If Yugoslavia was an example of an army let loose after the collapse of a communist regime, the Soviet Union exemplified a disintegrating police state. The type of anarchy that follows from these two scenarios is different. Instead of open civil war as in Yugoslavia, in Russia the civil war is covert.Wisła Suraska
The brilliance of Wisła Suraska’s book, How the Soviet Union Disappeared, and the brilliance of Anatoliy Golitsyn’s book, New Lies for Old, leave us with two equally important yet incompatible accounts of Soviet collapse. Suraska’s sociological approach, with its deep political science and insights into the weaknesses of the Soviet system, serve as an indispensable guide. At the same time, Golitsyn’s understanding of Soviet counterintelligence, with its controlled opposition and extensive agents networks, helps to explain why the Evil Empire continues under V. Putin.
It is usually a mistake to stop at one explanation when a synthesis of two are needed. A simple reliance on one approach leaves the observer blind in one eye. If we only have regard for Suraska’s approach, we will not see that the Soviet system was diligently managing its collapse, strategically. At the same time, if we only have regard for Golitsyn’s approach, we will not see the many upsets and failings of Soviet strategy, and the real power of free peoples to overturn the best laid plans of the communists.
What follows below is an important chapter in a covert civil war between hidden Soviet structures and those who are bravely fighting for their freedom in the former Soviet Union. It is a covert civil war that began more than thirty years ago. It is war in which the Kremlin, no longer using communist slogans or banners, misrepresents its cause as anti-fascist. In Ukraine, the secret communist structures have big media on their side, big business and the “oligarchs.” It has its infiltrators and false flag patriots, and it has its anti-American narrative. In fact, in all its details it is a mirror image of the covert civil war now being waged in America.
The following report is from Ukrainian-American journalist Nadia Bancik. At my request, she generously agreed to write a detailed report on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s first year in office. Keeping in mind how much we do not know, it is worth emphasizing a singular fact which Americans may soon learn by bitter experience: the battlefield in a covert civil war is by necessity a Wilderness of Mirrors. To understand it we must remember our political science, but we must never lose sight of Moscow’s mastery of counterintelligence.
Volodymyr Zelensky, an Unfulfilled Hope
By Nadia Banchik
One year ago, a vast majority of Ukrainians elected their president — a comedian who never had occupied any government position before. One year later, his popularity rating fell significantly, and he is now under sharp criticism.
The Ukrainian Turning Point
To understand why a majority of the Ukrainian electorate chose Volodymyr Zelensky in the presidential election of 2019, one should observe what the entire Ukrainian society looked like in that year.
In November 2013, the abrupt and unexpected refusal by President Victor Yanukovych, to sign the EU Association Agreement, resulted in demonstrations by students in Kyiv. These students took to the capital’s main square, called “Independence Square,” and were severely beaten by the local police. The wider society became outraged and took to Independence Square as well as to the streets in almost all big cities throughout the country. A stand-off between government forces and the protesters began. It would last until February 2014. The protesters built an encampment on the square and showed unexpected devotion to their cause, and amazing self-organization. For more than three months they were staying in the Square enduring an extremely cold winter to demand Yanukovych’s dismissal and to build a new Ukraine, free of corruption and Russian dominance. The stand-off was resolved on February 18-20 with shelling of the protesters, who defended themselves with barricades and burning tires. The clashes resulted in more than 100 dead and more than 1000 injured. Yanukovych abruptly fled the country and appeared in Russia. These events were dubbed “The Revolution of Dignity.”
These events were a turning-point for Ukrainian society, dividing it into three parts. One part was made up of those who participated in Maidans — patriots fighting for a democratic, free Ukraine. Another part was so-called anti-Maidan, composed of those who fiercely fought against the popular uprising. They were Russia-nostalgic and supported by the oligarchs who saw in the patriots’ expectations a major threat to the existing economic and political system in which they were the “pillars” — a system based on corruption and Mafia-style government. The third group was in-between, apolitical, indifferent to the country’s course. While the patriotic groups won the whole world’s attention by their courage and determination, fighting for Ukraine and seeing it as a modern European country, another part of the society was longing for Russian cultural domination.
