Central Lviv appears to have had its water supply cut off. While I am waiting, perhaps in vain, for the supplies to be turned back on (you can’t really achieve much in a kitchen without any running water or even bathe yourself properly which I try to make a strict daily ritual even in a war zone), I thought I would pen a few thoughts about former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma’s recent update to his 2003 book Ukraine is not Russia.
Kuchma is a profoundly divisive character in Ukrainian politics, having been President of Ukraine from 1994 to 2005 and the Kremlin’s preferred candidate for President, in particular in Ukraine’s 1999 election in which his principal western-leaning opponent, Viacheslav Chornovil, was killed together with his Chief of Staff in a mysterious collision with a truck in the months running up to the election. At the time the Head of the FSB in Russia was a man by the name of Vladimir Putin, and all official enquiries into Chornovil’s death have been covered up. Many people, and I am one of them, think that Mr Chornovil was murdered on the orders of Mr Putin to ensure that Ukraine would remain governed by Mr Kuchma and remain within the Russian orbit.
Mr Kuchma was President of Ukraine amidst a period which saw the enrichment of Ukraine’s Oligarchs and extensive cooperation between Ukraine and Russia in matters of politics, economics and, perhaps most insidiously, internal security cooperation. Mr Kuchma was due, on Mr Putin’s theory, to be succeeded as President of Ukraine upon the expiry of his second term in office in 2005 by the even more pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich, and his principal western-leaning opponent was due to suffer the same fate as Mr Chornovil. Viktor Yushchenko was heavily poisoned by dioxin, a persistent organic pollutant that an assassin presumably laced his food with, and he was lucky to survive. Images of Mr Yushchenko with acute and extreme chloracne - an explosion of blisters across his face - shocked and horrified the world as people came to see the sorts of methods of poisoning and assassination that Putin’s Russia was prepared to use to impose its political will on its neighbours and upon those who opposed its interests and its views.
The poisoning of Mr Yushchenko, who Mr Kuchma had unexpectedly appointed as his reformist prime minister in 1999 and who then went onto create and lead a pro-western opposition bloc in the Ukrainian parliament, together with the rigging of the first round of the 2004 Presidential election in favour of the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich, led to the so-called “Orange Revolution” of 2004 against the pro-Russian stances of Mr Kuchma and Mr Yanukovich and resulted in a second round of voting that led the acne-scarred Mr Yushchenko to victory. Mr Putin instructed to Mr Kuchma to fire on the pro-western, Ukrainian nationalist demonstrators in Kyiv’s Maidan Square in 2004, but Mr Kuchma refused to do so. By contrast Mr Yanukovich, when he faced a similar revolution in 2014 as a result of a brazen attempt by Russia to fix Ukrainian elections once again and to interfere in Ukrainian politics, followed the orders of Mr Putin and 100 demonstrators were killed. Mr Yanukovich fled to Russia; pro-western President Petro Poroshenko was installed; and Mr Putin invaded Crimea and Donbas, just as he had earlier invaded Georgia in 2008.
Mr Kuchma’s explanation of his alignment with Russia was that he felt it was natural for an independent Ukraine to cooperate with her substantial neighbour Russia. Mr Kuchma, now 85, is a native Russian speaker and he is originally from now occupied Donbas. Nevertheless the thesis of his original book, now updated, is that Ukrainian and Russian national and political psychologies are fundamentally different. Ukraine is a European nation that derives from the historically liberal principality the Kievan Rus’, whereas Russia is a nation formed by Mongol invasion and she has a correspondingly different national political mentality. Mr Kuchma, he says in his book, tried to cooperate with Mr Putin but he soon realised that this was impossible. Mr Putin was a creature of the KGB, the Soviet-era internal security service in which he served, and for him rule through fear and surveillance, the inimitable features of the Russian internal security services, was the natural way to govern both Russia and what Mr Putin perceived as Russia’s natural colonies: the countries of the former Soviet Union. There was no dealing with such a person, and therefore the inevitable slide towards war with Russia could not be prevented. We had to get to this stage in order for Ukraine to stand a chance of genuine as opposed to ersatz independence.
Under Mr Kuchma and Mr Yanukovich, Ukraine was independent from Russia in name only. In fact it was a particularly sinister sort of independence, in which Ukraine was expected to survive without Soviet-era subsidies but under Russian yoke through infiltration of the Russian FSB, the KGB’s successor institution, into all levels of Ukrainian government. Ukraine under Mr Kuchma was a sinister and insidious place to live, in which the threat of Russian government-sponsored violence at the hands of the Russian security and intelligence agencies was omnipresent; while all the time there was a nascent political movement for Ukrainian independence, struggling to get out. Even in 2014, the world did not fully wake up to the relentless nightmare of Russian domination of Ukrainian politics. It was only in February 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine, that the world really woke up to the horrors of Mr Putin’s totalitarian Russia. In the meantime he had been invading his neighbours and murdering and poisoning his political opponents at home and abroad. And that includes me. Yes, I have survived being poisoned, more than once, and in all likelihood it was the Russians, and I almost died. I don’t see who else it could have been. But that is not a story for the here and now. Feel free to ask me about it in Mano’s Bar.
And now we are bound by duty, conscience and national and global interest to admit Ukraine into the European community of nations in which people don’t go round poisoning their political opponents and instead the values of liberty, democracy and the rule of law are uphold as beacons to the Free World. In the words of Mr Kuchma, speaking recently:
[Of the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine i]t was extremely unpleasant that the world didn’t react. It was silent. Putin understood that he could do anything because there was no principled response. We have to hope Biden can get the legislation through. The US has lost Afghanistan. Defeat for Ukraine means the US loses face before the entire world. … I believe in victory. I can’t exist in any other way. Putin can’t sign a document which states that he didn’t get what he wanted [in Ukraine]. He would have to explain this to the Russian people. He’s the leader of Russia. … I want to say only one thing: we will not retreat. We will stand until the end. We will never give up – no way. If you help us, we will win. If you stop helping us, we can die. But then you will be the next ones Russia wants to destroy.
Mr Kuchma may have been profoundly divisive in the recent history of post-independence Ukraine, but now his words of warning about the dangers of Vladimir Putin’s Russia ring all too true. Mr Kuchma may be trying to reinvent himself in his retirement as a Ukrainian elder statesman; if this is his objective, then he is surely succeeding.