Ukraine is not controlled by oligarchs, even though there are some. They make their money, much historically through the likes of Yanukovich, but the economy is dominated by the middle class which is substantial here, unlike in Russia. The oligarchs do not control the economy by a long shot.
Second, the oligarchs want integration with the EU. They, at one moment, forced Yanukovich’s hand by demanding that “their men” in his party vote against him during the current revolution. The oligarchs want EU integration to modernize factories, to enter larger markets, and to stabilize Ukraine. Any of seven countries in the EU has a bigger economy than Russia and together the EU has an economy 12 times larger. Russia has no modern technology and nothing to offer other than gas and billionaires.
The oligarchs, above all, do not want closer relations with Russia. And they are for the most part from the so-called Russian-speaking region of Ukraine, To speak Russian or to be from a Russian-speaking area says nothing about your political leanings. Ethnically, the population of Kyiv is 80% Ukrainian, but due to the educational policy of the USSR which lasted 70 years there, 70% speaks Russian as a first language. Over 80% of Kyiv has always voted against Yanukovich’s party. In the latest poll, 27% of the whole country would prefer closer ties with Russia, but it is clear on closer analysis that they want closer “political” relations with Russia, not economic union. And that percentage diminishes every year.
Finally, although it was known that Yanukovich and his closest circle were stealing massively from the budget, documentary evidence now makes it clear that they stole about $10 billion each year directly from the budget. And there is other money that comes in from corrupt schemes. There was no reason for Yanukovich and his friends to flee, if they had not broken the law. There was no threat of death or violence, he was still president and had agreed to early elections. The prime minister was bringing him four bills to sign into law when they saw that he had fled with the family jewels. His security cameras show him and his guards loading vans and two helicopters with the valuables from this palace which he built for himself with government money and fleeing in the night. What he left behind in terms of documents for where money came from and to whom it went was a detailed incrimination. On this legal basis, he and about 18 others are having their accounts frozen in Europe, Canada, and the U.S.
What follows is something I wrote lately for some people. It will give you a bit of an update.
As every hour during the whole revolution there was prayer on the Maidan, so I think prayer remains key to this whole affair in all its aspects. It is the “exorcizing” of corrupt government and the vestiges of Soviet mentality. This is the first stage and I would say it has worked in Ukraine, at least for the moment. It remains to be seen how well the new government will respond to popular demands. The Maidan will remain until the presidential elections in May to ensure the establishment of fair elections and quality government. They do not want control but stewardship. It is argued on the basis of the constitutions which say that the people are the supreme authority.
Putin’s invasion, while clearly illegal and against his own oft-repeated, public statements to the contrary, is ultimately not an act of aggression, but an act of fear. His economy is weakening and his hoped-for “Eurasian Union” cannot succeed without Ukraine. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Belorussia don’t offer much.
Russia has only oil and billionaires, but no diversified economy or middle class. 60% of its foreign trade is from oil and gas. 10% of its state budget comes directly from Gasprom. By contrast, Ukraine is the 7th largest producer of steel in the world, 6th largest exporter of wheat, and 3rd largest exporter of corn. It has a heavy-metals manufacturing sector: cars, tractors, weapons, and planes. It has a large middle class and a hard-working labour force, which Russia also does not have. And then there is the Black Sea coast which gives access to everything else. Russia’s armed forces are not big enough to invade Ukraine, which is bigger than France and has 45 million people. In Crimea, he has some support. It is home to the Russian navy’s largest base with 25,000 troops and 380 ships. Without that, he could not have hoped to land troops. It now seems, incredibly, that Yanukovich, whom he does not respect, convinced him to attack and that people would rise up in support of his invasion. He seems blinded by ambition. He could not possibly enter mainland Ukraine, unless he is also blinded by desperation, which is possible. Nothing would unite Ukraine more, and that is one thing he quickly discovered. A fair percentage of Crimeans support him, but others were immediately demonstrating in the streets against him and ready to take up arms against his troops. It is not clear that he could hold even Crimea.
Crimea was never “Ukrainian”. Catherine the Great defeated the Muslim Turks and populated it with Russians. Krushchev united Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 to some local protest, but in the USSR everything came out of Moscow anyway. There was some local reaction in 1991 when Ukraine declared independence, but Crimea did not resist union in the end when given a special status. The Crimean Tatars are a significant group and they want nothing to do with Russia. There also many people of Russian descent who want Ukraine, as well as many Ukrainians who live there. Putin can make mischief, but little more.
The ruble is the weakest currency among industrialized nations. When the Russian Parliament voted to give Putin permission to invade, the currency fell by almost 10%. When he actually did send troops, the Moscow stock exchange fell by over 10%. The expert calculation is that, in one day, Russia lost 55 billion dollars. (Sochi cost 50 billion.) This is exactly what he did not want and cannot afford. Seven of the G8 leaders have refused to attend the meeting he is to host in Sochi in June, unless he turns everything around. Obama has said he would seek Russia’s exclusion from the G8 completely. That would be unbearable for Russia. Furthermore, demonstrations in former Soviet countries give Russians courage to demonstrate against the huge injustices in Russia. Putin is paranoid about such demonstrations. He fears the overthrow of the system and he should. There were small sympathetic demonstrations there during the revolution in Ukraine but even more when he invaded. Putin immediately had 300 Moscow demonstrators arrested and many sentenced to two months. Among them were opposition party leaders.
The broadest and most hopeful way of reading all these events is in two things. First, as I noted, the end of systemic corruption in Ukrainian government with the establishment of government for the people. This would end the vestiges of Soviet-style government, i.e., government for those in power, and against the people. Second, it would be the definitive death of the Soviet Union. Putin said in his second term as president that the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century was the collapse of the USSR. It would be hard to find anyone even in Russia who would agree. At the same time he said that “we” have learned something from the Americans: you conquer the world not by military might but by economics. To this he has dedicated almost 10 years of his life, trying to force the neighbouring countries into his Eurasian Union. The recent events make clear to him finally, that Ukraine will not be in his sphere, and that, therefore, his hopes for the Union (both Soviet and Eurasian) are dead. It remains to be seen how he will take the news, but he has already begun working with the current Ukrainian government.
Half of Ukraine is praying and fasting about all this during Lent, as they did during the revolution.
The author is a priest in the Ukraine.