On June 15, Yulia Tymoshenko launched the start of Ukraine’s presidential election season with a two-and-half hour speech in Kyiv, Ukraine. With twenty-nine percent of voters telling pollsters they haven’t made their minds up for the race slated for March 31, the field is wide open. But it’s not too soon to start worrying about the many ways in which the Kremlin may meddle in the election.

The first way to meddle is easy: support pro-Russian candidates.

Polls show that in spite of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian candidates still enjoy strong approval ratings. Among them are Yuriy Boyko, former vice prime minister and an MP with support at 9.7%, and Vadim Rabinovich, leader of the “For Life” party at 9.5%. Both have over twenty years in politics and their records strongly support the Kremlin.

If Boyko and Rabinovich were to agree on a single candidate in the 2019 presidential election, it would make for a strong ticket, and this potential merger is already drawing worrying parallels to the 2010 election when pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych returned to power six years after the pro-democratic Orange Revolution and turned Ukraine back toward authoritarianism. The Kremlin will undoubtedly press for the same scenario in 2019 by supporting one of their candidates with large amounts of cash.

There’s at least four other ways the Kremlin may try to influence the election.

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US President Donald Trump made headlines ahead of the recent G7 summit in Canada by calling on his colleagues in the group of leading industrial nations to welcome Russia back into the fold. However, it seems that this was not the full extent of his advocacy for the Kremlin. According to a report published by BuzzFeed quoting two unnamed diplomatic sources, the US president also took advantage of the opportunity presented by the traditional G7 dinner to justify Vladimir Putin’s takeover of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. The BuzzFeed report quotes him telling his G7 colleagues that Crimea was Russian “because everyone who lives there speaks Russian.”

If this account is accurate, it is difficult to exaggerate how troubling the American leader’s comments are.

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On June 7, Ukraine’s parliament finally adopted a long-awaited law that paves the way for the establishment of an anticorruption court. Members of parliament had only one hour to evaluate the draft before voting, and the final text was released on June 13.

Ukrainians have been waiting for four long years for justice. None of our high-profile crooks are behind bars. Plus, Ukraine needs the next IMF tranche of $2 billion to avoid default, and everything depends on the new law.

So what’s in it?

Good and bad. High-profile corruption cases will finally be heard by an impartial court, but the authorities did manage to water down the law.

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Back in 2010 when world football governing body FIFA awarded Russia the right to host this year’s World Cup finals, few viewed Moscow as a threat. At the time, President Dmitry Medvedev seemed eager to portray himself as a Western-friendly reformer. In the diplomatic arena, the reset with the Obama White House had yet to unravel and it would be a further two years before US presidential candidate Mitt Romney would face ridicule for daring to call Russia America’s number one geopolitical foe. The 2007 cyber-attack on Estonia and the 2008 war in Georgia had certainly set some alarm bells ringing, but most still regarded talk of a new Cold War as absurd.

That is emphatically no longer the case. Few would doubt that Russia and the Western world are engaged in the most intense geopolitical struggle since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Perhaps even more remarkably, Russia appears to be winning.

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No one knows how the Ukrainian presidential election next March will play out, but it’s fair to say that election season has already begun. Polls paint a worrying picture for candidates. 

Despite perfect name recognition, the frontrunner Yulia Tymoshenko has only 9 to 13 percent support, according to recent polls (Rating, SOCIS, and Democratic Initiatives). Other candidates, including the incumbent president, are in a tight cluster, suggesting they all have a fair chance of making the second round since no one is expected to win outright.  

Past elections showed that sitting presidents, other than Leonid Kuchma, haven’t benefited from the power of incumbency. Poroshenko may be nervous and trying to undermine his main challenger former Defense Minister Anatoliy Gritsenko through a new special investigative commission charged with looking into embezzlement in the armed forces from 2004 to 2017 (Gritsenko was minister from 2005 to 2007).

