What might cause the “Russian Spring” to make a comeback in Ukraine and where might this happen?
All those oblasts where there was once an attempt to undermine the government and set up a pseudo-republic can be divided into two groups: those territories where the Novorossiya project might possibly be revived and those that have been immunized against this. Parts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts that are currently under Ukraine’s control have many problems of their own and plenty of locals who would like to see Russki Mir return. Still, the concentration of law enforcement and military personnel in the East guarantees that this eventuality will not come to pass.
The first and most dangerous category includes Kherson, Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts. From a political standpoint, this is where a substantial proportion of those who supported Viktor Yanukovych and the now-defunct Party of the Regions and its clones remains. This is confirmed by the results of the 2015 local elections, where the Opposition Bloc picked up 33% of the vote and Nash Krai, one of the ex-Party of Regions’ offsprings, picked up nearly 12%. In addition, Zaporizhzhia elected as its mayor Volodymyr Buriak, a self-nominated official from the Zaporizhstal plant that belongs to billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, who managed to edge out the candidate from the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, Mykola Frolov. As the Committee of Voters of Ukraine reported, Buriak had a campaign chest of over UAH 7.7 million—one of the largest of all official campaign chests in the entire country. This kind of spending could well be tied to Akhmetov’s desire to maintain his influence in a city and oblast that are important for his business.
Meanwhile Kharkiv reelected the odious Ghennadiy Kernes mayor, who has held that office since 2010 now. Kernes won in the first round with more than 65% of the vote and his party, Vidrodzhennia, not surprisingly won a majority in the oblast council, with 41.7%. Combined with the Opposition Bloc’s 15.8% and Nash Krai’s 9.0%, the old Party of the Regions cohort control all decisions made at the oblast level as well. The situation is somewhat better in Kherson Oblast, where the mayor of Kherson, Volodymyr Mykolayenko is a member of Batkivshchyna, while the party to gain the most of the vote to the oblast council was the Poroshenko Bloc, with 20.0%. However, the Opposition Bloc and Nash Krai, which came second and third, ended up with 32.0% of the vote. Interestingly, the closer an electoral district was to Crimea, the more votes it gave to former “regionals” in the county and oblast councils, laying a kind of time bomb in a strategically critical region.
Not all is quiet even in relatively safe oblasts like Odesa, Mykolayiv and Dnipro. Overall, the situation there is clearly much better, and for different reasons. Even with the presence of such infamous regionals as Serhiy Kivalov and Ghennadiy Trukhanov, and even with altogether 46.0% of the vote going to opposition forces, Odesa is not as monotypical as, say, Kharkiv. This is preventing the one-time regionals from consolidating their power at the oblast level.
Mykolayiv Oblast saw the Opposition Bloc win a 26.0% majority, added to Nash Krai’s 15.0% and Vidrodzhennia’s 6.0%. That made the mayoral election all the more significant, when Samopomich’s Oleksandr Sienkevyh beat out Ihor Diatlov from the Opposition Bloc. Similarly, Dnipro voters made their choice for someone not from the past, with infamous regional Oleksandr Vilkul losing to UKROP’s Borys Filatov, although the Opposition Bloc with 38.0% and Vidrodzhennia with 8% took the oblast council.
Politics and economics: pros and cons
Support for political ideas is a kind of extension of the socio-cultural features of these various regions. And these are the regions with the highest proportion of voters who cling to soviet values or favor Russian ones. Some of this is tied to the fierce de-ukrainianization that took place with the coming of the bolsheviks and with the resettlement of ethnic Russians to fill the rural areas depopulated by the Holodomor. So it is hardly surprising that locals resist the revival of Ukrainian language and culture. Having relatives in Russia and living not far from its borders, especially the oblasts near occupied Crimea, fosters continuing contact with the occupant. Despite the current restrictions on rail travel, people continue to travel back and forth, which also allows for teams of saboteurs to penetrate and spies to be recruited, along with propaganda and smuggling.
