#Ukraine unification a priority for #Zelensky and West

| May 20, 2019

When Ukraine’s new president, former comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, was sworn in today (20 May), he was appointed president of a divided nation. The division is not only physical, but also ideological; Ukraine is now a battleground where the ideals of the West and of Russia collide.

Since early 2013, Russia has been pursuing a policy of divide and rule in its western neighbour, actively invading and annexing the Crimea while maintaining an unofficial yet substantial military and economic presence in the two breakaway states of eastern Ukraine, the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk (DPR and LPR).

Zelensky’s only hope of reuniting his country is by securing international cooperation to disrupt this Russian support. US and EU sanctions have undoubtedly helped stymie the development of these breakaway regions to date. However, other areas, including the illegal trade of DPR/LPR products such as coal, have escaped the focus of the international community. This omission is harming Western interests in Ukraine and bolstering Russia’s foothold in its neighbour.

In Kiev, as in most of the country, the overwhelming majority of people support pro-EU policies, including the development of a liberal, ‘westernised’ market economy. Reflecting this sentiment, in the last three decades since the fall of the Soviet Union Ukraine’s body politic has gradually been shifting away from Moscow’s orbit.

Prospective NATO membership mooted in 2010-13 was the final straw for the Kremlin, which considers its control over Ukraine (as it does with the rest of its ‘near abroad’) imperative for its own national security. Soon, Russian forces had moved in.

Those supporting Russia’s intervention in Ukraine – numerically fewer but a vocal minority – herald this as a union of Slavic peoples, harking back to the Soviet era to restore pride in the sluggish economy and a powerful unified military.

Much has been made of Russia’s military involvement in eastern Ukraine, whether through the much-trumpeted annexation of Crimea, the ‘little green men’ that surfaced with Russian-made weapons in Russian-made vehicles in the breakaway states, or the shooting down of Malaysian flight MH17 by a Russian-made missile.

But it is perhaps Russia’s economic contribution to the DPR and LPR that has enabled the states to establish a semblance of early nationhood. As well as economic aid and regular financial support for the fledgling states, Moscow has directed hordes of Kremlin-backed Russian businessmen to eastern Ukraine, encouraging trade with the DPR/LPR so they begin to fund themselves.

Given the war-time destruction to the local economy, however, there is little in the DPR/LPR to sell. Russian businessmen have been attracted to the area’s traditional sources of income, primarily coal.

Using their assets back over the border, including logistics companies, and trading companies in both Russia and Europe, these businessmen have successfully managed to circumvent sanctions by exporting DPR/LPR coal to Europe. Individuals including Ruslan Rostovtsev, Sergey Kurchenko and Alexander and Sergey Melnychuk are synonymous with this illicit coal trade, according to Ukrainian NGO Stop Corruption.

The profits from this trade, funnelled through Russian and South Ossetian banks, is proving to be a lifeline for the breakaway states and to Russia itself. With the DPR/LPR now able to generate their own funds through the coal trade, they become more sustainable and less of a financial burden on their sponsors in the Kremlin. In short, they become more permanent.

This is the problem that Zelensky faces. He must somehow persuade the international community to support him as he seeks to break down the network supporting this source of DPR/LPR income. To do so, Washington DC and Brussels need to wake up to the need to sanction not only the well-known oligarchs linked to the breakaway states, but also the businessmen like Rostovtsev and Kurchenko who are operating with and profiting from trade with the DPR every day.

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Category: A Frontpage, EU, Politics, Ukraine