The Russian aggression that followed the Revolution of Dignity, which involved the annexation of Crimea and the so called “hybrid war” in eastern Ukraine (the region of Donbass), sharpened and deepened this divide. Yanukovych’s rule left the country with an almost completely ruined army. All patriots mobilized and rushed to defend Ukraine in volunteer battalions. The Verkhovna Rada took the governance and managed to organize free and fair presidential elections in which Petro Poroshenko was elected president on the promise of ending the war by means of diplomacy (he gained experience being Foreign minister under Yuschenko’s presidency and then was Minister of Economy under Yanukovych; however, he was a big businessman and a member of the oligarch’s club, therefore he was supported by the oligarchs at the time.)
While the patriots united in defending the country, the pro-Russian part of society repeated the Kremlin’s narrative, depicting the Revolution of Dignity as a coup staged by so-called “far right radicals,” or “Nazis,” against the legitimate president, Yanukovych. They have been standing on this position since then, and continued their fight for full-fledged revenge. Having their own political party, Opposition Platform for Life (the former Party of Regions), they possess major television channels and were spreading endlessly the Kremlin’s propaganda with rhetoric bordering on state treason (nonetheless using the constitutional provision of free speech). All oligarchs support this party and its constituency.
A substantial part of their pro-Russian propaganda is “Russian-style” entertainment, with contemporary Russian pop culture — at a time of almost full-scale war with a Russian-sponsored breakaway region, with everyday losses of Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers. This aggressive propaganda of the “Russian World” was insulting to the patriots; therefore they considered the transformation of Ukraine’s post-Soviet culture into a nation-building culture essential, supporting a national identity. It meant the strengthening of Ukrainian as the state’s language. It meant so-called de-Sovietization, getting rid of the Soviet and Kremlin narratives of history and historical memory; in particular, regarding Ukraine’s situation during World War II, when the then stateless nation was caught between two major occupiers, Hitler and Stalin. Such complicated historical truth was met by the pro-Russian Ukrainians with fierce protest, since they are holding to the Soviet narratives. And so, yet another point of conflict within Ukrainian society emerged from this transformation.
Meanwhile, Poroshenko realized very soon that all his diplomatic experience would not bring peace to Ukraine, as the Kremlin was not going to make any compromises. The Kremlin strove to achieve its strategic goal — to return Ukraine under its sphere of influence and retaliate for Maidan (or “restore the legitimate order,” in its own language). Poroshenko strove as much as he could to implement the comprehensive reform of economy, law enforcement and judicial bodies (and culture). He was transforming Ukraine under the supervision of its allies — the United States and EU countries — because Ukraine after Yanukovych lacked both money and know-how for reforming the post-Soviet society (with its oligarchs’ rule, systemic corruption and half the economy in shadow). On the allies’ advice, new governmental bodies were created: — the State Bureau of Investigations, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office and the Anti-Corruption Court. Also, Poroshenko, together with the Ukrainian Orthodox Clergy, managed to get the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s independence from the Russian Orthodox Church recognized by Patriarch Bartholomay.
While the patriotic part of Ukrainian society adopted the reforms enthusiastically, their opponents saw in them a direct threat to the oligarchs and those living on corruption. The pro-Russian part of the country, with almost open support from the Kremlin, fought adamantly against the reforms and Poroshenko personally.
Therefore, Poroshenko became the president of the patriots while the “opposition” launched a fierce campaign against him. Endless accusations of Poroshenko have been voiced on the pro-Russian TV channels: he “made his fortune on the war,” he is “war-mongering,” he is supporting “the radicals,” and so on. The propaganda made a significant number of Ukrainians believe that Poroshenko is responsible for the war with Russia, even more than Putin.
