InfoMullet: WhistleBlower Backgrounder on Ukraine
TLDRUpFront: For over fifteen years the pendulum of instability has swung in Ukraine. Political, economic, and ethnographic structures specific to the nation and its history provide momentum. And each swing traverses between authoritarian and democratic; corruption and reform; and the alignment, influence, and meddling between East and West. And these swings have now ensnared both the President and leading Presidential candidate of the United States in its path. But our main show is their side show, a distraction, to the primary struggle over the future of their country. An InfoMullet backgrounder on the last 15 years of Ukrainian history and how these came to intersect with the WhistleBlower scandal.
FullContext in the Back:
Today I try to provide some fuller context for Ukraine’s recent history, focusing on the events of 2004-2019. Most of this isn’t going to be heavily cited. I’m working off my memory and past posts on Ukraine going back over the years with a little spot checking on Wikipedia to keep the names straight in my head. Most of this is pretty easily verified however. It will also be a very simplified overview.
UKRAINE IN 2004
I described in an earlier post the frustration Ukrainians must have at this point with their country being considered a political playground between Russia and the West, and I hope after this brief background piece you can appreciate why. I’m going to begin in 2004 because it’s a good starting point to understanding the last 15 years of political and military conflict in Ukraine, though it is an arbitrary starting point. I encourage people to look up and read more about Ukraine’s history, just be wary, there is an incredible amount of state-sponsored propaganda out there.
We begin in 2004, with a heavily contested Presidential election between, Viktor Yanukovych and Viktor Yuschenko. (I told you the names will get confusing.) This election can serve as a useful primer for the underlying issues of Ukraine that would continually surface in the next 15 years. Ukraine uses a split-power system as a check & balance on executive power, where the head of the state and head of government are held by two different offices. To understand this in US terms, imagine the Ukrainian Prime Minister as holding the powers the US President does to nominate Cabinet Secretaries for domestic agencies and execute the laws. The Ukrainian President holds the US President powers as Commander in Chief of the military and represents the state in all foreign relations and treaty negotiations. Both positions have counter-signing powers on laws, and there is a complicated nomination system wherein each position can nominate members to serve in the Cabinets of the other. It’s a system designed to check unlimited power.
Previous to the 2005 reforms, the President appointed the Prime Minister and could unilaterally dismiss them. After 2005 the Prime Minister is the choice of Parliament and cannot be dismissed at the will of the President. Although there is a lot of important things about this arrangement that come up in the later conflicts, I’m going to focus on two aspects of this setup that are relevant to the future conflicts. First is the foreign affairs portfolio of the President. If you are a foreign power, and want influence in and around the Ukrainian region, then the Presidency is the position you care most about, not the Prime Minister. Second is that the President is who the administrative regions report too, which are close (but not ) to the version of US States. These regions have far less power than US states, in part because their leadership reports to the President rather than being an independent power. If you’re a foreign power and you want to have influence in certain regions, the Presidency is again the position you care most about.
Another important thing to know about Ukraine is that in many issues it divided east and west along the Dnieper, much like the historical US is often divided North and South across the Mason-Dixon line or more recently as a Red v. Blue divide between inland and coastal areas. On most issues the polling shows a pretty clear split on either side of the Dnieper River.
The reasons for this are complicated and go back in history with various partitions, occupations, and other factors contributing to this divide, but the short take away here is that eastern Ukraine tends to be the industrial heartland, especially in the southeast resource rich, and leans towards Russia. Western Ukraine has tended to be less well developed, economically struggling, and leans towards the west. In most elections at the Federal level, you can draw a pretty clear line down the center of the country, and the eastern half votes one way, and the western half votes the other.
After gaining its independence in 1991, the first Prime Minister of Ukraine was Leonid Kuchma 1991-1994, who then ran and won twice as President from 1994-2004. The 2004 Presidential election is the first time in a long time that the role of Presidency is kind of up for grabs. By that point Kuchma was pretty unpopular and the belief that corruption was rife in the government was growing. There’s a huge upswell of domestic interest at the same time foreign powers begin licking their chops that they may get someone more friendly to their point of view in position.
THE ORANGE REVOLUTION
Enter Yanukovych and Yushchenko. Yanukovych had been Prime Minister in the last years of Kuchma’s Presidency and considered a continuation of those policies that leaned more closely with Russia, and less towards integration with Europe. Whereas Yushchenko had organized opposition parties and movements against the status-quo and was promising to break Ukraine out of the orbit of Russia. So Yushchenko was the pro-Europe, anti-Russian, outsider and Yanukovych was the pro-Russia, luke warm on Europe insider. The campaign itself was hotly contested, falling along that west-east divide I mentioned above. Late in the campaign Yushchenko was poisoned in an assassination attempt leading to permanent facial disfigurement. It was widely suspected then, and still is now, that the assassination attempt was carried out by Ukrainians sympathetic to Yanukovych, with Russian assistance. Three of the main suspects are living in exile in Russia, who has refused to extradite them.
