Railway Gambit of Kyiv: Retain the Power at the Expense of Industry

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Last week, one of the main topics of news feeds and expert comments was intention of the Ministry of Infrastructure of Ukraine to stop railway and bus communication with Russia. In the near future, the Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers will consider a relevant document, which may become another step in the strategy of artificial and in some sense ritual destruction of infrastructure ties with Russia. Kyiv consistently broadcasts the thesis of Russia’s aggression to the world community, including justifying it by systematic violations of the Minsk agreements, economic problems and lacking progress in implementing the reforms expected in Brussels. The media space spreads the image of Ukraine as a victim of aggression and somewhat of a sacred ground, where there is not a civil war, but a clash of civilizations. At the same time, Kyiv is still significantly dependent on trade and economic ties with the Russian economy. Ex-President Viktor Yushchenko in this regard even said that the officially declared war with Russia is “not true”. According to him, there are still “close economic ties” between the two countries, despite the conflict of recent years. “Make it clear, are you at war?” rhetorically asked Yushchenko in an interview with the Ukrainian media, calling actions of the authorities “asymmetrical and inadequate”. According to the National Bank of Ukraine, imports from the Russian Federation increased by 28.4% in the first quarter of 2018 against the background of Ukrainian exports dropped by 11.5% compared with the same period in 2017. In particular, the local statistics office notes that since January coal imports from Russia account for almost 60% of total purchases (most of the TPP plants in Ukraine require anthracite mined in the Donbass mines, which Kyiv does not control today). Quite a paradoxical situation: Ukraine receives strategic raw materials from the country, which it calls an “aggressor”. At the time of Yushchenko’s statements the American media suddenly accused Ukraine of betraying the United States. The Washington Times wrote that Kyiv sells engines for China’s combat training planes, whereas Washington considers Beijing its main economic and military adversary. The publication cites the opinion of American analysts that Ukraine now actually lives at the expense of the US, and therefore the States have the right to demand that US money should not be spent on the production of aircraft that are potentially threatening America. This piece in The Washington Times coincided with adoption of the US military budget that plans to allocate $ 250 million (50 million more) for military aid to Ukraine in 2019, which will include the cost of delivering lethal weapons. In this context, the latest anti-Russian attacks by Kyiv can be seen as a clear demonstration of the Ukrainian authorities’ determination to deepen confrontation with Russia whether in gratitude for financial assistance, or as an important condition for it. By and large, Ukraine has continued the tactics of the past 4 years: besides personal sanctions against Russian companies and citizens, Kyiv has imposed restrictions on the activities of Russian banks and payment systems, blocked social networks and television channels, and closed air links between the two countries. At the same time, there is still room for further demonstration of commitment to the Western development path, as one can judge. Vasily Vovk, ex-head of the SBU’s chief department, recently said that Ukraine needs to completely close the border with Russia and stop any relations, including financial and economic ones. At the same time, the Verkhovna Rada has long been demanding to introduce a visa regime with the Russian Federation, in spite of the fact that such steps can affect at first 1.5 million Ukrainian citizens, who, according to official figures, work in Russia. As the Minister of Infrastructure of Ukraine Vladimir Omelyan explained, Ukrainians “must integrate into the EU”, and forget about the Russian direction. “If we are at war, then there is no need to go there,” he explained. At the same time, from the economic point of view, such actions will negatively affect first of all Ukrainian companies. So, for example, according to the Ukrainian media, the most profitable Ukrainian train following the results of 2017 was the Kyiv-Moscow train, which brought almost $ 6 million in profits. The ban on railway communication with Russia will destroy this income source for the Ukrainian treasury, which is already experiencing an acute shortage of finances, as evidenced among other things by problems with paying salaries to miners. However, anti-Russian rhetoric of recent weeks is not limited with the railway theme. Vladimir Omelyan also said that his office had developed a set of “countermeasures” in response to Russia’s blockade of the Azov Sea. The story with the Russian tanker Mechanic Pogodin, blocked in the port of Kherson, clearly illustrates Kyiv’s readiness to further exacerbate relations with Russia. Ukrainian authorities’ tactics of demonstrative taking of scandalous decisions in the hope of gaining favor of Western partners, in many respects contrary to economic pragmatism, is based on very specific propaganda and electoral goals. Next year, presidential and parliamentary elections are awaiting the country, so all the forces of politicians are gradually concentrating on the struggle for place and influence in the future power configuration. To date, according to opinion polls, the chances of the current president, Petro Poroshenko, are slim to none (5.3%), falling below the showman Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Okean Elzy frontman Svyatoslav Vakarchuk. At the same time, three-quarters of Ukrainians (76%) believe that Ukraine is moving in the wrong direction. Another point that does not contribute to better ratings of the current government is criticism by the European Union, it often addresses insufficient (or even completely absent) efforts of the authorities to de-oligarchize the country as reads the draft report of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs. Experts emphasize that all political processes in Ukraine remain under the influence of the so-called “clans”, despite the fact that no political force in the country is able to offer a coherent program of state development. As a result, the main pre-election construction of Ukrainian politicians around which somehow one can build a more or less viable electoral campaign will remain the Eurointegration and Euro-Atlantic policy combined with the image of the enemy from the East. It is already obvious that the main resource to stir up the electorate will be precisely the external, geopolitical aspect, the rigid opposition of war and bright future, ours and those who are not with us. But given the fact that the indicator of society’s fatigue with domestic problems remains high, it is important for Ukraine’s political class to enlist the support of international partners (and most importantly donors), primarily the United States. It is not by chance that plans to end the railway communication with Russia were voiced almost simultaneously with another package of Washington sanctions against Moscow. Indeed, the image of a containment line of the Russian threat in Europe is almost the only thing that Kyiv can offer its foreign sponsors.