The third part of society, made up of those who were not interested in political matters, faced extraordinary hardships. These people were compelled to change their habitual way of life; loss of the Russian market brought a surge in energy prices, while the war in Donbass deprived Ukraine of one of its major industrial regions supplying coal for the entire country. In addition, many Ukrainians lost their connection with relatives or friends in Russia. Millions of Ukrainians left their homeland to seek a job or better life abroad. In doing this, they significantly replenished the country’s depleted budget.
Meanwhile, the war continued. However, after signing an agreement in Minsk, in 2015, the hostilities transformed from almost full-fledged war into trench warfare, a war of attrition that was exhausting for Ukrainian society. The surge of patriotism subsided. The war was routinely taking lives almost every day, but it was no longer top news. The society felt war fatigue and wished for a president who might bring peace.
Therefore, by the next presidential elections in 2019 Ukrainian society, except for the patriotic part, expected a president who would bring peace, lower energy prices, and revive the economy — although the government under Poroshenko did a lot for transforming the economy. By the end of Poroshenko’s tenure, the economy grew four percent. The pro-Russian propaganda media carried out an endless campaign against Poroshenko and other patriotic politicians, sharpening the nation’s divide and adding to the mood of deep frustration.
With such mood permeating society, the oligarchs decided the time for revenge had come. One of them, Ihor Kolomoisky, was Poroshenko’s personal enemy. Kolomoisky was co-owner of the country’s biggest private bank, PrivatBank, which he with his partners had created back in the 1990s. (He is the owner of other enterprises, too.)
When the war in Donbass broke out, Kolomoisky sponsored several volunteer battalions and organized resistance to the Russian attempt to seize the Dnepropetrovsk region, where he lived. He was appointed a head of the region.
However, by 2016 it was revealed that PrivatBank balanced on the brink of bankruptcy. An investigation conducted by the American private firm, Kroll, found that more than $5 million were stolen from the bank’s assets and put in an offshore company. On the requirement of the International Monetary Fund the bank was forfeited by the owners and bailed out by the National Bank. As a consequence, Kolomoisky moved from Ukraine and lived in Switzerland and Israel. Apparently, he could not forgive Poroshenko and the National Bank for this move, and began planning retaliation.
One of his multiple assets is TV channel 1+1 where Volodymyr Zelensky was busy in several entertainment projects.
Who Is Mr. Zelensky?
Volodymyr Zelensky, b. 1978, was raised in Kryvyi Rih, a major industrial city in the south of Ukraine. During his childhood, the city was mostly a Russian-speaking, cosmopolitan Soviet city. He was born to a typical family of the Soviet Jewish-Ukrainian intelligentsia of the 1970s. His father was a professor of cybernetics. Such families were far away from Ukrainian nationalism and from Jewish culture. They were cosmopolitan, with a Russian cultural background.
Volodymyr Zelensky graduated from a law school in Kryvyi Rih university, but did not take up a legal career, not for a single day. Instead, he seized on the opportunity for a new career that opened after the Soviet Union fell. Having a talent for acting, he became a comedian. He worked at different TV channels in Ukraine and starred in several movies in Russia.
Zelensky’s last job was at Kolomoisky’s TV channel, where he produced his own comedy show named Bloc 95. This show made fun of everything, from all politicians to everyday life.
Whether the TV series Servant of the People was made — as it seems — to show the people an image of the leader they longed for, or the series was already part of a “political technology” to get Volodymyr Zelensky elected president, is not known. It seems to me that the whole project was organized by Kolomoisky, who saw that Zelensky could become “his own president.” Thus, Ukrainians watched the TV series for two seasons, starting in 2015 and continuing into 2017. The image of a school teacher becoming “a people’s president” resonated with the popular mood. People longed for peace, justice and well-being as frustration with Poroshenko grew. Criticism sharpened and deepened on all the pro-Russian TV channels including Kolomoisky’s. His channel endlessly criticized the president, accusing him of corruption, of making profits out of the war, and of selling the country out to the IMF. The TV channel owned by Poroshenko endlessly criticized Yuliya Tymoshenko, supposing that she would be the main Poroshenko’s rival at the upcoming presidential elections in 2019. Nobody thought of Zelensky as a presidential candidate.
