So, what's Putin to do? He's caught between a rock and a hard place. Although war—whether big or small—would serve no Russian interests, it is all the more likely as Putin grasps at straws to sustain his declining legitimacy.
On the most viewed series in Ukraine, Servant of the People, the famous Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyi plays an honest schoolteacher who becomes president and fights corruption. In real life, Zelenskyi is undecided but ranks second in recent polling among potential presidential candidates.
Pro-Russian candidates are hampered from achieving success in the 2019 parliamentary and presidential elections by four factors.
People Matter is basing its platform on minimizing the role of government in the economy and reorienting the entire state around the concept of service; in American terms, it would be considered center right or libertarian. The movement is led by five prominent reformers with experience in and out of government: Kyiv entrepreneur and city councilman Sergiy Gusovsky; ProZorro founder and first deputy minister at the Economic Development and Trade Ministry Max Nefyodov; think tank executive Victor Andrusiv; open government expert Oleksiy Honcharuk; and NGO leader Oksana Nechyporenko. Its working slogan, “People Matter,” encompasses the vision for the movement, says Gusovsky, who thinks reforming the state comes down to having the right people in the right place at the right time.
Tracking assistance, cajoling donors to coordinate, persuading prospective recipients to stop poaching each other’s projects, and following up on red flags, the work often felt like tilting at windmills.
This is far from the first time Moscow officials have sought to explain away serious accusations by attributing them to conveniently vague notions of anti-Russian bias. Indeed, the formerly moribund nineteenth century concept of Russophobia has enjoyed a remarkable renaissance since 2014, becoming the Kremlin’s excuse of choice whenever faced by a new round of allegations. Whether the crime in question is the invasion of Ukraine, an attempted coup in the Balkans, chemical weapons attacks in rural England, or electoral interference across Europe and the United States, the Kremlin has clearly decided the best form of defense is to ignore the charges completely and condemn the international community for surrendering to anti-Russian hysteria.
Moscow’s motivation is not difficult to grasp.
Russian naval forces first rammed one of the Ukrainian boats and then opened fire. Ukrainian communication intercepts show that Russian commanders on shore gave their ships orders to undertake this action and noted that the situation was being monitored by senior officials in Moscow. The Kremlin was likely trying to provoke the Ukrainian ships into firing in order to justify a larger Russian military response. Moscow successfully used this tactic to start its 2008 war with Georgia, but Ukraine wisely did not take the bait.
In response, President Petro Poroshenko convened Ukraine’s Security and Defense Council (NSDC), which recommended that the government declare a state of martial law covering the entire country for two months.
For many in the West, “martial law” conjures up images of dictators and troops strutting down city streets in fatigues.
The most likely scenario, however, is that Yulia Tymoshenko will become the next president, and that her party’s share in parliament will significantly increase. It is possible that Petro Poroshenko will remain president, but as of November 2018, Tymoshenko is the leading candidate. And for the parliamentary race, her party leads in the polls with a significant margin.
What will happen if the former prime minister, her party, and their allies take over government next year is difficult to predict, but the West should prepare now for that possibility.
Such maritime dominance would allow Moscow to effectively blockade the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk, two major commercial gateways in eastern Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely betting that by suffocating the fragile war-torn economy in eastern Ukraine, he can sow opposition to Ukraine’s central government and eventually blackmail Ukraine into some sort of accommodation.