At least eight former government officials dead in two months, two journalists killed in Kyiv since Monday, another pro-Russian former deputy shot dead outside his home this week, controversial laws meant to whitewash history, and a shaky ceasefire in a civil war that risks engulfing the entire nation — Ukraine is on the brink, and no one appears willing or able to stop the descent into disintegration.
Whatever you think of the Putinbots, vatniks, trolls, or true believers caught up in the digital miasma regarding the Ukrainian crisis, on one point they appear to be correct — a spat of mysterious and not so mysterious deaths to befall Ukraine since late January appear to have been underreported in the Western press.
Within a day’s time, 45-year-old Oles Buzyna, a journalist-cum-pro-Russian activist who made an unsuccessful 2012 parliamentary run on the Russian Bloc ticket, was the victim of a brazen drive-by shooting in the courtyard of his apartment building in Kyiv on Thursday afternoon.
On Wednesday, 52-year-old Oleg Kalashnikov, a former deputy in ousted president Viktor Yanukovich’s Party of Regions, was shot dead on the landing of his apartment in the Ukrainian capital. And on Monday, Serhiy Sukhobok, a journalist who covered business affairs in eastern Ukraine, reportedly died during a fight with neighbors within whom he had a history of bad blood.
Between January 29th and March 14th, eight former government officials are alleged to have committed suicide, though theories have emerged that some were forced to take their own lives. Many were former political allies of Yanukovich and under investigation for a litany of crimes. Members of the marginalized pro-Russian opposition claim the mysterious deaths have followed a wave of intimidation employing the judicial branch as a punitive organ against former regime elements. Those swept into power following the 2014 revolution say they are merely “cracking up” at the prospect of prison time given the impunity with which they acted while in power. Those two interpretations are not mutually exclusive.
Following the deaths of Buzyna and Kalashnikov, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ordered an investigation into the killings, saying it was clear “these crimes have the same origin.”
“Their nature and political sense are clear,” Poroshenko said. “It is a deliberate provocation that plays in favor of our enemies.”
Provocation, of course, is the carpet under which all evils are swept under in the post-Soviet world.
Following the February 27 assassination of former statesman and oppositionist Boris Nemtsov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary similarly said the murder was “100 percent provocation.”
Putin for his part had earlier employed the phrase “sacrificial victim” in 2012 to describe an alleged plot by the opposition to kill one of their own merely to tarnish his regime.
It came as little surprise that Russia’s Investigative Committee would employ the same language three years later, saying Nemtsov was a “sacrificial victim for those who do not shun any method for achieving their political goals.”
It is not to say “provocations” do not take place. But to insinuate motive without evidence is irresponsible, especially from a head of state. Poroshenko, however, isn’t the only one to to fit the killing into a politically expedient narrative.
Parliamentarian Sergei Leshchenko wrote on Twitter that the murders looked like an FSB “provocation”, referring to Russia’s principle security agency, the Guardian reported.
Another deputy, Volodymyr Ariev, told the daily that “an FSB shooting brigade” was picking people off on the streets of Kiev.
“It easily fits into the Russian narrative that Ukraine is all about fascists, a country where even basic right for life is violated,” he said.
Walking right into Russia’s trap
When it comes to this admittedly false Russian narrative that the Ukraine is “all about fascists”, the Ukrainian government is doing itself no favors in promoting a more democratic image.
First, there was the so-called Ministry of Truth.
Then, on April 9, Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada (parliament) adopted four laws, one of which recognizes the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) as veterans of the Second World War. The law further says that “public denial of the legitimacy of the struggle for Ukraine’s independence”, and by extension, criticism of those who fought for said independence, is “unlawful.”
The following day, three Soviet-era statures were toppled in Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv.
The UPA cannot simply be written off as Nazi-collaborators, though they did in fact collaborate with German forces (only to fight against them later, albeit as a “secondary” enemy).
They were also involved in a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign against Polish civilians in Volhynia and Galicia, killing up to 100,000 people. The UPA’s alleged role in massacring Jews in Western Ukraine is historically more contentious.
At the very least, any laws which could curtail criticism of such a group at a time when Russian propaganda explicitly called the Ukrainian revolution a fascist coup shows a shocking lack of political astuteness on behalf of the Ukrainian parliament.
It does not help that the black and red UPA flag, as well as their slogan “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!” were staples of the Euromaidan movement that prompted Yanukovich to flee the country. In reality, many democratically-minded young people in Ukraine merely view the UPA as 20th century freedom fighters, without themselves having any Nazi sympathies. That fact alone demonstrates why any laws attempting to curtail historical discourse are especially dangerous for a country in the midst of an identity crisis. That the government would act to whitewash history in the middle of a civil war fueled in part by these very controversial issues seems like madness.
Likewise, a similar February 2014 attempt to repeal the Yanukovich-era minority language law, which approved the use of so-called “regional languages” (primarily Russian) in courts, schools and other government institutions, showed a staggering lack of priorities and a grave misreading of the Russian propaganda onslaught to follow. For Ukrainian nationalists to confuse distancing themselves from the political entity known as the Russian Federation with purging themselves of a very real Russo-Ukrainian cultural tradition was a recipe for disaster, which has deftly been exploited by Russian forces which ignited the civil war in Ukraine’s east.
Simply put, Ukraine does not risk becoming a failed state because it is lacking a coherent ethnolinguistic identity, and any attempts at forcing a sense of Ukrainian identity on the masses rather than letting it develop organically is counterproductive on every front. For Ukraine, the question of identity is deeply wrapped up in the necessity of political pluralism; a prerequisite for any institutionally solvent state. Laws such as those passed last week are not only an attack on freedom of speech, they are chipping away at a cornerstone of any viable Ukrainian state.
Amidst a backdrop where oligarchs control private armies and the government seems incapable of providing security in those parts of the country not ravaged by war, Ukrainian institutions appear to be in free fall. Meanwhile, every layer of society is cannibalizing itself as a means of survival as Ukraine has slipped to 142nd place (out of 175) on Transparency International’s latest corruption index.
All the while, Russia is betting on (if not fueling) this national death spiral.
In March, Ukrainian Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko told Bloomberg that Russian President Vladimir Putin in fact hopes to turn Ukraine into a failed state, adding that war in the east was likely to reignite as a result.
Amid escalating violence in the region, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic recently threatened to take control of the strategically important coastal town of Mariupol if Ukrainian “aggression” did not cease, signaling that Jaresko’s fears may in fact be justified.
Jaresko, meanwhile, warned creditors on Wednesday that a lack of willingness to restructure $40 billion in Ukrainian debt could signal untold peril down the road.
Ukrainians have already seen their living standards plummet over the past year, making the consequence of an actual default socially untenable.
“If, God forbid, there is another revolution” Jaresko said, “it won’t be of the same kind [as 2014].”
With a wave of high-profile suicides and murders, a ceasefire drenched in gasoline, a government facing insolvency and a political class more capable of tackling Soviet ghosts than modern day robber barons, Jaresko’s words may prove eerily prescient. And however the next revolution ends if it comes to pass, one thing is certain: modern Ukraine is unlikely to survive it.