The current polls are an anomaly given that voters typically favor two strong candidates whose support is based on geography: the east votes for a pro-Russian candidate, and the west backs a pro-Western one. But this dynamic seems to be changing. Public trust in the old guard is currently so low that more than a third of voters are undecided, 11 percent would vote for another candidate, and almost 14 percent are leaning toward unconventional choices: 7 percent favor rock star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk and and 6.6 percent back comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

The public clearly wants new leaders who are honest and patriotic, so Ukrainians are considering outsiders like Vakarchuk and Zelenskiy.

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Hanna Solomatina never set out to be a whistleblower. The former head of Ukraine's National Agency for Corruption Prevention's (NACP) Financial Control and Lifestyle Monitoring Department just wanted to use her background in finance and auditing to help the country fight endemic graft. The NACP manages Ukraine's e-declaration system, which mandates that officials reveal their assets annually to ensure they weren't acquired unjustly. Solomatina's department at NACP was responsible for verifying the declarations.

What follows is a saga that left Solomatina disillusioned about corruption within NACP itself. Ultimately, it led her to a crossroads: stay silent and keep her head down, or speak out and risk everything. She spoke out, bravely becoming one of Ukraine's most prominent whistleblowers, and her life hasn't been the same since. This is her story.

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Crimean Tatars’ unending struggle for freedom has been nothing less than epic, and much of it is represented in the long life of Mustafa Dzhemilev. Finally, a film producer has recognized his story for what it is: a compelling tale of historic sweep featuring a legendary protagonist of distinguished bearing.

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Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) recently made headlines after masterminding a dramatic plot to spare the life of Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko. On May 29, newspapers announced that Babchenko had been assassinated in Kyiv, Ukraine, where he had been living as a dissident Russian journalist. The next day at what many thought was an ordinary SBU press conference, Babchenko surprised the crowd, announcing that he was not only alive but that he had cooperated with the SBU which had uncovered a plot against him. The reaction to Babchenko’s quick death and resurrection differed according to the audience; Ukrainians mostly celebrated the news, while the international community demanded evidence and an explanation for such extraordinary measures.

Ukrainians were thrilled that the SBU, which doesn’t have a good reputation, managed to carry out such a complicated operation. For once, they bested Russia.

While we wait for more information on the Babchenko case, now is time to examine the SBU, which remains the country’s only unreformed law enforcement institution.

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It’s only been six weeks since I was last in Kyiv, and yet the mood now feels completely different.

When I was last in Kyiv, posters advertising rock star Slava Vakarchuk’s Independence Day concert were everywhere and he was the talk of the town. No longer. Now former prime minister and campaigner extraordinaire Yulia Tymoshenko’s “New Course for Ukraine” billboards dot major roads as she tops the polls.

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The other night in Kyiv, one of Ukraine’s best political analysts came to see me. He asked me what the United States wants in the next Ukrainian presidential election slated for March 2019. I told him that the United States doesn’t have a favorite. Nor will it.

My interlocutor was highly dissatisfied with the answer. But why doesn’t the West pick their choice and invest $150-250 million in its candidate as is required to win an election? Both the Russians and the oligarchs do so. Why aren’t the Americans rational? Another expert claimed that a popular candidate can win the presidency with only $40-50 million, but that is also big money. By comparison, a Swedish parliamentary election campaign costs $12 million and a German one $90 million. Those amounts include all the parties.

We went on to discuss Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch who is considered Putin’s foremost agent in Ukraine. He was one of the first people the United States sanctioned over Russia’s occupation of Crimea on March 17, 2014, but he thrives in Ukraine in full freedom. He has allegedly just bought three television channels in Ukraine—112, NewsOne, and Zik—in apparent preparation for the presidential election. These channels match a populist electorate. Needless to say, nobody thinks that Medvedchuk has bought these television channels with his own money but has been financed by the Kremlin. Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash still owns the television channel Inter, and we know that he has received his money from Gazprom and Gazprombank.

Next we discussed who stands behind which candidate. A clear pattern can be seen: half a dozen Ukrainian oligarchs are allegedly financing up to eighteen potential presidential candidates. Serious oligarchs have three candidates in the game—one is their favorite, one might win, and one is a spoiler. The picture of a tense game of poker in a smoke-filled room late in the night captures the scene well.

This conversation reflects Ukrainian reality and what is wrong with it.

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