In the first election neither candidate won more than a majority, so it went to a second election. The second election went to Yanukovych, but there were widespread reports and allegations of vote tampering and rigging. This led to what is called the “Orange Revolution” which involved a heavy occupation of Independence Square in Kiev and mass protests from November 2004 through January 2005 (if you were on my LiveJournal we were blogging on this at the time.) This marked the rise to power and prominence Yulia Tymoshenko who had always been a strong figure of opposition politics, but the revolution really highlighted her in a new way, and she became a major political force, aligning with Yushchenko. Tymoshenko was even more pro-European and anti-Russian than Yushchenko. This was also likely the first major “internet” revolution of a major power which paved the way for later uprisings, revolutions, and mass-demonstrations built around new organizing techniques available from the internet.
It’s during the Orange Revolution that the institutional divides I often mention preceding a countries civil war begin to show. The intelligence and security services, splitting with the military, issued calls for calm and are alleged to have tipped off opposition leaders when military crackdowns were about to happen against the protesters. They are also considered the source for some of the evidence of election tampering that ended up in the Supreme Court case. And in December 2004, the Supreme Court invalidated the second election due to fraud and said there would have to be a third election. Yushchenko won the third election, becoming President of Ukraine. Yulia Tymoshenko became Prime Minister (the first women to hold that position in Ukraine) and a series of reforms were passed (endorsed by Kuchma) to realign the powers between the President and Prime Minister.
This came as a shock to Russia, which had always considered Ukraine to be within its sphere of influence. Nominally independent, but still toeing the line. I don’t honestly think Putin predicted the loss of Ukraine in 2004, and the Orange Revolution really set into motion what followed. They were now facing a moderately anti-Russian/pro-European President in Yushchenko and an extremely anti-Russian/pro-European Prime Minister in Tymoshenko.
THE REVOLUTION EATS ITS OWN
#SpoilerAlert: Few revolutions work out.
After gaining power Yushchenko kind of turned into a dick. He reminds me a bit of Aung San Suu Kyi, of Myanmar. A politicians politician, who happens to align with the opposition as their path to power and perhaps gets a bit of a hagiographic shine of luster added due to being jailed or attempted to be assassinated, but at the end of the day is nothing more than your dyed in the wool political hack.
Because 2005-2010 was a royal mess in Ukraine. President Yushchenko dismissed many fellow leaders in the Orange Revolution who had joined him in government. Tried to dismiss Parliament illegally (twice), fought with his own Prime Minister Tymoshenko constantly and just generally made a mess out of thing. When his government was being dismissed (by him), half of them were resigning in open or barely concealed protest. (Sounds familiar?)
By the time of the 2010 election, Tymoshenko was running under her own banner for President, Yanukovych was rehabilitated, and Yushchenko received an appalling ~5% of the vote.
REVENGE OF THE EMPIRE
Yushchenko massive unpopularity by 2010 left the field wide open. Many candidates ran, including Tymoshenko, splitting pro-European votes. And everyone was accusing everyone of rigging the vote, and no one wanted a repeat of the mess of 2004 and the Orange Revolution. Surprising everyone then, international observers certified the elections as fair and the results sound. And after two rounds Yanukovych returned to power as President. Again, if you look at a map of the 2010 results it’s a pretty stark west-east split. With the eastern regions being pro-Yanukovych (and thus pro-Russian) and the western regions pro-Tymoshenko (and thus pro-European.)
Neither Yanukovych, and some suspect Russia, was going to leave anything to chance at this point. They dismantled the reforms of 2004 and began purging opposition under the aegis of fighting corruption. The hunt for corruption became like hunting for witchcraft. Anyone could accuse anyone else of it, and everyone was accusing everyone of corruption for what was more likely purposes of removing political opposition.
And Yulia Tymoshenko was Witch Numero Uno. She was charged repeatedly, arrested, thrown in jail for pre-trial detention, arrested on new charges while-in-jail. She couldn’t run for office while under arrest and lost every case that came up against her: she was accused of so many murders you could’ve renamed her Scarface. This campaign was run through the Prosecutor General’s office under Viktor Pshonka.
