On December 7, about two hundred fifty Ukrainians gathered in Kyiv for the launch of a new social movement that looks set to become Ukraine’s first liberal political party.

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.

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Olena Tregub spent more than two years working around the clock to help revitalize her moribund government ministry in Ukraine. As director of international aid coordination for the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, her mission was to bring some transparency to $12 billion of foreign assistance pouring into the country after 2014.

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.

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Vladimir Putin had a simple explanation for the wave of international condemnation that engulfed Moscow in the wake of Russia’s November 25 Black Sea attack on the Ukrainian Navy. According to the Kremlin leader, it was all Ukraine’s doing. “Kyiv is actively stirring up anti-Russian sentiment,” he lamented. “That’s all they have—and it works.”

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.

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The past several days have been historic ones in Ukraine’s development as a sovereign and democratic nation. Moscow’s unprovoked attack on and seizure of three Ukrainian ships in the Black Sea on November 25 began this process. This attack represents a serious escalation of Kremlin aggression because it was done openly by regular Russian military forces. Moscow was not hiding its role—as in the Donbas—behind the fiction that local “separatists” were running a rebellion.

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.

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Many Western observers would like to see a change in Ukrainian leadership following the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections. Some would prefer to see a young MP from parliament’s Euro-Optimists group become president; others hope the country’s next leader will come from one of Ukraine’s new parties, such as Democratic Alliance or Power of the People.

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.

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Russia’s act of aggression against Ukrainian ships in the Black Sea on Sunday should not be dismissed as an isolated incident in its four-and-a-half year old war against Ukraine. This pre-meditated attack is part of a broader effort by Moscow to take full control of the Kerch Strait—a strategic chokepoint that connects Russia to Crimea and separates the Black and Azov Seas. Control over the Kerch Strait gives the Russian navy complete dominance over the Sea of Azov, whose only direct outlet to international waters is through the strait.

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.

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Two major risks are clouding Ukraine’s economy and holding back investment and economic growth.

One of them is politics. In 2019, the country will hold both presidential and parliamentary elections, in the spring and autumn, respectively. These will be the second elections since the 2014 revolution, and their outcomes will determine whether the country continues on its current course of modernization and integration with the West, or whether it will slide back into stagnation.

With such high stakes, it is no wonder that most investors are cautious and prefer to wait for the elections’ results before investing their money in the Ukrainian economy.

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On November 25, Russia opened fire on three Ukrainian ships in the Kerch Strait and then seized them. On November 26, Kyiv imposed martial law in ten regions for thirty days as a response to the attack.

Contrary to Russia’s previous military presence in Crimea or its military support of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, both of which the Kremlin initially denied, this incident is an act of open and unmasked aggression against Ukraine.

The question is, why now?

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On November 25, Russia seized three Ukrainian naval vessels as they were preparing to enter the Sea of Azov through the Kerch Strait. The Russian Coast Guard rammed a Ukrainian tugboat and fired on the three Ukrainian ships, injuring up to six crewmembers. Twenty-three Ukrainian sailors are now in Russian custody.

This is the first direct naval engagement between the two countries’ militaries since the early days of the conflict in 2014.

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On November 25, Russia attacked Ukraine again. It was a vivid reminder that Ukraine is at war and the situation can escalate at any time. Three Ukrainian vessels were shot at and seized by Russian maritime forces. Twenty-three Ukrainian sailors are now in Russian captivity. It's the first time Russia has openly attacked Ukrainian forces.

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