Cutting Through the Noise in Ukraine

Despite the initial fog of war having receded as Russia’s invasion slowly but steadily advances, an onslaught of overwhelmingly pro-Ukraine narratives in traditional and online media has made it difficult for a disinterested observer to ascertain an accurate picture. 

Attempting to present a united front, Western leaders and media have coalesced around a narrative largely indistinguishable from Ukraine’s own. That narrative places Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at center stage as he implores the world to defend Ukraine from what he says is not just an assault on his country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, but also an attack upon the foundations of liberal democracy and its attendant values. While this paints a compelling and emotionally resonant picture for many, a closer examination reveals a canvas with a much murkier picture, one that we must examine closely and carefully in order to determine how to best advance the American national interest in this consequential geopolitical moment.

Let’s begin with Zelenskyy, liberal democracy’s arbiter of the hour. An actor and comedian who founded the successful Ukrainian comedy production company Kvartal 95 Studio, Zelenskyy’s entry into politics was enormously unconventional. In the few years leading up to his campaign, Zelenskyy starred in the political comedy “Servant of the People,” in which he played a schoolteacher unexpectedly elected president after a candid video of him ranting about corruption in the Ukrainian government “went viral.” First airing in 2015, “Servant of the People” was broadcast and promoted by the Ukrainian TV channel 1+1, which is owned by Ukrainian-Israeli-Cypriot oligarch and billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky. (In a statement strongly indicative of his general approach to the law, Kolomoisky once cleverly quipped that “the constitution prohibits double citizenship, but triple citizenship is not forbidden.”)

In 2018, a new political party named Servant of the People after Zelenskyy’s TV show was registered in Ukraine. Hardly a crew of experienced political hands, all of the new party’s original leadership happened to be members of Zelenskyy’s own production company. As Zelenskyy became the party’s presidential candidate, the party and the Zelenskyy campaign openly and controversially received funding and support from Kolomoisky. Having run a campaign that seemed to mirror that of his character in “Servant of the People” (which continued to air throughout his campaign) to an uncanny extent, Zelenskyy trounced incumbent Petro Poroshenko and became Ukraine’s president in 2019.

As might have been predicted considering his having received such open support from Kolomoisky, Zelenskyy’s efforts to fight corruption in Ukraine, which is one of the most corrupt countries in Europe, haven’t amounted to much more than a bad joke. Days after being elected, Zelenskyy chose Ivan Bakanov to lead anti-corruption efforts within Ukraine’s security service. Bakanov is Zelenskyy’s childhood friend as well as the head of Kvartal 95. His chief assistant is the co-founder of Kvartal 95, Sergey Shefir. This questionable collision of Zelenskyy’s political and business interests became all the more troublesome for Zelenskyy in October, when the Pandora Papers revealed Zelenskyy, Bakanov, and Shefir maintain a complex network of offshore shell companies together which appear to have deep links to entities controlled by Zelenskyy’s biggest political benefactor, Ihor Kolomoisky. Since Zelenskyy’s election, Kolomoisky has been sanctioned by the United States for “involvement in significant corruption” such as stealing billions of dollars from the Ukrainian bank that he owned and funneling most of it into real estate and Jewish charities in the United States.

Despite pressure from the United States to do so (along with billions of dollars in aid), Zelenskyy has taken no action against Kolomoisky in Ukraine. Contradicting claims that Zelenskyy has grown increasingly distant from Kolomoisky since taking office, as war tensions were mounting in January, Zelenskyy and his family vacationed at a ski resort where they stayed near where Kolomoisky was also staying, suggesting a meeting between the two may very well have taken place. In early February, Zelenskyy banned three opposition TV stations, and just last week he banned 11 opposition political parties. Taking this record of venality and authoritarianism into account, can Zelenskyy really be taken seriously as a spokesman for the liberal democratic values that purportedly unite the West?