And if “Prosecutor General” sounds familiar…it should. The US policy under President Obama was to view the continual prosecution of Tymoshenko as political suppression, and not anti-corruption efforts. It’s during this time, 2010-2014, that an increasing focus is made on the use of the Prosecutor General office as a weapon of political retaliation within US foreign policy. And increasingly the US supported Tymoshenko over Yanukovych.
It was during this time that Paul Manafort, as he confessed, worked on behalf of Yanukovych to run a media campaign smearing Tymoshenko in an attempt to discredit her within western administrative circles, specifically trying to drive a wedge between her and support from President Obama and the US Department of State under then Secretary Clinton.
More broadly within Ukraine, Yanukovych was increasingly seen as a pawn to Putin in Russia. He not only instituted several pro-Russian policies relating to the status of its Black Sea Fleet but tried to rehabilitate the Holodomor. The Holodomor was a massive state-sponsored genocide under Stalin where the military forcibly removed food stocks, resulting in widespread famine that killed up to 10M people, mostly Ukrainian. Yanukovych’s hand-wobbly redefinition was that it wasn’t all that bad, and it affected more areas than Ukraine, and that anti-Russian sentiments arising from this were misplaced. He also recommended legalizing Russian as an official language of the Ukraine. This really wasn’t winning him any friends and his support was plummeting dramatically.
LEAD-UP TO EUROMAIDAN
This all begins to come to a head 2012-2013. Ukraine is trying to negotiate a trade agreement with the European Union, but the EU has made a condition of the trade agreement a restoration of law and democracy, specifically calling out the treatment of Tymoshenko. Russia, beginning to fear the loss of Ukraine again – starts to play hardball. It bans all Ukrainian imports into Russia and makes noises that any agreement with the EU is a non-starter.
Abruptly, Yanukovych’s government began making noises of canceling the association agreement with the European Union, and this was the last straw for opposition forces which then stormed the Euromaidan, occupying it, and leading civil protests and demonstrations across the country. These protests quickly became violent between protesters and security forces, and soon took on the form of a general uprising. However, support for Euromaidan was never universal, it still split 50/50 down the middle. The west of Ukraine wanted desperately to be part of the European Union, and free from Russia, while the eastern portions of Ukraine were more suspicious of Europe and more pro-Russian. These are simplifications of course.
OVERTHROW OF YANUKOVYCH
Euromaidan protests continued into February, becoming increasingly violent and turning into a full revolution in February of 2014. This is covered better elsewhere and those on my FB page remembered us chatting about it frequently at the time. The end-result was the collapse of the Yanukovych government under and restoration of the 2004 Constitutional changes. Tymoshenko was freed and a wave of violent anti-Soviet/anti-Russian sentiment was unleashed. Soviet monuments were destroyed, the Russian language law was repealed.
Yanukovych and many officers in his regime fled to Russia, where they remain in exile, as arrest warrants were issued. In the post-revolutionary investigations, the looting of Ukrainian public finances by the Yanukovych public was broadcast all over media and anti-corruption now became a revolutionary issue. This wasn’t all one-sided however. The eastern parts of Ukraine reacted in strong opposition to what they saw in Kiev and the west. The split that had been growing for a long time – aided by agitators and influence operations from Russia into the east and not a little bit of influence into the west by the US, was escalating.
But the US wasn’t willing to go as far as Russia was. It has to be remembered, at this time Russia was far more in favor with liberals, especially Democrats, in the US than it is now. The events leading up to Euromaidan and the Ukrainian Revolution co-occupy a timeline where President Obama is mocking Romney in a Presidential debate that the “80’s are calling and want their foreign policy back” for Romney’s suggestion that Russia was a strategic competitor who had to be taken seriously. Obama was in negotiations with both Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (Putin’s puppet as the Russian head of state from 2008-2012) and later Putin about removing missile bases in Eastern Europe as part of an appeasement strategy. Although the “reset button” fiasco had bombed on launch, Secretary of State Clinton was still pursuing a policy of rapprochement during this time. President Obama even put the fate of Syrian’s chemical weapons stockpiles into the hands of the Russians in 2013. They were treated as a “responsible” party on world affairs, even though their actions were anything but. I think there was a real, and valid, concern that events in Ukraine, the joining of eastern European countries into both the EU and NATO, would make Russia feel like it was being backed into a corner. However, the strategy that arose from this was less realpolitik than it was appeasement. If the US would go light on Russia, Russia would reciprocate.
