- - Tuesday, December 14, 2021

President Biden’s phone call last Tuesday with his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin, may have avoided an immediate escalation in Ukraine. Yet, the U.S. intelligence community is delivering stark warnings that Russia could be positioning itself to storm Ukraine — and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is reportedly spooked that Russians and Ukrainians are plotting a coup. If Moscow and Washington cannot diffuse the situation, Ukraine will remain the second most important flashpoint in the world after Taipei.

Attention-grabbing headlines related to last week’s U.S.-led virtual Summit for Democracy and a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics notwithstanding, U.S. officials are wise to monitor the brewing storm in Eastern Europe — where Moscow’s forces have been amassing on Ukraine’s borders since 2014.

Tensions between Moscow and Kyiv are running high, and further escalation between the geopolitical rivals could result in Russia’s dismemberment of Ukraine, a move that would irrevocably alter the balance of power in Europe and the Middle East. 

Amid “deep concerns” that Russians and Ukrainians are conspiring to topple him, Mr. Zelenskyy’s administration has reportedly set its sights on the richest man in Ukraine, energy mogul Rinat Akhmetov, while simultaneously closing ranks with an oligarch that has been sanctioned by the U.S. for “corruption.”

Mr. Akhmetov’s support of Ukraine’s opposition leader and former speaker of the Ukrainian parliament, Dmytro Razumkov — who today enjoys growing popularity — led Mr. Zelenskyy to effectively declare war on Mr. Akhmetov in November by tying him to an alleged plot backed by Russian forces.

The timing for the conflict with Mr. Akhmetov is extremely unfortunate: The authorities did not accumulate a supply of coal for the power plants, and the country is threatened with electricity outages. If it were not for the purchases of coal abroad by Mr. Akhmetov’s DTEK, then Ukraine would have already faced an energy collapse. Mr. Zelenskyy should not have started a phony war at home when he may be facing a real one on his borders.

That Mr. Zelenskyy would fear losing the next presidential election is hardly surprising. The Washington Post rightly observed that though the former comedian “ran on an anti-establishment and reformist message, pledging to break the grip that powerful oligarchs have on the country, he’s made little headway.”

Kira Rudik noted in an Atlantic Council brief that “The anti-oligarch law recently signed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy … looks more like an attempt to conceal the strengthening of presidential powers behind a facade of populist rhetoric.”

The U.S. has maintained a vital strategic interest in Ukraine’s resilience and security since its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, helping the country stave off “continued Russian aggression as it advances reforms to strengthen democratic institutions, fight corruption, and promote conditions for economic growth and competition.”

To this end, the U.S. and EU have extended billions in financial support aimed at shoring up needed energy, land and judicial reforms over the past decade. The International Monetary Fund’s support has also been substantial.

On their face, Mr. Zelenskyy’s recent legislative pursuits have been ostensibly intended to advance needed reforms. However, in targeting the country’s business elite while under attack by the Kremlin, he has generated political and social turmoil that has undermined foreign investments, making the country vulnerable to civic discord.

The reforms also reek of hypocrisy.

While fighting with Mr. Akhmetov, Mr. Zelenskyy enjoys cozy relations with his own most prominent supporter, a billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky — an oligarch that supported his election and was a key investor in the president’s television production company. Mr. Kolomoisky gets preferential treatment. The recently adopted law on taxation of mineral resources did not touch manganese, which Mr. Kolomoisky owns, but the tax on iron ore controlled by Mr. Akhmetov has increased.

In a March 2021 press statement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed concern that Mr. Kolomoisky “was involved in corrupt acts that undermined the rule of law and the Ukrainian public’s faith in their government’s democratic institutions and public processes, including using his political influence and official power for his personal benefit.” He noted further that Mr. Kolomoisky’s “current and ongoing efforts to undermine Ukraine’s democratic processes and institutions … pose a serious threat to its future.”

As Kyiv continues its difficult path toward democracy and a market economy, U.S. officials must ensure that support for Ukraine does not lead to a blind embrace of policies championed by an increasingly unpopular Ukrainian president that could further undermine progress achieved in the country over the past 30 years.

There is no doubt that the influence oligarchs wield in Ukraine’s politics is excessive and requires attention. But the “deoligarchization” policy pushed by Mr. Zelenskyy smacks of subjectivity, and it’s a false crusade born of grievance. That the rules change for everybody — except Mr. Zelenskyy’s favored benefactors — speaks volumes.

David Clark, special adviser on Europe at the UK Foreign Office between 1997 and 2001, astutely observes that Ukraine’s anti-oligarch law may simply be intended to strengthen the fledgling Ukrainian president’s hand at a moment when he has few cards left to play.

“Zelenskyy stands accused of maintaining links to the oligarch since taking office, shaping the policies and personnel of his government in line with Kolomoisky’s interests and reaping positive media coverage in return. That dependency is likely to increase as the president wrestles with mid-term unpopularity and begins to plan his 2024 reelection campaign.”

To be clear, the Ukrainian leader is in a difficult situation: Virtually everything the state touches — Energoatom (nuclear), Naftogaz (oil and gas), Yuzhmash (space and missiles), Ukroboronprom (defense industry) — is corrupt, is incompetent, loses money and fails to produce needed products. Conversely, Ukraine cannot ignore the malignant influence oligarchs have in its politics any longer.

But one thing is certain: If Mr. Zelenskyy continues to push sanctimonious legislation that is insincere, his policies will forestall needed reforms. Worse, he could plunge the country into a regional conflagration necessitating U.S. and European intervention. U.S. officials should take notice before it’s too late.

• Ivan Sascha Sheehan is the executive director of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore. Opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @ProfSheehan.

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