Western leaders, led by US President Joe Biden, have opted for an eternal proxy war against Russia at least until Ukraine ‘wins’ the war started when Russian forces invaded its western neighbor on February 24th. Biden let the cat out of the bag when he stated the goal of massive Western military and financial assistance to Kiev is to spark regime change or at least the the removal from power of Russia’s popular, if authoritarian president, Vladimir Putin. However, as Ukraine’s military forces are slowly whittled away, there is a growing evidence of major regime splitting, a precondition for military or state coups, revolts, revolutions, and other forms of regime change.
The destabilization of the Maidan regime can be expected extrapolating from some factors and is being increasingly evidenced by several others. The expectation of destabilization is supported by: (1) the historical pattern of military defeats leading to regime destabilization and sometimes state coups or revolutions and (2) Zelenskiy’s actually weak popular support. Evidence of regime destabilization is can be seen in the state’s growing authoritarianism and in splits within the regime’s elite. These trends will only deepen as Kiev faces further military defeats and perhaps collapse of the Ukrainian army and affiliated neofascist dominated national battalions, likely candidates to organize a coup or societal uprising.
Military defeat is often a death knell for political leaders, regimes (types of rule), and even states. To find evidence of the volatility caused by military defeat one need go no further than local history in and around Ukraine, whether as part of Imperial Russia or the USSR. Russia’s defeat in the 1904 Russo-Japanese War led to violent social upheaval in the ultimately failed but widespread and nearly successful 1905 ‘revolution’ that forced regime transformation-like changes such as the installment of a parliamentary State Duma, free elections to the Duma, and the declaration and implementation of many civil, political, and human rights. Russia’s military failure in World War I led to the February 1917 Revolution. In summer 1917 the failed ‘Kerenskiy Offensive’ and the Germans’ march on St. Petersburg led to the collapse of Alexander Kerenskiy’s quasi-republican Provisional Government and the successful Bolshevik coup in October. The turmoil in Ukraine during the revolution, coup, and civil war of 1917-1921 was a devilishly dizzying whirlwind of chaos and violence brought forth by a myriad of competing warlords, ideologies, and movements, perhaps a foretaste of the future in today’s Ukraine. The failures of Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the early 1980s, leading to their subsequent withdrawal in 1985, was an important factor in the Soviet communist Party-state regime’s decision to move towards reforms, Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, which ultimately led to the collapse of both the Soviet party-state regime and the breakup of the Soviet Union that produced today’s independent Ukrainian state. There can be little doubt that Russia’s February invasion casts doubt on and may very well have been intended by Russian President Vladimir Putin to destroy the Maidan regime’s weak legitimacy, stability, and viability.
The Maidan regime had limited legitimacy from the start. One needs only recall its founding act – the 20 February 2014 Maidan sniper’s massacre – which saw the neofascist wing of the Maidan movement fire on the security forces of Viktor Yanukovych’s corrupt administration but more importantly also on the Maidan demonstrators themselves. The knowledge within elite circles of the truth of this false flag operation has been a hidden landmine that could explode the Maidan regime at any moment. Indeed, during his presidential campaign now sitting Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy himself referred cryptically to the Maidan regime’s illegitimacy and the snipers’ terrorist attack. In an apparent cryptic reference to his opponent, President Petro Poroshenko (who actually may have opposed the shootings) and the snipers’ massacre of 20 February 2014, Zelenskiy commented: “People whom came to power on blood are profiting on blood” (www.pravda.com.ua/news/2019/02/26/7207718/). Later, he decried the ‘disappearance of documentation regarding the massacre (https://interfax.com.ua/news/political/640586.html?fbclid=IwAR0K4kGEZPEfsmOQActT7UXn3A3yRBmawO5MuqcYe6OiIEQMa_JbxrZOHuU). It was such seeming candor that led to Zelenskiy’s landslide election to the Ukrainian presidency. Some day it may get him killed, and Ukraine’s neofascists are first on the list of possible perpetrators.