Despite claims that Zelenskyy has united Ukraine, Ukraine remains an ethno-linguistically divided country that, since 2014, has been in a state of conflict with some of its own citizens in the East Ukraine where two separatist republics declared independence and a significant percentage of the population is not just Russian-speaking, but ethnically Russian. When Putin launched his war effort, he declared that he sought to secure the independence of these separatist regions, to secure Russia’s claims to Crimea, and to demilitarize and “denazify” Ukraine. Many have suggested that Putin’s war in Ukraine is only the first salvo in what Putin hopes will become a much larger imperial project, and his “denazification” claims have been met with much confusion, ridicule, and hostility.

More than a month into the war, we can now attempt to reconcile assumptions about Putin’s claims and intentions with his actions on the ground. Russia’s territorial occupation efforts have focused primarily on regions of Ukraine where there is either a significant population of ethnic Russians, or where Russian is the predominant spoken-language. Once Mariupol falls, which seems likely to happen in fairly short order, Russia’s occupation will have successfully finally connected Crimea (which Russia has occupied since 2014) with Russia-proper. If Zelenskyy continues to refuse to surrender after Mariupol falls, we might expect to see Putin initiate an effort to add the Russian-speaking Odessa region in Southern Ukraine to his war tally as well.

Many have responded with ridicule to a Russian general’s statement on Friday that their primary war goal has been the “liberation” of the Donbass, a predominant view being that this is merely a concession from Russia that they’ve failed to occupy Kyiv and Chernihiv in the north of Ukraine as quickly as intended. The fact that the Russians haven’t so far dedicated a greater proportion of their warfighting resources towards their assaults on these northern cities, however, may very well indicate that Russia’s efforts in the north actually have been undertaken with the primary intentions of pressuring Kyiv to surrender, as well as keeping Ukraine’s defensive efforts divided between multiple war fronts. 

Putin may rightly view the residents of this northern territory as more hostile to Russia than those in the more heavily Russian-speaking east, and therefore consider occupying this region too troublesome. This seeming aversion to seizing territory where a Russian presence is more likely to be seen as unwelcome is notable, as taking it into account could tamper some of the loudly voiced concerns about the scope of Putin’s imperial ambitions, at least in the near-term.

As far as Putin’s claims about the presence of Nazis in Ukraine, while there is likely no small amount of cynicism in Putin’s decision to employ this terminology as part of his propaganda war. Yet a central player in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine since 2014 has been the Azov Battalion, whose members still prominently display symbols associated with the German Third Reich on their uniforms, and has no shortage of members who openly espouse an eliminationist variety of Ukrainian nationalism, which has caused no small amount of embarrassment to some of Ukraine’s Western defenders. 

While it is difficult to determine the scope of the Azov Battalion’s operational significance relative to Ukraine’s overall war effort, they are headquartered in Mariupol and have been the primary force responsible for defending Mariupol from Russian occupation. As such, finalizing the occupation of Mariupol will no doubt be trumpeted by Putin as a significant victory in the “denazification” component of his war. Further complicating the Ukrainian Nazi story is the fact that one of the Azov Battalion’s earliest and largest financial backers is the aforementioned Ihor Kolomoisky, and weapons supplied to Ukraine by Israel have ended up in the hands of the Azov Battalion in the past.

When all of these often inconvenient facts are taken into account, conventional narratives on Ukraine are found wanting. The Biden Administration’s dogged insistence on providing Ukraine with what amounts to de facto membership in NATO has ultimately proven to be a colossal strategic error that should have been avoided. Kleptocratic Ukraine is simply too corrupt, too rife with division, and too geographically proximate to Russia to be a valuable partner for the United States and NATO, and pretensions to the contrary have in practice proven to be enormously destabilizing. 

When George Washington delivered his immortal Farewell Address, he implored us to adopt as our permanent foreign policy doctrine an avoidance of unnecessary foreign entanglements. As we reflect on the NATO expansion attempts that triggered this war, Americans would be wise to reflect upon Washington’s lofty words anew: “The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop.”

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About Trevor Sutcliffe

Trevor Sutcliffe is a bassist and rock music fan from San Diego. He has a degree in economics and mathematics from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Photo: UKRAINIAN PRESIDENCY/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images