Ivan Lozowy, a Kyiv-based political analyst, traveled to the eastern Ukrainian cities of Kharkiv and Luhansk this week. He talks to RFE/RL's Daisy Sindelar about Kyiv's failure to confront the separatist crisis and the role of the Donbas oligarchs in stirring up the unrest.
RFE/RL: You were just in Luhansk, where you say you heard both pro- and anti-Russia sentiment. So why was the local Ukrainian Security Service headquarters handed over to separatists without a fight?
The bad news is that law enforcement is really very passive, and in some ways even cooperating with the pro-Russia protesters. The traffic police have sealed off the city center, but they regularly let various supplies pass through for the pro-Russia protesters grouped around the secret-service building. People are complaining that members of the Russia protest camp are sitting in expensive restaurants, eating and drinking for free, and walking along the streets carrying Kalashnikovs, and no one is trying to take the guns away or arrest them or anything. The local government is not dealing with the situation on the ground, which of course only allows the problem to grow.
RFE/RL: How do you explain their failure to act?
Before all this started, law enforcement was living a fairly easy life in the sense that the local police and secret service were all involved in various schemes to obtain money -- corruption, protection, racketeering, things like that. Suddenly, there was a serious, even deadly, situation where masked gunmen had seized the secret-service building. And these law enforcement types, who aren't used to enforcing the law but have just been making money on the side, were simply unprepared and didn't want to risk their lives in order to face these armed terrorists and separatists.
Ivan Lozowy heads the Institute of Statehood and Democracy.
Another factor is that Luhansk Oblast is controlled by Oleksandr Yefremov, the head of the parliamentary faction of Party of Regions. He's one of the top people in that organization before it started falling apart after [ousted President Viktor] Yanukovych fled Ukraine, and he's the boss of the Donbas. He's supporting these separatists and terrorists to some extent. Probably financially, certainly morally. He may well be behind instructing local law enforcement officials to hold back. He's interested in Luhansk being a problem area, so that his hold on local business, local politics is not dislodged by the new government in Kyiv.
RFE/RL: You've described a similar situation in Kharkiv, where the deputy governor, Vasyl Khoma, has been put in charge of coordinating pro-Kyiv self-defense units despite the fact that he is also known to have organized "titushky" attacks on the same self-defense units.
The self-defense forces don't want to work with him. They don't even want to meet with him. They don't trust Khoma. I was also told that [Kharkiv Mayor] Hennadiy Kernes has firm control over all of the local police. They and the titushky are both being coordinated by Kernes, so that in case there's an incursion of little green men or armed separatists or Russian forces, they won't have to forcibly seize the police headquarters -- it will just be handed over by these two groups working under Kernes's instruction. That's the expectation.
RFE/RL: Interior Minister Arsen Avakov has come under fire in Kyiv for failing to control the unrest in the east -- particularly in Kharkiv, which is his hometown, and where he served as regional governor. Why can't he reel in Kernes?
There are a couple of things clear to me about Avakov. First of all, for him the move to the Ministry of Internal Affairs was a big move. A local governor is one thing, but a national minister is a much higher level. It's a much higher level in terms of corruption as well. Look at the appointments that Avakov has made of the top militia officers in each oblast. In Dnipropetrovsk, he appointed a police chief who had run for local office with Party of Regions. The Ostrov news site later reported that that man was believed to have paid well over $600,000 for the appointment. If you count this up from each oblast, Avakov may have made several million dollars in cash quite quickly.
Kharkiv is Avakov's region. He was governor there, he's from there. He should know everybody from top to bottom, and he should be able to bring about order there at least very quickly. And this constant return of the titushky, the beating of Ukrainian activists, repeat seizures of buildings -- that's really Kernes's way of pressuring Avakov. There's a game going on between them. But there's cooperation as well. I was there on April 14, and all of the "kolorados," the people wearing the St. George ribbons, had been removed from the street. Why? Because Avakov was there, they didn't want him to look bad.
RFE/RL: You describe officials like Kernes and Yefremov as being motivated primarily by their desire to hold on to their business empires. Are politics in any way a factor?
Politics is clearly secondary. If Chinese military forces showed up in Odesa and began marching across southeastern Ukraine and they made a good offer to Kernes or Yefremov -- say, $2 billion apiece just to stay in place and make sure the local population supports the incursion, they'd be all for it.
For them money is everything. I don't think they have any political values. They just don't want to be arrested and put in jail. They don't want to be in exile in Russia, because that's a very bad life for them. So what they do is play these games. The current chaos works to their advantage, because it keeps them out of reach.
This is Rinat Akhmetov's motivation as well. He's a very, very smart person. He understood that the Euromaidan victory was sort of the first bell that tolled for him. That's why he's quietly supporting the separatists in Donetsk and pretending he's trying to help the situation. It just increases the pressure on Kyiv.
RFE/RL: We have reports of seized Ukrainian APCs flying Russian flags, Ukrainian soldiers switching sides. What do you think of Kyiv's management of its military?
I think it's been a complete failure thus far. Unless something changes drastically, we're going to see parts of eastern Ukraine fall directly to Russia along the same pattern that we saw in Crimea. [Acting President] Oleksandr Turchynov has been acting as though he's a pacifist. The government is behind the situation, and not in front of it.
The situation is such that slowly but surely, we're losing eastern Ukraine and we're sort of really maybe even past the point of no return. Turchynov announced this antiterrorist operation on Sunday morning [April 13]. Nothing was done for several days. At all. How can you explain that? That's a complete failure.
You don't announce a widespread antiterrorist operation and do nothing, for days. It's ridiculous. If something isn't done within a week's time, they'll have control of the Donbas region, and then it's just a question of announcing a local republic head, then a quick referendum and incorporation into the Russian Federation.