At the same time, we often hear that President Zelenskiy’s popularity ratings have attained Putinian levels since the Russian invasion. This, however, must be unpacked a bit to provide a clearer and deeper picture. On the war’s eve, the Zelenskiy administration was extremely weak as was Ukraine’s overall state apparatus, divided by contentious political, ideological, oligarchic and criminal factions. The entire Ukrainian polity by then was opposed to Zelenskiy. His popularity ratings had plummeted to 25-30 percent. According to polls on the war’s eve, Zelenskiy would receive 23 percent and his predecessor on Bankovaya, Petro Poroshenko – 21 percent. Zelenskiy’s ‘Servants of the People’ or ‘Slugy naroda‘ party led all parties with 19 percent, but that is compared to 70 percent when the Rada was elected and 14 percent for Poroshenko’s ‘European Solidarity’ party (http://www.kiis.com.ua/?lang=ukr&cat=reports&id=1090&page=1&fbclid=IwAR0-qs5D-9Hli6YNeKunjtR9N-cAnTSISnB2vn5ot3PXmvd4Q5YGoqFxJwA). This means that Zelenskiy’s present wartime high popularity ratings are almost certainly thin and therefore highly vulnerable to the continuing stream of bad news from the front, despite Zelenskiy’s tightening of the screws on and manipulation of information on the situation at the front. Moreover, Zelenskiy is certainly giving the impression of being in and in fact seems very involved in the formulation of Ukraine’s war strategy. He makes frequent public military and strategic announcements and nightly reports on the front and geopolitical situation. This forward-leaning position makes the president even more vulnerable to the political risks surrounding military failure. There is and will be plenty more bad news.
Before the war, media manipulation, outright disinformation, and lies have been a hallmark of the actor/producer Zelenskiy’s regime—a regime filled with producers, scenario writers, and PR professionals. Zelenskiy’s masking of reality with the by now ubiquitous postmodernist virtuality and ‘strategic communication’ falsehoods are being exposed and exacerbate the delegitimizing effect of the war. Virtual simulacra, however, is absent when it comes to the Maidan’s growing authoritarianism both before the war as Zelenskiy’s ratings sunk and after the war as a knee jerk reaction to the threat to regime stability posed by the war.
Before the war, Zelenskiy had proven expert at alienating every political force in the country from his team and his ‘Slugi naroda’ party, named after his hit television program about a Ukrainian president. Zelenskiy banned opposition television stations, his prosecutors indicted former President Petro Poroshenko with treason and put him under de facto house arrest, he refashioned the Supreme Court in violation of the Ukrainian constitution, and he signed laws discriminating against the Russian language and effectively banning oligarchs from politics. The only part of the political spectrum he was able to find a modus vivendi with was Ukraine’s more prominent neofascist parties. For example, neofascist founder of the extremist Right Sector, party, commander of the semi-autonomous Ukrainian Volunteer Army, and mastermind of the 2 May 2014 Odessa terrorist pogrom Dmitro Yarosh became an official advisor to the Chief of the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces on Zelenskiy’s watch.
After the war began, Zelenskiy placed all television channels under a single command with uniform broadcasting that offered hardly any dissenting voices. He banned all opposition parties except Poroshenko’s sufficiently nationalist ‘European Solidarity’ party as well as the numerous if small ultranationalist, neofascist. The parties banned were: the Opposition Party — For Life, Shariy Party, Nashi, Opposition Bloc, Left Opposition, Union of Left Forces, State, Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine, Socialist Party of Ukraine, Socialists Party and Volodymyr Saldo Bloc. “Any activity of politicians aimed at splitting or collaborating will not succeed,” Zelensky explained (https://news.yahoo.com/ukraine-ban-11-political-parties-141310973.html?fr=sycsrp_catchall). But Zelenskiy has been playing with fire, since the radical parties have been preparing to seize power in a ‘nationalist revolution’ ever since the first sniper salvos echoed across the Maidan. The war may provide the opportunity for a coup as the Zelenskiy administration helps establish authoritarianism for the neofascists and as mounting defeats and retreats at the front undermine the Maidan regime’s legitimacy.
There are unmistakable signs of growing factionalization, polarization, and splitting within the Ukrainian elite, prompting Zelenskiy to take authoritarian countermeasures. The most recent sign of the growing rifts was the publication by a former Rada deputy close to Zelenskiy, Sergei Leshchenko, of a draft presidential decree that would strip Zelenskiy’s business and political patron Ihor Kolomoiskii of his citizenship. Wanted for various crimes in the US, Kolomoiskii ran afoul of Zelenskiy’s predecessor, Poroshenko, and was stripped of his main holding, Privat Bank. In addition to Kolomoiskii, Hennadii Korban and two others were included in the same draft decree. Korban, like Kolomoiskii was a patron of the neofascist volunteer battalions manned by Right Sector and other neofascist types during the first Donbass war that have recently morphed into the Ukrainian Volunteer Army and National Korpus. Thus, Yarosh signed a petition along with 115 other members of the Ukrainian elite, including the powerful mayor of Kiev Vitaliy Klitchko, addressed to Zelenskiy to refrain from taking such an action against Korban (and by implication Kolomoiskii as well) on the grounds that such an action violates the constitution (https://www.facebook.com/dyastrub/posts/pfbid0vA6f26FMacYCyPwpmvtUhhLUqiLRwrRsk3kNcXUYvKo6BejDtagx9frbQcMpF4pgl). This episode can be another exacerbating Zelenskiy’s sometimes testy relations with the ultranationalists and neofascists even before the war.