When on New Year’s Eve of 2019 Zelensky announced that he would run for president, the whole country was stunned. There was no potential candidate so unfit to lead the country in the midst of war with Russia. Zelensky had never worked at any governmental position, never served in the Armed Forces, never was interested seriously in politics and policies. He never was close to Ukrainian nation-building processes and gained a significant part of his fortune in Russia.
Zelensky made the idea of stopping the war in Donbass his main campaign message. Also, he promised to revive the economy so that everyone would have a decent life and called upon those who left the country for a better life to return to the homeland. He promised to uproot the corruption and cronyism and appoint “new faces” to government positions.
Of course, Zelensky had no idea how to make his promises come true. However, his TV image worked with the Ukrainian electorate, who got frustrated with mainstream politicians and put on him all their hopes and expectations.
After his landslide victory in the first round, over 38 rivals (including Poroshenko, as well as such experienced politicians as Yuliya Tymoshenko and pro-Russian Yuri Boyko) the society sharply divided into two uncompromising “camps”: (1) that of Poroshenko and (2) “anyone but Poroshenko” (that is, Zelensky). Each camp saw their opponents no less than destroyers of the Ukrainian state. The Zelensky camp was tirelessly blaming Poroshenko for corruption while the Poroshenko camp did not conceal their fear of the inexperienced, unprofessional and unfit candidate. The patriotic part of society warned that if Zelensky won the presidency, he might bring about a Ukrainian capitulation in the war, unleash chaos, or both.
Zelensky Made TV Into Reality
The Second round brought Zelensky triumph: 73 percent over 25 for Poroshenko — an unprecedented victory. Ukraine once again, after the Revolution of Dignity, surprised the world — this time with its presidential choice. For the first time in the history of Ukraine it chose a person of Jewish origin as its top leader. In fact, this issue never has been raised on mainstream media. However, it was no secret Zelensky was Jewish, and if anti-Semitism were significant in Ukraine things would have turned out differently.
At least some Ukrainian patriots knew about Zelensky’s origin. Here is a quote in Tablet Magazine by Vladislav Davidson, a journalist who was present at the elections as an international observer:
The Ukrainian patriots told me joyfully that with Zelensky elected president, Ukraine became the only state except for Israel where both president and prime minister are Jews [referring to Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman – N.B.]. The election results should destroy the Kremlin’s five-year long narrative that Kyiv was seized by a neo-Nazi junta.
However, there is a great risk of reviving anti-Semitism in the event Zelensky’s presidency fails. Zelensky put himself in an extremely difficult situation, becoming president with no governing or diplomatic experience amidst a complicated “hybrid” war with so mighty and sinister a figure as Putin.
As president, Zelensky found himself between three main centers of influence — each drawing him in opposite directions.
First, those patriots who voted for Poroshenko, and from the beginning feared a comedian becoming president, are not hostile to him. They do not want to draw Ukraine into chaos; therefore, they tolerate the choice of the majority, actively striving to encourage Zelensky’s patriotism. They are afraid he will fall into Putin’s trap. The patriots are organizing demonstrations in front of Zelensky’s office to warn him of possible mistakes.
Second, the pro-Russian part of society, who demand Zelensky act in Russia’s interest, fiercely criticize him for being insufficiently pro-Russian.
Third, the oligarchs who are playing in Russia’s interest, and are striving to return the country back to the Yanukovych era, being Zelensky’s sponsors — adamantly want revenge on the patriots.
