Vladimir Putin’s regime is much easier to understand than it might first appear. In October 1939, Winston Churchill famously stated that Russia “is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” That was a long time ago. Today, the key is crony capitalism. Putin is about two things—power and wealth.
With an eye to the future, officials in the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine are waging a campaign of “patriotic education” aimed at reaching the hearts and minds of those most susceptible to ideological persuasion: children.
Russia has always used the militarization of public life to indoctrinate local populations and continues that practice today. Currently, thousands of children in the Donbas and Crimea are subject to military training or other military-related activities. While there are no official records on the topic, human rights activists and the media have provided wide-ranging evidence of children’s participation in military-related events and training, and even their recruitment in non-state armed formations.
Showman Volodymyr Zelenskiy will soon be sworn in as president of Ukraine. Last month he crushed incumbent President Petro Poroshenko in a remarkable landslide. Zelenskiy’s victory was noteworthy in Ukraine, but it’s also making headlines across the former Soviet Union. While Zelenskiy is inexperienced and his policies aren’t well defined, he knows how to engage the public through clear and innovative communications.
For centuries the Ukrainian language was relegated to the status of a “peasant language” by the foreign rulers of the lands that make up the country today and by foreign scholars in Europe and abroad who perpetuated this Russian imperial falsehood. More recently, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Ukraine inherited a Soviet political elite who spoke Russian, and to this day all of Ukraine’s oligarchs are Russian-speaking. This has buttressed the post-colonial dominance of the Russian language and culture in the public sphere and the subsequent ostracism of the Ukrainian language. The Ukrainian-speaking majority has been historically marginalized as peripheral, with inferior access to high culture, quality education, prestigious jobs, political office, and the creation of wealth primarily due to the bias of the established colonial practices that saw Ukrainian as "low" and "rural."
Construction is booming in Kyiv, Ukraine, but not the rest of the economy. A major reason is that Ukrainians with some extra savings do not put their money into banks but buy additional apartments instead. Others keep their savings in cash. On average, Ukrainian MPs keep $700,000 at home. Those who have a lot of wealth transfer it to offshore havens, where the money is safe.
Ukraine is now the poorest country in Europe. According to the International Monetary Fund, Ukraine overtook Moldova as the poorest country in Europe as measured in GDP per capita in 2018 at $2,963, 8 percent less than in Moldova. These numbers can be boosted in many ways. Probably half of the Ukrainian economy goes unreported in official statistics, and prices in Ukraine are so low that one gets much more for a dollar there then elsewhere. Still, the growth rate has been around 3 percent a year for the last three years, and the IMF predicts a similar rate even for the long term. A poor country with macroeconomic stability and open access to the large European market should be growing steadily by 7 percent annually.
What is wrong? Usually the discussion focuses on what the state does, but there’s a better way to understand how the economy really functions: follow the money.
Five years after the annexation of Crimea and the instigation of conflict in the Donbas, the reasons for continued sanctions on Russia have not gone away. Crimea is still occupied. War grinds on in the Donbas.
Ukraine held presidential elections this spring and will hold parliamentary elections in the fall. Whatever the results, events in Ukraine are important and have far-reaching consequences. Instability in Ukraine—which is Russia’s strategic goal if it cannot control Ukraine—will have destabilizing effects in Europe, including increased migration, trade disruption, and cyberattacks.
There are at least ten important principles and policy priorities for Western governments in their engagement with Ukraine after the 2019 elections.
The temptation in Kyiv and elsewhere is to look past Sunday’s overwhelming victory by upstart Volodymyr Zelenskiy over incumbent Petro Poroshenko and try to divine what it means for Ukraine. This piece will yield to that temptation—but after acknowledging the importance of what happened Sunday and throughout the election campaign. Free and fair elections in a region not known for them should not be taken for granted.
On April 21, television star Volodymyr Zelenskiy crushed incumbent president Petro Poroshenko in the second round of Ukraine’s presidential election. Even though Zelenskiy has never held elected office, voters were so tired of corruption and economic stagnation that they were willing to take a risk.
Zelenskiy ran an unusual campaign. He made few programmatic promises beyond a general pro-Western course, but cast himself as a person who would clean up corruption. The thirst for a more technocratic and modern government was so great that voters deliberately took a chance on a largely unknown quantity. Ironically, it was Poroshenko’s considerable accomplishments that made the risk of electing Zelenskiy and the next phase in Ukraine’s political evolution possible.