Sasha is a 56-year-old taxi driver. He lives on a monthly pension of 1,250 UAH or $60 USD, and so must also drive a taxi to support himself and to help his children and grandchildren. “There are too many cars, too many people,” he explains as we make our way through the crowded streets of Kiev. “Yanukovych stole money from all of his people, but only a little. Now these people, this government, Poroshenko and his, they take everything from us for this war and they still ask for your money. Money, money, money. It is all these people really care about.” Sasha’s perspective is shared by many of the Ukrainian citizens who took the time to speak with me, and they all repeated this phrase or a close variation of it: “Money, money, money. It’s all they care for.” This is often followed up with, “They don’t care for the people, only themselves.”
Unfortunately, this situation can be continually witnessed throughout Ukraine. Sasha tells me that he must make no less than 1,000 UAH or $50 USD a day to contribute to the combined incomes of his family. “Rent takes most of our money, then fees and taxes and the costs to operate my taxi. My grandchildren must eat and be safe.” He continued, “Maybe if they did not take everything from us as soon as we make it, things could work, but they will not and it does not.” Sasha does not show defeat in his voice. He holds up a book on the instruction of English. “I must be better at new things. I am an old man but I will not be stopped.”
In relative terms, Sasha is doing well for himself and his family in a country where the monthly median income is 10,000 UAH or $500 USD. Sasha, like many of the Ukrainians I spoke with, refuses to be filmed or photographed while speaking negatively about the situation in Ukraine. I spent many hours over a series of days walking around Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, a popular tourist spot and scene of the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution in Kiev.
Camera in hand, I walked the square and nearby historical streets, and stopped into a local cafe for a refreshing Americano coffee, where I spoke with whoever I could about Ukraine, the war, Russia, America, Europe, the future of Ukraine, and corruption. While many of these topics provoked only a lukewarm response, the topic of corruption fueled an often personal and heartfelt conversation laced with concern about the individual’s future and the future of Ukraine. Their concerns and their anti-corruption stances meant most of the people I spoke with shied away from the camera.
Wildly enough, while having these conversations against corruption, I was at times solicited to pay them to speak on camera—a solicitation I outright refused. The Ukrainians I spoke with repeated the mantra Sasha and others have spoken: “Money, money, money.” It’s a mantra that cuts to the root of the crisis in Ukraine. Money is something we in West keep throwing at Ukraine in hopes that the crisis will simply go away, or that we can buy Ukraine’s way into Western culture and away from Russia.
Oleg is a university student I met in Independence Square, and he expressed a great deal of concern over foreign aid to Ukraine, stating, “We won’t see this, the people, our streets, our schools. The thieves and oligarchs will keep this money for themselves as they always do.” His concern is shared by many Ukrainians, and given the historical and ongoing corruption in Ukraine, it should cause the West, especially Americans, concern as well. We are providing more money for the tills of the oligarchs, but we mean well. In 2015 alone, $513,502,000 in foreign aid is planned for Ukraine. The American authorization enacted on January 24th, 2015 via Senate Simple Resolution 72
“…authorizes $350,000,000 in fiscal years 2015–2017 for the president to provide the government of Ukraine with defense articles, defense services, and military training for the purpose of countering offensive weapons and reestablishing the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, including anti-tank and anti-armor weapons; crew weapons and ammunition; counter-artillery radars; fire control and guidance equipment; surveillance drones; and secure command and communications equipment.”
This is a lot of cash and equipment for any nation, let alone one faced with rampant corruption.
This money intended for the empowerment of Ukraine is most likely to end up in the hands and bank accounts of the loudest and most corrupt voices of Ukraine. Ukrainian politicians are a mixed bag of knee-jerk reactionists and hardline reformers loyal to only themselves or a niche party line, and blame the system and everyone but themselves for posing roadblocks to real change in Ukraine. It’s a political tactic not unlike that used by American politicians.
Evelina, a waitress and university student who works near Independence Square, shared a coffee and a cigarette with me. “The politicians and oligarchs are one in the same here,” she said. “In Kiev, they always talk and ask for more to do more with. But they lie. Everything is a lie.” I asked her if someone in Ukraine intended to do anything about this and she replied, “No one will take on the oligarchs because they are the politicians or they simply buy them away. Everyone has a very cheap price on their soul.” Evelina has made a valid, although blunt point, but it is not a point that Ukraine is willing to admit. The Ukrainian elite still view the oligarchs as the saviors of Ukraine.
The Ukrainian elite believe that the oligarchs are the ones who have kept Russia at bay and that Ukraine will need to rely on their wealth and influence if they are to hold the line in Crimea and in the east of the country against further Russian-backed aggression. Ukrainian politicians also argue that the oligarchs are the ones who enforce taxation and are responsible for the employment of the Ukrainian people, because, as stated above, these important issues tend to be someone else’s problem in Ukraine.