Since his inauguration, Zelensky tries to satisfy all these three groups of the electorate. What does it mean to be somewhere in between them all? Zelensky expressed his credo in a speech on New Year’s Eve 2020:
What difference does it make at which monument you date your girlfriend? What difference is found in the name of the street where you live? The main thing is that it is lit and asphalted.
Zelensky reflects a special version of Ukrainian political centrism; namely, a readiness to compromise. He also said, about the war in Donbass: “To end the war it is enough to stop shelling.” This comes as no surprise, as Zelensky has never served in the armed forces.
In Ukraine, like in the U.S., the president is also Commander-in-Chief. In a country that is at war with Russia, such a position can be used to surrender the utmost national interest.
A Year of Balancing Interests
The first year of Zelensky’s presidency saw three major prisoner swaps, a meeting in Paris according to the “Normandy format” (e.g., between the presidents of Ukraine, Russia, France and the chancellor of Germany), several attempts at compromising with the Russian side, and massive demonstrations of the patriots against such attempts (which are seen as steps towards capitulation). Since Russia’s strategic purpose in this war is to get Ukraine back under its sphere of influence at any price, any compromise is impossible without jeopardizing the national interests of Ukraine, which inclines toward European Union and NATO standards — with the ultimate goal of joining both bodies.
Zelensky, being inexperienced in any field related to a president’s job, surrounded himself with persons even less fit for governance. He appointed to significant positions almost all his friends and colleagues from TV. In particular, his friend and a former lawyer of the Bloc 95 show became head of the SBU (Security Service of Ukraine). A close acquaintance, Irina Venediktova, was appointed Attorney General. A long-time friend, Andriy Yermack, is head of his Office — to name a few of the more odious figures. Yermack, for example, has long-time connections with Russia’s FSB. Thus, Yermack became Zelensky de-facto shadow foreign minister, who substitutes for the official Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, in the most sensitive unofficial dealings with Russian as well as American officials.
Since Zelensky became president, former Yanukovych cronies started returning from abroad where they “exiled” themselves, waiting for Poroshenko to end his presidency. Zelensky called upon emigrants to return. And these “heroes” responded to his call. Those who returned have already started to take their revenge.
Ihor Kolomoisky tried to get back PrivatBank, and only the IMF’s intervention prevented him from doing it. The IMF required Ukraine to adopt a law prohibiting the return of forfeited banks to former owners. Andrey Portnov, former deputy chief of staff at Yanukovych’s office, a lawyer, did not get any governmental position; however, he tirelessly files lawsuits and complaints against Poroshenko, as well as sundry veterans of the Donbass war and activists, fabricating criminal cases on trumped-up charges. Venediktova is also Kolomoisky’s protégé.
Former Yanukovych lawyer Andrey Babikov became deputy head of the State Bureau of Investigations. The most significant case pending at the Bureau is the so-called “Maidan files,” criminal cases related to clashes between the protesters and law enforcement on February 18 through 20, 2014 — among the most tragic days of the Revolution of Dignity when special units of the police started shooting unarmed people, forcing them to organize self-defense. (Five imprisoned members of these police units were swapped for Ukrainian prisoners in the war.)
The Ukrainian patriots, staging demonstrations in front of the President’s Office, are actively helping the soldiers and veterans. They have so far successfully prevented the surrender of Ukraine’s national interest. That means, the core existence of the Ukrainian state has been preserved in opposition to Russia. The pro-Russian part of society, having unrestrained opportunities to voice their propaganda, achieve success with the Opposition Platform Party rating second after Zelensky’s.
Both patriots and pro-Russian forces are fiercely criticizing the president, pulling him in opposite directions. His failures and setbacks are due to inexperience and to unprofessional governance, multiplied by the pandemic of COVID-19. The result is a serious decline in his popular support, which is now around 30 percent. Ukraine shows lack of readiness for the next Russian assault — not necessarily in a war format. This assault could come through further pressure on Zelensky, strengthening the pro-Russian propaganda, together with provocations and even staged acts of terror, in which the FSB has rich experience.