations with credible representatives of the eastern and southern oblasts towards local self-rule, the rights of the Russian language, and restoration of the regional and international balance that is integral to Ukraine’s survival as a unified state. Unfortunately, there is no indication that he is inclined to consider it, or that his supporters at home or abroad will let him.