Office of the President spokesman Alexei Arestovich’s ineffective often flagrantly absurd and outrageous strategic communications, including numerous fake news stories about the war, have discredited the military and civilian leaderships and signaled possible early development of a rift between them (https://gordonhahn.com/2022/04/15/kvartal-22-zelenskiys-simulacra/). Since spring, there have been rising tensions reported between the civilian and military leadership, as the Russian withdrawal from north of Kiev led to a new strategy and centralized focus on the Donbass eastern front and Novorossiya southern front along the Azov and Black Sea coasts. Russia’s capture of the Azov seaport of Mariupol’, the exposure of war crimes by the neofascist Azov Battalion, and the long Russian siege of the Azovstal’ Steel Plant where Azov fighters held out and pressured the regime and military to send forces to break them out from the Russian encirclement created civil-military tensions and scapegoating and exacerbated regime tensions with the neofascists. During the siege of Azovstal’ that sealed the fate of Mariupol, the deputy commander of the neo-fascist Azov Battalion fighters there criticized politicians like Arestovich who warned the Azovtsy to “mind their own business.” There was widespread dismay across the Ukrainian social net that the civilian authorities were not doing enough to break the encirclement either militarily or through negotiations (https://strana.news/articles/390297-ukrainskaja-oppozitsija-obvinjaet-ofis-prezidenta-v-dopushchenii-okkupatsii-territorij-ukrainy.html). The Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s statement that a military operation to break the Azovstal’ encirclement was not possible could be seen by some to have been the result of the generals’ breaking under civilian pressure (https://strana.news/news/390472-v-minoborony-schitajut-chto-azovstal-nevozmozhno-deblokirovat-voennym-putem.html).
Civil-military tensions became more generalized in early May. Arestovich openly criticized the military leadership, referring to “criminality” and “treason” that need to be investigated and punished. Indeed, he criticized the entire state bureaucracy in response to charges of incompetence at the presidential level: “And 360 thousand bureaucrats between us and the land? They are who? Do they have anything to answer for? And the military command, to which there are already many questions?” Voices representing the military and indicted opposition leader, former president Poroshenko, shot back, criticizing Arestovich and other civilian critics. One military voice reported to be close to chief of the Ukrainian armed forces general staff Zalyuzhniy asserted: “Hundreds of killed and wounded men and women every day are securing (your) tasty coffee in sunny Kiev. Every day. And to search today for someone to blame among them is far from the best idea. The guilty are not in the army, though there are some who can answer for something, the guilty are in the high offices that formed the budget policy and determined who would serve in key posts.” One Ukrainian journalist predicted that if the Office of the President continued to criticize the military, the consequences for the critics would be “devastating” (https://strana.news/articles/390297-ukrainskaja-oppozitsija-obvinjaet-ofis-prezidenta-v-dopushchenii-okkupatsii-territorij-ukrainy.html).
In early June, Zelenskiy and commander of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Viktor Zalyuzhniy differed over the timing of withdrawal from Severodonetsk and where to form a new defensive line against the Russian offensive in Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts. Zelenskiy demanded that the army hold out as long as possible in Severodonetsk and creating a defensive line close to the city, risking encirclement of thousands of troops, while Zalyuzhniy called for puling back forming a defensive line running north-south through Kramatorsk (https://strana.news/news/394302-zelenskij-prokommentiroval-situatsiju-v-severodonetske.html?fbclid=IwAR0aJ4UE07ep1mLoeV1tsI48kqicxIX_uvcLFnPnnC7cWFsObmyHh28RF9w).
