The date of the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election, March 31, is rapidly approaching. Perhaps even more important to the outcome than the fluctuating opinion polls showing abysmal levels of popularity of all 44 contenders is another question: Who is Washington’s preferred choice?
This is not an academic curiosity since quite often the guy who has the American imprimatur ends up the winner.
But first a little history. In Russia’s 1996 presidential election the US openly favored the unstable incumbent, Boris Yeltsin, but his single-digit ratings showed that he had no chance. The dire state of the economy, post-Soviet social collapse, oligarchs looting state property (not without some help from US advisors, according to a US Congressional report titled “Russia’s Road to Corruption or How Clinton Administration Exported Government Instead of Free Enterprise and Failed the Russian People”) convinced most Russians that “democracy” and the “free market” – initially popular concepts when communism collapsed in 1991 – were just a cover for a small number of well-connected folks to “privatize” socialist property into their own hands while everyone else ended up paupers.
Nonetheless, then-US President Bill Clinton decided that despite Yeltsin’s unpopularity he would just have to win. According to Professor Stephen Kinzer of Brown University Clinton told an aide: “I guess we’ve just got to pull up our socks and back ol’ Boris again… I want this guy to win so bad it hurts.” With that, the public and private resources of the United States were thrown behind our guy.
Clinton’s CIA Director James Woolsey recently told Fox News that the US does interfere in foreign elections but “only for a good cause.” Maybe he had Russia 1996 fondly in mind and electing Boris was one such good cause.
So, Clinton twisted arms at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to give Russia $10.2 billion to pay for some salaries and pension arrears. Some of this money indeed was used for that purpose but most disappeared into the foreign bank accounts of Yeltsin’s cronies, not without help from some of American banks.
According to a high-profile lawsuit several US banks had to pay tens of millions of dollars to settle charges of money laundering. Some of the funds were thought to consist of credits from the IMF which Russia under Putin had to and did repay. Even Harvard University professors under the watchful eye of Clinton’s Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers got a piece of the action and used US taxpayers’ money not only to teach the Russians the basic elements of free enterprise but also illegally to enrich themselves.
On the private front American political consultants moved to Moscow to help direct Yeltsin’s campaign. One of the most decisive factors in changing voters’ minds was saturation advertising aimed at stoking voters’ fears of civil unrest in case Yeltsin lost. When the consultants saw a CNN report from Moscow saying that voters were gravitating toward Yeltsin because they feared unrest, one of them shouted in triumph: “It worked! The whole strategy worked. They’re scared to death!”
The consultants used some other whiz-bang American techniques and in the end Yeltsin won the election with a reported 54 percent of the vote. According to unbiased observers the count was suspicious and Yeltsin had wildly violated campaign spending limits, but American groups, some funded in part by Washington, rushed to pronounce the election free and fair. The New York Times called it “a victory for Russia” but according to Kinzer “it was the opposite: a victory by a foreign power that wanted to place its candidate in the Russian presidency.”
After Yeltsin won, Time magazine put him on the cover—holding an American flag. Its story was headlined, “Yanks to the Rescue: The Secret Story of How American Advisors Helped Yeltsin Win.” The story was later made into a movie called Spinning Boris.
Now back to Ukraine. While Poroshenko’s obvious fondness for the bottle doesn’t quite match Yeltsin’s, he can take “credit” for a comparable performance in office. Ukraine, which was one of the strongest economic and technologically advanced Soviet republics, is now the poorest country in Europe according to the IMF. Basic consumer costs, especially gas for winter heating, have skyrocketed. The proxy war in the Donbass smolders and flares. Corruption is worse than ever. Nazi collaborators during World War II are officially proclaimed as state heroes.
Poroshenko’s one big “achievement,” besides enriching himself, has been to obtain visa-free travel for Ukrainians to the European Union. But the main result has been depopulation of Ukraine as people “vote with their feet” in a desperate bid to find work abroad. One in six Ukrainians of working age now migrate to Europe to work.
Around four million others are working in Russia, which Poroshenko calls an aggressor three times a day. These workers will not have a chance to vote as Poroshenko has prohibited the Ukrainian Embassy in Moscow from opening polling places in Russia. The same is true for the breakaway Donbas and Lugansk regions, whose residents Poroshenko and the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, still claim to be citizens of Ukraine.
Poroshenko’s disapproval ratings exceed 80% so he is trying to change this with nationalist gimmicks. He staged a naval confrontation with Russia in Crimea’s Kerch Strait and has shamelessly meddled in the internal canonical order of the Orthodox Church, which is leading to violence across the country.
However, for the Washington’s swamp what matters is that Poroshenko is a known anti-Russian quantity. That’s all that counts, no matter that President Trump’s has said numerous times that good US-Russia relation are also good for America.
The best proof that Ukraine is in a huge and dangerous mess (thank you Western backers of 2014 Maidan coup) is that the front-runner in the race is comedian Vladimir Zelensky. But can Washington really trust Ukraine’s Bill Maher? For sure it’s safer to stick with the Russophobe we know.
It remains to be seen if the “Yanks to the Rescue 2.0” effort for Poroshenko in 2019 will be as robust as for Yeltsin in 1996 but one can be sure that Uncle Sam will not be too exercised about any electoral irregularities conducted for “a good cause,” as Woolsey put it.
Ironically, former President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili, who also got his job with Washington’s support both in Georgia and Ukraine, and who started a war with Russia in August 2008, and who himself is accused of massive embezzling from state coffers, now says about his old friend Petro: “I would like to wish Poroshenko success in finding a good lawyer who will protect him when he is tried for corruption, the theft of billions of dollars’ worth of Ukraine’s property, and the fact that he used his authority for personal enrichment, betrayed Ukrainians and, it’s possible, committed state treason.”
Finally, Ukraine’s constitution recently was amended by a parliament with a 93% disapproval rating to replace the country’s nonaligned status with aspirations for full membership in NATO – a virtual guarantee of a hot war with Russia and possibly World War III.
Is this what the American people want? On top of past rounds of NATO expansion, how does America benefit from some hot heads in Washington, Brussels, and Kiev seeking to use Ukraine as a forward platform to threaten the world’s security?
As President Trump has said repeatedly those who involved America in endless wars in the Middle East wasted seven trillion dollars of US taxpayers’ money and gave rise to ISIS. Do they want to push us to another war with Russia?
Whatever President Trump’s campaign pledges, these people now control his administration’s policy, including withdrawing the US from Reagan-Gorbachev nuclear arms control agreement. They wouldn’t mind two Slavic nations fighting each other since for them they are just pawns on a geopolitical “grand chessboard,” as the late Zbigniew Brzezinski called it.
But Ukraine isn’t a space on a chessboard, and this is no game. While this region is irrelevant to American security it is vital to Russia’s. Challenging a nuclear superpower on its own doorstep brings America grave risks but no benefit. The whole world could end up paying the price of this folly.
• Edward Lozansky is president of the American University in Moscow. He is the author of the book Operation Elbe, which describes joint US-Russia anti-terrorist efforts. Jim Jatras is a former U.S. diplomat and former foreign policy adviser to the Senate GOP leadership.