There is some truth to the matter, as Ukraine has launched a massive privatization effort in May of this year, seeking to close the gap on Ukraine’s budget. The state-backed privatization program will release power generation and seaports to private control. These facilities, which could economically stimulate the Ukrainian economy as state-held assets under competent and responsible leadership, will now be sold off to the oligarchs, their profits dumped into private bank accounts.
The oligarchs, while popular with Ukrainian leadership, are no stranger to scrutiny from the people of Ukraine or the Western media. The Associated Press recently published an article titled, “Ukraine’s richest man plays both sides of war’s frontline,” which focused on Rinat Akhmetov, an opportunist who favors those who support his selfish efforts and fervent supporters of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Despite Akhmetov’s support for Yanukovych, he still has 300,000 employees in the pro-Russian separatist-controlled east of the country. Akhmetov’s steel products are finished in the rebel-held part of the country and then sold to the Ukrainian government in a sick act of war profiteering, which is simply accepted as inevitable in Ukraine.
The AP writes, “It makes for a striking picture of economic cooperation between enemy areas: Coal produced in Krasnodon mines, on rebel territory, travels to the Avdiivka coking plant on the government side. Coke is then shipped back to rebel lands, to a metals smelter in Yenakieve, and the metals produced there are transported to government territory on the Azov Sea—for shipping to the West.” Those in the Ukrainian government believe that Ukraine needs oligarchs like Akhmetov to simply keep the lights on, as well as to keep them in power.
Powerful oligarchs have shaken the stability of Ukraine in the past. Recently, the oligarchs and their special interest in volunteer battalions, which have now been assimilated into the Ukrainian National Guard, have added more risk to Ukrainian stability and increased the country’s reliance upon the oligarchs. An excellent example of this occurred when Ihor Kolomoisky mismanaged the operational funds of Battalions of Territorial Defense (BTD) unit Dnipro-1 in March, 2015, causing unprecedented political backlash eventually resulting in his resignation following a stand-off with security forces.
Ihor Kolomoisky blundered by sending armed men to maintain control over Ukrnafta—a state-owned energy company of which Kolomoisky was a minority shareholder. Men like Kolomoisky are detrimental to the democratic government and professional military, reducing their ability to maintain the rule of law and order and to defend the sovereignty of the nation.
Kolokoisky has dramatically shifted power and destabilized the system, impacting the government’s ability to transition effectively with the will of the people. If Ukraine is to successfully take control of this situation, the government will have to finance volunteer battalions alone. The building of a professional army is required to fight and win wars, as well as maintain peace and security. The BTDs and Ukrainian Volunteer Corps (UVC) already lack developed professional military training, discipline, doctrine, and an effective chain of command. It is up to Ukraine to develop its volunteers into professional warfighters or else allow them to continue to be little more than armed mobs.
Forming the volunteer battalions was the strategic causality of government intent to forge a standing army following Euromaidan, comprised of citizen-soldiers the people would trust in the aftermath. This gave Kiev the capability to swiftly deploy manpower to counter the pro-Russian separatist forces. The initial organizational and operational table of allowances of the battalions has, of course, since increased greatly since reorganizing as units of the National Guard.
The soldiers armed by the oligarchs are just one of countless hazards resulting from allowing a system laden with corruption to continue unchecked. As foreign aid to support Ukraine against Russian aggression has poured in, the Ukrainian government have imposed heavy taxes and tariffs on its people—all in the name of national defense. Yet the soldiers of Ukraine rarely reap the benefits of modern equipment, sufficient ammunition, steady pay, or even appropriate medical care while wounded in the line of duty.
In February, I spoke to Max, a Ukrainian soldier who was wounded in the line of duty. Max is not only a hero of his nation, but is also victim of corruption. Max was shot several times while on a mission in the east, and found himself in a Kiev military hospital where he relied on his friends and family to provide food and personal hygiene products for him and to pay for his treatment. His pay was also stopped when his unit released him to the hospital. Max’s story is common, as is the theft from Ukraine’s soldiers and people. One would think that such dire times would bring out the best in people, but in Ukraine, they seem to be bringing out the worst.
The wounded warriors of Ukraine are not the only ones who rely on donations; the military requires donations to function. Organizations providing material and monetary support from around the globe might be surprised to learn that their support often ends up anywhere but with the troops. Stealing from donations to the troops is commonly reported in Ukraine. The country’s anti-corruption chief was fired for uncovering millions being stolen by the government.
The fact remains that Russian hybrid warfare to destabilize Ukraine and exert its influence on the West is a real and decisive reality. It is unfortunate that Ukraine is in such a sad state of corruption and cannibalization, as it may very well destabilize itself before the Russians can.
As Russian aggression spreads to Syria and to a resource battle in the Arctic; their fighting grows stale across battlefields in Moldova, Georgia, and on two fronts in Ukraine; and as they face a lessening of global diplomacy and a faltering economy; the likelihood of the Russians choosing open warfare in Ukraine grows.
(Featured image courtesy of nbcnews.com)