The civilian leadership is further plagued by defections and corruption in the intelligence and law enforcement organs. On July 17th Zelenskiy fired the head of Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) Ivan Bakanov and Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Irina Venediktova, blaming them ostensibly for the large number of defections to Russian among security and law enforcement officials. He announced that “651 criminal proceedings were registered for high treason and collaboration activities by employees of the prosecutor’s office, pre-trial investigation bodies, and other law enforcement agencies. In 198 criminal proceedings, persons were noted for suspicion, and more than 60 employees of the bodies and the SBU remained in the occupied territory and are working against our state.” The firings were apparently a response to what Zelenskiy called “an array of crimes against the foundations of the national security of the state and the connections recorded between the employees of the law enforcement agencies of Ukraine and the special services of Russia.” Bakanov’s assistant and former head of the Crimean SBU Oleg Kulinich was arrested for espionage (https://strana.news/news/399930-zelenskij-rasskazal-ob-uvolnenijakh-venediktovoj-i-bakanova-video.html, https://strana.news/news/399927-zaderzhanie-eks-hlavy-sbu-kryma-i-konflikt-s-ermakom-podopljoka-otstavki-bakanova.html, and https://vesti.ua/strana/est-sereznye-voprosy-prezident-obyasnil-kadrovye-resheniya). The next day Zelenskiy fired 28 SBU officials (https://strana.news/news/400073-zelenskij-nameren-uvolit-28-sotrudnikov-sbu-video-18-ijulja.html). On July 20th, Zelenskiy fired the SBU’s deputy head and the SBU regional heads in Kharkiv, Sumy, and Poltava. The seriousness of this crisis cannot be overstated. Bakanov and Zelenskiy are friends going back to the same neighborhood in the city of Kryvyi Rih. Bakanov then ran Zelenskiy’s entertainment company as well as his presidential campaign in 2019. Then Zelenskiy appointed Bakanov to lead the SBU in 2019. It may be that at least some of these firings are the result of a failed intelligence operation to convince several Russian pilots to defect with the warplanes, for which seven Russian military men were arrested, as announced on July 25th. The Russian reports claim that in the process the Ukrainian intelligence operatives’ talks with the Russian pilots, apparently monitored by Russian intelligence, the location, structure, and other details of Ukraine’s air defense system were revealed to Russia. But most are the result of the defections to Russia Zelenskiy noted; something that would hardly be chosen as an alibi to cover the failed operation or something else, as it greatly discredits his administration if not the Maidan regime itself.
Foreign actors, most notably the United States, can complicate the polarized multi-level chess game that Ukrainian politics is becoming in the heat of this war. On July 8th, less than three weeks before the SBU and other siloviki firings, Ukrainian US Congresswoman Victoria Spartz requested the Biden Administration “to brief Congress on the performed due diligence and oversight procedures related to President Zelensky’s Chief of Staff, Andriy Yermak, at the scheduled classified congressional oversight briefing on July 12, 2022. Based on a variety of intelligence and actions by Mr. Yermak in Ukraine, Congress needs to obtain this information urgently.” Spartz emphasized that Yermak’s activity “raises many concerns with a variety of people in the United States and internationally,” though Yermak is “highly regarded” by Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. Spartz’s reference to “intelligence” actions supposedly taken by Yermak suggests that Zelenskiy’s chief of staff may be suspected of botching or directly undermining security, including around the operation to co-opt Russian air force pilots along with their planes (https://spartz.house.gov/sites/evo-subsites/spartz.house.gov/files/evo-media-document/Spartz%20Letter%20to%20Biden_Yermak%20_red.pdf). Recall that there were similar charges made against Yermak when Ukrainian intelligence’s effort to capture Russian Wagner fighters headed to Syria went awry in 2021 and they instead were ‘detained’ in Belarus after Zelenskiy cancelled the operation and Yermak tipped off Belarussian authorities of the Wagner personnel’s presence in their country (https://uawire.org/ukrainian-journalist-accuses-zelensky-s-administration-head-of-derailing-special-operation-to-detain-wagner-mercenaries).
In addition to the civil-siloviki tensions and the grave political consequences of banning more than ten political parties and presumably all of Ukraine’s powerful oligarchs from politics, Zelenskiy created a new cohort of enemies when he announced plans to be implemented this year to reduce the Ukrainian state bureaucracy by two-thirds. This will put hundreds of thousands of embittered officials with intricate knowledge of state organization, function, and financing out of work and on the streets looking for jobs in a war-torn country that has mobilization legislation requiring all able-bodied male citizens to serve in the armed forces, with legislation bringing women into the equation supposedly pending. These outcasts retain contacts with former colleagues in the bureaucracy and can carry out intrigues to undermine Zelenskiy, his policies, and the regime itself.
