President Poroshenko

Fred Kaplan observes, “after the May 25 presidential election and the overwhelming victory of Petro Poroshenko, the dangers of a Russian invasion—and an escalation of tensions leading to an all-out East–West confrontation—have receded”:

Poroshenko seems to be the right man for the times: a billionaire chocolate manufacturer and media mogul who has aspirations of an alliance with the European Union but also huge commercial interests in Russia. He’s a dealer; he’s pragmatic. He recognizes that no Russian leader, least of all Vladimir Putin, will let Ukraine spin entirely out of the Kremlin’s orbit and that, therefore, a healthy Ukraine must pay obeisance to Moscow even while leaning westward. Putin seems to see things the same way. … The liberal protesters of the Maidan movement will be upset when Poroshenko sits down with Putin, but they will have to live with the fact that Moscow has interests in Ukraine—just as the eastern separatists will have to live with the fact that Donetsk will not become a city in Russia. The more these facts are recognized, the greater the chance that this tale might have a good ending.

Steve LeVine also believes that war with Russia is now highly unlikely:

A president Poroshenko is likely to assure Putin, probably in private, that Kyiv has no current plans to join NATO, which is the Russian leader’s main demand. But, as ousted president Viktor Yanukovych found out in the months preceding his flight in February, it would be political suicide for him to explicitly foreswear a formal link to the West. Putin understands local Ukrainian politics and, as long as he perceives no overt anti-Russian hostility and sees a partner with whom he can do business, he is likely to give Poroshenko a go.

Being a pragmatist (paywall), that is precisely the face that Poroshenko is likely to present to Putin. In other words, Poroshenko is likely to try to take control of a narrative that has turned long-conflicting west and east Ukraine into bitter and violent combatants.

Linda Kinstler reports on Poroshenko’s opening moves:

In a press conference Monday morning, Poroshenko made a number of statements indicating how he will steer the embattled country. For starters, he promised to step up the anti-terrorist operation in the east and to improve the equipment of Ukraine’s defense forces, which initially found themselves drastically ill-prepared to stave off incursions by pro-Russian forces. “The anti-terrorist operation will not and cannot last for months, it will last just for hours,” Poroshenko said, according to the Kyiv Post. He also said that interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk would keep his post, emphasized that opening a dialogue with residents of the eastern regionsbut not the “terrorist” separatist forces therewould be his first priority, and said he will try to return Crimea to Ukraine. “Poroshenko made clear he would explore all available legal channels to secure the return of the Black Sea peninsula to Kiev’s rule,” Reuters reports. The billionaire businessman said he will sell his major holding, the chocolate conglomerate Roshen, but not the Channel 5, the major opposition TV network that he owns.

On top of the security crisis in the east and the political crisis with Russia, Jamila Trindle reminds readers that the new president also has an economic crisis to contend with:

If Poroshenko can manage to keep the country together and get Russia off his back, the next challenge on his list will be the one that set off the crisis six months ago: his inheritance of a nearly bankrupt country. The International Monetary Fund has agreed to give Ukraine a $17 billion bailout, but is also requiring that Kiev impose austerity measures, such as raising taxes and cutting the gas subsidies that make it easier for many Ukrainians to heat their homes.

The cuts and changes required to fix the country’s money problems will likely be unpopular with the voters that just put Poroshenko in power. But they will be even harder if he fails to also solve the two more pressing problems of making peace with the separatists and appeasing Moscow. Any failure to solve those two conflicts will make fixing the economy much more difficult.

Robert Kahn takes a closer look at some of the economic choices he will have to make. Meanwhile, Bershidsky notices that Ukraine’s vote was much more pro-EU than the European Parliament elections in the union itself:

If anything explains the paradox of the two votes it is immigration: Ukrainians want to be part of Europe and to be able to travel and work there, while many protest voters in the EU voted for the right precisely because they want to keep people like Ukrainians out.

Jamie Dettmer notes with concern that many eastern Ukrainians were unable to vote on Sunday:

In the city of Donetsk, no polling stations were open and ballot boxes confiscated by armed separatists were stacked in front of the regional administration insurgents have long occupied and marked as “trash” bins. One polling station managed to open briefly in the city of one million but was closed ten minutes later by masked gunmen. And in the nearby town of Horlivka, right in the heart of east Ukraine’s so-called Bermuda Triangle, where dozens have gone missing in the past few weeks, no polling stations opened. With four hours until the polls closed, the turnout in Donetsk was only nine percent, compared to over 40 percent in the rest of the country, according to the election commission.

But Edward Lucas downplays the impact of these disruptions:

It is only part of the east. If you take Crimea as a lost cause, you have two provinces where things were seriously disrupted, about a tenth of the population. So in 90 percent of Ukraine, things went normally and 10 percent there was some severe disruption. But I still think, even with these lost or disrupted provinces, you’ll have a higher turnout than you have in most American elections….

By European standards, this is an impressive turnout. It’s going to be very hard for Russia to say that this is a perpetuation of a fascist coup. But this is a necessary but not sufficient condition—one of many necessary but not sufficient conditions—necessary for Ukraine to get back on its feet again.

Rebel activity in the east has ticked up in the wake of the elections, with pro-Russian separatists seizing the Donetsk airport yesterday. Max Fisher worries that a resurgence of violence could spell trouble:

The big question right now is whether the pro-Russia militias attacked the airport at Moscow’s behest or did it against Moscow’s wishes. Either case is bad. If the rebels attacked under Kremlin orders, which Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsia suggested could be a show of Moscow’s disapproval of Ukraine electing an unfriendly new prime minister, then that would signal that Russia’s recent conciliation with Ukraine was just an act and that it plans to continue fomenting disorder.

What seems perhaps more likely is that the pro-Russia rebels, buying into their own propaganda, are stepping away from Moscow’s control and staged today’s attack in spite of the Kremlin’s recent efforts to make nice with Ukraine. … The rebels sowing violence in eastern Ukraine may be pro-Russia, but today’s attack may indicate what has looked increasingly likely for some time: that they are getting further from Moscow’s influence.

Or perhaps, as Julia Ioffe puts it, Putin has “thrown them all under the bus”:

[N]ow, just when Putin has whipped the region into a murderous panic by making its residents believe they are in existential danger, he has washed his hands of them.

But just because Putin decides he wants out, doesn’t mean the story ends. His plan to destabilize Ukraine worked better than he could have expected. Putin, through people like the Demon and his television armada, have brought the region into what increasingly looks like a civil war, the men off fighting in the countryside and the women losing their minds to fear at home. Ukraine’s presidential elections will come and go, but it’s hard to imagine these people putting down their guns, or ever wanting to live in Ukraine as Ukrainians for a very long time.

The only thing that’s changed is that Putin, for all his passionate interest in these people’s fates just a month ago, doesn’t really care anymore. It just isn’t in his plans. He’s changed his mind.