Russia’s reciprocation was to annex Crimea in mid-2014 and then instigating and supporting paramilitary forces in eastern Ukraine sparking an “insurgency” that has lasted ever since. I use “insurgency” in quotes because it bears more resemblance to the Western Front of WWI with modern conventional weaponry. Even at the time the general opinion of many liberals on my Facebook was to “tut-tut” the seriousness of these actions, or parrot back Russia propaganda on Novorossiya, which was the concocted geographical boundaries of proto-Russian holding separate from Ukraine which just so happened to mirror the territorial aspirations of Russia’s current adventures.
OUTCOME OF REVOLUTION & INSURGENCY
In a very real way, both the Ukrainian Revolution and the Donbas Insurgency, as the Russian backed fighting in eastern Ukraine came to be known, have met their goals. If the purpose of revolution is to replace the current regime and model of government from within, that has happened. For western Ukraine. Under President Poroshenko the 2004 reforms have been reinstituted, central power dissolved back down into administrative regions. Tymoshenko was cleared of charges under agreement with a finding that they were politically motivated. She lost the Presidential election to Poroshenko but remains an active influence in parliament and national politics. And western Ukraine is creating more ties with Europe.
But if the purpose of an insurgency is to deny the government the ability to function as a state in areas under contest and provide a counter-narrative to the state’s narrative, then the Donbas Insurgency has achieved those goals as well. Ukraine’s move to the west has been limited to the western parts of Ukraine, as eastern and south-eastern portions respectively have suffered under five years of conflict. The country has been split in half – so poisoned with accusations, conspiracies, propaganda and the accumulated hatreds that come when 30,000 are killed; 40,000 are wounded, and over 2M displaced either internally or as foreign refugees.
But another real outcome of the revolution was the end of Russian rapprochement by the Obama administration, especially after the downing in summer of 2014 of MH17 by what is regarded as Russian conventional armed forces operating sophisticated anti-aircraft missile units.
THE BIDEN INCIDENT
This then creates the backdrop for my previous post, about Hunter and Joe Biden. Hunter Biden received his appointment to Bursima’s board in May of 2014, just three months after the fall of the Yukanovych government. By this point a heavy US position on anti-corruption campaigns in Ukraine, regardless of what it means for the party in power. Poroshenko, before funding a revolution, was an oligarch (where all those funds came from), so his hands are not exactly “clan” when it comes to corruption. This is why General Prosecutor Shokin became such a lightning rod. By refusing to prosecute corruption charges, he was angering both the US and western allies. And the US by this point is financing the new government with foreign aid to help it get established, and also fight the Donbass war. This is both the context and leverage leading into the infamous Biden call I mentioned in the earlier post.
2019 AND FORWARD
Someone asked me yesterday “What does Ukraine think about all this?” And I think one way to answer this question is to look at the 2019 outsiders. Anyone who’s made it this far in reading has got to be exhausted by all the allegations of corruption, counter-corruption, political establishment figures embracing opposition rhetoric but then failing to deliver. Now imagine the people living there.
Into this exhaustion came a wildly popular television show, “Servant of the People”, running 2015-2019 which much like the “West Wing” was able to capture a stylized view of how politics should be. In the video a political outsider takes the Presidency on the strength of a viral video and then, once elected, goes about fighting against corruption and the establishment forces of cronyism, nepotism. The lead actor, portraying the President was a 30’s something actor named Volodymyr Zelensky who was well known for cartoons, comedy, and entertainment writing.
The show was so popular, that Zelensky threw his hat into the actual Presidential election in 2019. And he quickly became a front runner, outpacing more familiar names like Tymoshenko and Poroshenko. And he won in a landslide, 73% to Poroshenko’s 25%.
Zelensky, at least so far, appears to be trying to move on from the past. He’s negotiating with Russia for peace in the Donbass, while pursuing continued engagement with Europe. He’s taken a very liberal view of legalizing many industries, advocated against discrimination against Russian speakers. He is a strong nationalist and supporter of the military but has also admitted that it’s not realistic Crimea will return to Ukrainian control without regime change in Russia. He’s balancing needs of both western and eastern Ukraine.
And although he struggled earlier, his party won the first ever majority stake in parliament in June. It appears that Ukraine is more interested in looking forward with him, then returning to the past.
This is the context leading up to the phone call between President Trump and President Zelensky that occurred in August. But for that we’re going to have to wait until more details or reporting are released to discuss in any depth other than what we already know.
This backgrounder hopefully however can give some sense of the Ukrainian context that underlies the impeachment proceedings against President Trump.
I said this was lightly sourced didn’t I? Maybe one day when the InfoMullet is fully up we can post the ~50-100 posts we’ve made on Ukraine covering these events as they happened, but for now you only get my memory.
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