As an icy wind shakes the windows of his office, Sergei Shapkin dips a cookie in honey and reflects on the art of survival. He is the mayor of Pavlopil, a village in eastern Ukraine. When Vladimir Putin began to seize Ukrainian territory in February 2014, Mr. Shapkin knew his village was in danger.
On the one hand, pro-Russian separatists, armed by the Kremlin. On the other, the loyalist forces. If they fought for Pavlopil, the villagers would surely die.
So Mr. Shapkin, a former history teacher in a cardigan, spoke to the gunmen. His village had no strategic value, but it had businesses. He suggested that the separatists enter in the morning, unarmed and on foot, to buy food and cigarettes. The Ukrainian army could do the same every afternoon. That way they wouldn’t collide and start shooting. It worked – there was no fighting in Pavlopil, and the residents remained alive, except for one whose tractor hit a mine.
Ceasefires have followed one after the other since September 2014, but sporadic gunfire continues in eastern Ukraine. On October 12 alone, the day of an EU-Ukraine summit in Kiev alone, observers counted nearly 300 ceasefire violations, including 77 explosions. “Everyone has a shelter,” says Shapkin. “We are all prepared with candles, hammers and torches. And we all have bags made in case we suddenly have to move. “
Mr Putin wrote an essay in July expanding on his argument that Russia and Ukraine are one nation. As he has already annexed Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula, and sponsored the takeover of much of eastern Ukraine by Russian-born separatists, Ukrainians take his threats seriously. In March and April, he massed more than 100,000 soldiers at the border, before withdrawing them. Now, as winter approaches, Ukrainians have another worry: that Russia will cut gas again.
In 2009, he cut off the flow of gas through Ukraine for two weeks. This has cost Russia a fortune, as its gas must pass through Ukraine to reach customers in Europe. Soon, however, it may be able to pump gas to Germany via a new pipeline, Nord Stream 2, which bypasses Ukraine. Once it opens – which could be soon, even if it is the subject of legal and diplomatic challenges – Mr Putin can choke off supplies to Ukraine almost at will.
Technically, Ukraine does not buy gas directly from Russia, but from downstream countries like Hungary. In effect, it takes Russian gas in the east and substitutes its own gas, which is produced in the west of Ukraine, for further transport. So if the flow through Ukraine stopped, the eastern part of the country would be in trouble. “We are the hostages of the gas,” said Vadim Boichenko, mayor of Mariupol, a port town 25 km south of Pavlopil. He adds that today’s high gas prices are another huge threat to the economy.
On October 12 in Kiev, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, assured Ukrainians that Europe would protect their energy independence. Ukrainians are not reassured. President Volodymyr Zelensky seeks refuge for his country within NATO and the EU. But it is a non-starter. NATO members do not want to extend their principle that “an attack on one is an attack on all” to a country that Russia has already attacked. And the EU is struggling enough to integrate corrupt ex-communist states like Hungary without admitting a dirtier and bigger one like Ukraine.
Confidence is lacking on both sides. Mr Zelensky’s first taste of geopolitics came when President Donald Trump urged him to deliver dirt on Joe Biden, with a veiled threat that US support for Ukraine’s security might depend. of his cooperation. President Biden hasn’t been much better, from a Ukrainian point of view. To cement relations with Germany, he lifted sanctions that could have blocked Nord Stream 2 in May.
The West would like to support reform in Ukraine, but it is not easy. Corruption is rife. The oligarchs dominate the economy, control two of the biggest political parties, and put other lawmakers under mandate. The IMF is reluctant to throw money at a state from which billions have been stolen with apparent impunity. Western diplomats seem increasingly exasperated when they talk about Ukraine.
The oligarchs are embedded in public life in complex ways. Consider Mariupol, which nearly fell into the hands of pro-Kremlin forces during the war. The ill-equipped conscripts who were to defend it were about to flee. The city was saved when the local steel baron Rinat Akhmetov pushed his staff into the streets and another oligarch, Ihor Kolomoisky, armed a militia. Seeing that the militiamen were ready to fight, the Ukrainian soldiers also stayed.
“If it hadn’t been for Mr. Akhmetov, Mariupol wouldn’t be in Ukraine today,” Boichenko said. It has become a refuge for fugitives from the fighting: 100,000 out of a total population of 540,000. The city is much more beautiful than in 2014. Considerable investments have made it possible to improve its buses, roads, parks and its garbage collection. A new airport and a university are planned.
Public opinion has also changed. Before the war, two-thirds of the inhabitants of Mariupol supported a pro-Russian political party. This share has halved. Mr. Putin’s aggression has alienated the very people he claims to be defending. And that means the kind of “hybrid war” that has worked in Donbass, where Russia has instigated local ethnic Russians to demand secession, will not work in Mariupol, Boichenko said.
Yet Russia still has a hand on Mariupol’s throat. The amount of cargo handled at his port has halved since 2012, first because of the war and then because Mr. Putin made it harder for large ships to access from the Black Sea. (Among other things, he built a low bridge across the strait through which they must pass, which ends in Crimea.)
Meanwhile, critics wonder if it’s healthy for a city to depend so much on a single tycoon. Mr. Akhmetov is considered the richest man in Ukraine. Most families in Mariupol probably rely on him to some extent for their daily bread. The mayor was previously its director of human resources.
Mr. Zelensky, a former comedian, pledged to bring down the Ukrainian oligarchs. He is expected to sign a new law soon, which would allow a panel he appoints to label any very wealthy person who funds a political party and controls media assets as “oligarchs”. This would make it more difficult for anyone so labeled to raise capital.
Critics note that Mr. Zelensky has close ties to Mr. Kolomoisky, one of the most controversial oligarchs, whose television station hosted the show that propelled the president to stardom. They are also concerned that the law gives Mr Zelensky too much leeway to intimidate his enemies and force them to sell their TV channels to his friends. “This is to force the oligarchs to behave politically,” says Daria Kaleniuk of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, an NGO, “not to prevent them from being oligarchs”. Anti-transplant activists would rather see an independent prosecutor with teeth. Economists would like to see greater use of anti-monopoly law.
One illustration of the weakening oligarchs in Ukraine is the retail gas market. Many homes are sourcing gas from companies controlled by Dmitry Firtash, a Russian-linked tycoon who currently lives in Vienna and is fighting extradition to America for alleged corruption. Its companies owe huge unpaid debts to Naftogaz, the state’s wholesale supplier. This is money that could have been invested to increase national gas production. Meanwhile, a new CEO of Naftogaz appointed by Mr Zelensky has agreed to pay the state a big dividend on the company’s freeze days fund. This will help Mr. Zelensky to build roads, which are popular. But that will leave less in the pot for Ukraine to buy emergency supplies, if Mr Putin steps up his pipeline electricity policy.