Although it may be early to conclude a high level of civil-siloviki tensions, the same cannot be said of the political struggle between Zelenskiy and former president Poroshenko and with other oligarchs. Poroshenko could be a particularly dangerous opponent. He had good relations with Biden when the latter was US vice president and led Obama’s Ukraine policy and is backed into a corner having been indicted and forced to flee abroad. His supporters remain in country, and Zelenskiy’s thin support and purge of the political landscape has created a plethora of enemies, whom Poroshenko can win over or buy off. An exacerbated Zelenskiy-Poroshenko conflict could draw in General Zalyuzhniy. He has frequent contacts with Washington and Brussels who some day might tire of Zelenskiy as the war drags on. All this becomes a likely explosive dynamic, if the situation at the front continues to deteriorate for Ukraine. Add into this mix the pro-Russian factor (in the broad sense that encompasses pro-Russian language sentiment, Russian ethnic claims to a right to live in and shape Ukraine, as well as pro-Russia sentiment), invigorated by the arrest of the pro-Russian Opposition Bloc leader Medvedchuk, and there is the real risk of a repeat of the country’s collapse through coup or revolution into warring factions as occurred post-1917 (https://strana.news/articles/analysis/392270-pokazanija-medvedchuka-na-poroshenko-naskolko-verojaten-arest-pjatoho-prezidenta.html). In this case, regions could devolve to the control of modern warlords representing these various trends backed by oligarch and various interested outside parties.
Then mix in as well the neofascists’ separate game of national revolution and their anger over the death and capture of the core of the neofascist Azov Battalion and continuing battlefield losses in general. Arestovich alluded consciously or unconsciously to this neofascist revolutionary threat, when he noted in May the “not so clever narrative: ‘heroes in the battlefield against traitors in the Office (of the President) and fat, dense generals in the staffs’” (https://strana.news/articles/390297-ukrainskaja-oppozitsija-obvinjaet-ofis-prezidenta-v-dopushchenii-okkupatsii-territorij-ukrainy.html).
Moreover, Ukraine’s GDP will contract by nearly 50 percent this year, and a quarter of Ukrainian businesses have closed down, with Russia seizing the country’s coal, agricultural lands, and seaports, comprising some 60 percent of Ukraine’s economy. Much is being written about the energy crisis in the Europe and America as summer turns to fall and temperatures begin to drop. Less attention has been given to the consequences of energy deficits in Ukraine itself. The war-torn country will certainly be cutoff from Russian gas, oil, and coal, and its own coal in Donbass is under Russian control. Its energy sector is on the brink of default as residential and business customers lack the funds to pay their bills. A freezing, hungry nation losing a war will be inclined to blame Zelenskiy and the ‘democratic’ Maidan regime and to follow less than desirable leaders. They will susceptible to demagogues, and Ukraine’s all too numerous neofascists could fit the bill. The latter are now even better-armed than they were before the war and are praised at home and in the West as heroes who defended Azovstal, Mariupol, Kiev, and Kharkiv. The Ukrainian Volunteer Army of Ukraine’s neofascist Right Sector (the former commanded and the latter founded by advisor to Zalyuzhniy, Dmitro Yarosh), the National Corps (led by founder of Azov, the neofascist Andriy Biletskiy), and other ultranationalist and neofascist groups continue to sacrifice themselves at the front in sharp contrast to those sipping coffee in Kiev and doing photo shoots in glossy Western magazines for women, as the Zelenskiys just did.
To conclude, there is significant evidence that the Russo-Ukrainian war is destabilizing the hybrid republican-oligarchic-ultranationalist Maidan regime–one riven by political, ideological, and oligarchic factionalism from the start. Below the apex of the Maidan’s quasi-republican regime headed by a thinly popular frontman lurks malign forces of oligarchic corruption and criminality and of radical nationalism and neofascism. The war temporarily papered over the ruling groups’ internal divisions, uniting them despite their multifarious interests, goals, and conflicts. However, over time the war and slow moving rout of the Ukrainian military will wear away the thin coat of plaster uniting these groups in their fight against the Russians. At the same time, corruption, criminality, and multi-nationality in Ukraine make the Maidan regime susceptible to infiltration by the Russian state. Moreover, the war along with limited commitment to republican government within the Ukrainian elite are exacerbating the country’s conflictive environment and political culture. Being comprised of competing and increasingly violent oligarchic and ultranationalist clans, Ukrainian culture will be increasingly likely to yield growing intra-national violence and political upheaval. This trend will intensify with particular vigor if or when the war becomes clearly lost and the West begins to abandon the Ukrainian cause or desperately attempt to salvage it through a decisive political intervention such as a coup. Numerous coup or revolutionary scenarios are now part of the picture, and such contingencies one should be prepared for.
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About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Websites: Russian and Eurasian Politics, gordonhahn.com and gordonhahn.academia.edu
Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book: Russian Tselostnost’: Wholeness in Russian Thought, Culture, History, and Politics (Europe Books, 2022). He has authored four well-received books: The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 2021); Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media. Dr. Hahn taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and was a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.