Viktor Yanukovych, then Vladimir Putin, betrayed the residents of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. First, Yanukovych’s misrule, empty promises, and cowardly departure from Ukraine undermined the Donbas’ people. Then, Putin’s deceitful propaganda machine, support for armed thugs, and public abandonment of pro-Russian separatists left the Donbas in the crossfire and at the mercy of armed gangs. The Donbas is increasingly unlikely to continue to blindly trust pro-Russian separatists, especially as the rest of Ukraine moves forward and starts the painful process of eliminating corruption and building a modern democratic state.
Residents of the Donbas, who collectively gave Viktor Yanukovych more than 90 percent of their votes in the second round of the 2010 presidential election, suffered Yanukovych’s misrule and corruption to the same extent as the rest of the country. Over the past two years, Ukraine’s economy has stagnated with almost zero economic progress according to estimates provided by the World Bank. The Ukrainian black market under former President Yanukovych, estimated at around 50% of GDP by the International Monetary Fund, was one of the world’s largest underground economies as a percentage of the economy as a whole. Of course, corruption in Ukraine wasn’t particular to Yanukovych’s presidency, and has been a staple of Ukrainian life since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But Yanukovych’s particularly corrupt rule, theft of billions of dollars of assets from the Ukrainian economy, and increasingly authoritarian control of Ukraine’s political system certainly aggravated economic problems. Notably, Ukraine’s Acting Prosecutor General Oleh Makhnitsky estimated that the loss to Ukraine was up to USD 100 billion with some of that money stashed in western Europe and large amounts of cash gone to Russia, as reported by Reuters.
Rather than stay in Ukraine and face the consequences of his actions, Viktor Yanukovych fled the country to avoid responsibility for widespread abuse of office and his role in the killings of Maidan protesters. Despite his claims to the contrary, Yanukovych’s departure seems to have been well planned in advance. There is no evidence that Yanukovych’s life or well-being was in serious danger when he fled the country. When he left, he took most of his stolen assets with him. Many people in the Donbas, who always remained skeptical of the protests on Maidan, counted on Viktor Yanukovych to protect their interests. Instead, they found themselves abandoned, and at the mercy of often erratic and violent pro-Russian separatists, who are possibly funded by Yanukovych’s ill-gotten wealth.
Yanukovych’s betrayal of the Donbas has been overshadowed only by President Putin’s deadly tactics in the region. For months Donbas residents were exposed to apocalyptic warnings from the Russian media about the supposed “fascists” on the Maidan. After Yanukovych fled, the Kremlin cynically used the Donbas’ legitimate political grievances and mixed loyalties for its own political benefit. Putin’s government-controlled media pounced on Kyiv’s missteps in the chaotic days following Yanukovych’s departure. First, following the Ukrainian parliament’s attempt to revert Ukrainian language policy to pre-2012 language laws, the Russian media used this incident to spread false information and convince many residents that the Russian language in Ukraine was under threat. Then, Putin’s barely covert political and military support for separatism has put ordinary Donbas residents at the mercy of armed extremists, many of whom have little respect for free speech and other human rights.
Residents who dare to question the tactics or aims of the separatists are threatened with imprisonment, exile, or even death. There is increasing evidence that many residents are turning against the separatists and their tactics. Public opinion polls show that a vast majority of Donbas residents prefer to live in Ukraine, rather than in Russia or in an internationally isolated separatist region. Recent anti-separatist unrest in Mariupol is just one manifestation of this discontent. Putin’s support for the separatists, particularly its foreign elements, is especially dangerous, and undermines the interests of the Donbas. Separatists from Russia, Chechnya, and other foreign lands are especially insulting and have little respect for local residents or their safety.
Finally, Putin’s public abandonment of pro-Russian separatists, even while continuing Russia’s clandestine support, is the latest in a string of insults to the eastern Ukrainian region. By withdrawing Russia’s public support for the Donbas, many local residents who have legitimate grievances against the Kyiv authorities have felt let down. Russia’s continued military support for separatism and its facilitation of the arrival of foreign fighters to the Donbas, even while ruling out direct military intervention, puts the Donbas in a deadly crossfire. Foreign fighters and local pro-Russians, backed into a corner and internationally isolated, will be much less prone to care for the well-being of local residents as Kyiv seeks to re-affirm Ukraine’s territorial integrity and return stability to the region.
The residents of the Donbas have suffered the humiliation of abandonment twice, first from Viktor Yanukovych, and now from Vladimir Putin. As the rest of Ukraine moves forward in the struggle to build a modern state, more and more Donbas residents are likely to learn that their interests lie with the rest of the country, rather than to trust the cynical maneuverings of the Russian government and those that have violated the region’s goodwill too many times.
By Chris Dunnett for Ukraine Crisis Media Center