Warlordism in Ukraine?

On 30 June, Walter Russell Mead’s blog at The American Interest carried a post on The Sad Status Quo in Ukraine, responding to “must-read” analytical reporting in the Wall Street Journal (behind a paywall). It suggests that Ukraine may be entering an era of Warlordism.

Focusing on the person of one Ihor Kolomoisky, the banking tycoon appointed as Governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region earlier this year. Kolomoisky is reportedly spending as much as $10 million a month to field a well-equipped fighting force a third the size of Ukraine’s own army, with his banking businesses looking to profit handsomely with European integration. His tactics are bare-knuckled, but effective: Dnipropetrovsk had some pro-Russian activism earlier this year, but it quickly dissipated …

In the Warsaw Pact and ex-Soviet countries that moved toward the EU and NATO, the gradual imposition of European law led to a process of state building. This has gone farther in some places than in others—Bulgaria, Romania and some of the ex-Yugoslav republics have made less progress than some others—but states have been built that, with corruption here and there, generally speaking work pretty well. But the farther east you go, the more another model was adopted: a single powerful person ends up establishing himself as the center of a new state. Some of the dictatorships in Central Asia are like this, and Putin has adopted a more advanced form of this in Moscow. Instead of oligarchs, there are autocrats or near-autocrats. Again, think feudal Europe, with a powerful ruler crushing the nobles and establishing firm central control.

Ukraine finds itself somewhere in the middle. There has not been a successful Western-oriented state-building process that creates the kind of institutions and political parties that a modern capitalist society needs. But at the same time, no single oligarch or strongman has broken the power of the rest, establishing himself as the Putin of Kiev….

Ironically, what Putin wants and the oligarchs want is probably similar now: enough Western support for rump Ukraine so it doesn’t fall completely under Russia’s control, but stopping well short of forcing major, deep reform on Ukraine. Putin can live with this because he has got Crimea and a lot of economic and political influence—and because the West will keep funneling enough cash to Russia to pay Ukraine’s gas bill. Ukraine’s oligarchs will once again have used West and East against each other to maintain a precarious independence. And Western leaders can tell themselves that they’ve achieved a glorious victory because they’ve kept Putin out of Kiev.

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Filed under economics, military, nationalism, Russia, Ukraine

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