When it comes to economic reasons underlying pro-Russian attitudes, then their roots go back to soviet times. It was during the active development of industry that tight ties were established among enterprises that today are on opposite sides of the border. During the first 20 years of independence, many of these links continued to be maintained, and, in some cases, even grew stronger. The fact that Ukrainian industry, especially the defense sector, was heavily oriented on the Russian market, cost the country dearly with the start of the war.
Russia: Desperately seeking solutions
Still, Russia has suffered just as much from the break in relations. Its much ballyhooed import substitution has yet to be more than paper declarations and the shortage of Ukrainian parts has already made itself felt. Among others, Russia needs engines for its helicopters, which are made by MotorSich in Zaporizhzhia, and gas turbines for its ships, which are made by Zorya Mashproekt, a machine-building plant in Mykolayiv. Kherson can rightly boast of its shipbuilding capacities.
For Russia, restoring its strategic nuclear weapons is critically important, but part of its nuclear umbrella of intercontinental ballistic missiles is made at Pivdenmash in Dnipro, especially the PC-20 Voyevoda [Warlord] also known as the SS-18 Satan, and Russia has no home-made equivalent. The same is true of Russia’s peaceful spaceships, as engines for the Tsyklon [Cyclone], Briz-KM [Breeze] and Energia [Energy] systems are also made in Dnipro, while their electronics are manufactured by Kharkiv’s Khartron.
Russia’s domestic manufacturers are incapable of ensuring the same quality of missiles for its strategic forces: the Bulava [Mace] has proved extremely unreliable in operation and has so far crashed during almost every test. The civilian Proton and Progress have also, with their repeated failures, demonstrated that Russia finds it hard to do without Ukrainian equipment. For this reason, the Novorossiya project is not just about “protecting” the Russian language or the Customs Union vs the European Union.
In addition to its industrial significance, Southern and Eastern Ukraine is strategically important for military purposes. Control over Odesa, Mykolayiv and Kherson would completely cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea. Access to Ukraine’s ports would open new prospects for Russia’s economy, while taking over the Black Sea shore will simplify the process of moving troops in and out of Crimea. Almost forgotten at this point is the land bridge to the occupied peninsula, which is also significant. The uncertain fate of the Kerch bridge makes Russia and Crimea dependent on weather conditions for the crossing. By occupying more parts of Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson Oblasts, Russia would open a corridor from Crimea all the way to Rostov and would guarantee the independence of the peninsula from the rest of Ukraine. The same is true of Odesa Oblast: controlling that region would unblock Transnistria, another Russian client “state.” Still, a purely military operation in these oblasts seems highly unlikely and requires the use of all the elements of hybrid warfare. Russia has more than enough personnel and equipment to break through Ukraine’s defenses and even to capture a certain amount of territory. But establishing real control and subduing the inevitable resistance and partisan warfare on such a large territory would need a much greater concentration of forces.
Ukrainians fight back
2014-2015 showed that, despite its efforts to declare “people’s republics” in a slew of Ukrainian oblasts, Russia failed to establish a large swath of territory that was beyond Kyiv’s control for a variety of reasons. Still, the effective failure of lustration and the return of discredited politicians with openly anti-Ukrainian attitudes to elected office and local leadership leaves the question of national security quite unresolved in Ukraine today. Under the right economic conditions, these actors are likely to become more aggressive again. In that sense, any decline in the standard of living plays into their hands and the failure of the government to act effectively will give them free rein.
So will uncoordinated humanitarian policies. A quality, systematic, gentle form of Ukrainianization that takes into account the character of each oblast, instead of imposing primitive “vyshyvanka i sharavary” [embroidered shirts and kozak pants] policies, could prove to be the best protection against “little green men” than an army and the police. Russian heads might cool down if regional security were rebuilt in Ukraine and preparations made for partisan resistance. At this time, this kind of work is only taking place in small volunteer groups and will not be much of an obstacle against a massive military invasion.
The Novorossiya project is only likely to resurrect if Russia manages to carry out a broad spectrum of actions: political work, propaganda and disinformation, cyber attacks, provocations that lead to social protests, sabotage and—and an open military invasion. Hopefully, Ukraine’s security agencies will manage to notice such activities before a Russian Spring comes again.
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