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The elephant and the lone star

The message from Barack Obama’s victory in the 2012 election was that Latino America holds the balance of power. But in Texas, it seems — despite Bush’s best efforts — that hasn’t yet sunk in to Republican minds.

Eddi Regolado still cries when he hears the national anthem: not that of his native Nicaragua, from which he fled with his family during the long civil war when he was seven, but of his new and adoptive home, the United States of America. He and his family settled in Texas in the state capital, Austin, but the citizenship process was arduous. It took Regolado nearly 20 years to naturalise but he doesn’t mind. “Every single member of my family loves the US,” he says. “We’re proud to be here.”

He works two and a half blocks north of the state capitol building in Austin – practically in the shadow of its hulking red dome – as the general manager at El Mercado, an airy and pleasant Mexican eatery. Over chalupas (a sort of stuffed taco shell salad) and margaritas, he tells me he still feels nostalgic about Nicaragua. “Going back is like going to my mother’s house. America is like, our wife. But it’s good to see Mother from time to time.”

Regolado is a Democrat. His parents are Democrats. Pretty much his whole family votes Democrat. He says Latinos lean that way because the Democrats “tend to help out more with immigration. When you’re new, from a different country – how do I put this? – a lot of families have a hard time assimilating. The Democrats help out with that. It’s not loyalty, exactly, but that’s why they tend to vote the way they do.”

He feels the Democrats are just making more of an effort to reach his community. “All the minorities, really.”

He thinks that as the Latino population of Texas increases in size, there will be a process of realisation of power for his community, a realisation that engagement with the political system can help Latinos get their voices heard. If they wake up in this way – and if the Republicans continue to alienate Regolado and his family in the way they are doing – at some point soon the Democrats could take Texas. Here’s how important this is: in a presidential election, Texas has 38 electoral college votes, the second most of any state, behind only California. If the Democrats turn Texas, that’s it for the Republicans. Game over. Lights out. Unless the Republican Party reforms beyond all recognition, there might never be a Republican president ever again.

***

Texas was annexed from Mexico by colonists from the US in the 1830s, birthing the short-lived independent Republic of Texas after a short but bloody conflict, the most famous battle of which was the Alamo in 1836. It was pretty much the last battle Texas lost, a massacre of 187 troops holed up inside a mission in San Antonio, routed by General López de Santa Anna’s army of more than 5,000. Outside the capitol building, two blocks from El Mercado, is a statue commemorating the heroes of that battle. The fight begat a rallying call that Texan patriots remember to this day: “Remember the Alamo!”

In some parts of the population, especially among the older white males and especially in more rural areas, there is a kind of inherited memory that still attaches great importance to the Battle of the Alamo. They see Texas as a white bastion, and their sense of the loss of the 1836 republic, a sense that in some intangible way they are being overrun, is a powerful political force. It most often emerges in the form of an obsession with policing the borders and finding and deporting illegal immigrants.

During last year’s presidential election, to avoid being outflanked on the right by competitors such as Herman Cain and Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney engaged in antiimmigrant rhetoric, making much-criticised proposals about “self-deportation”. Unsurprisingly, Romney’s support among Hispanics on election day was catastrophically low, 44 points behind Barack Obama – yet he was seen as a moderate candidate by current Republican standards.

“I’m not in the crystal ball business,” says Bill White, a former mayor of Houston and Democratic gubernatorial candidate who ran against Rick Perry for governor of Texas in 2010 and who, despite losing overall, received a greater share of the vote than any Democrat in the state’s history. “But if the Republican Party continues on its present course, then they will become a minority party in Texas.”

Latinos today make up 38 per cent of the electorate in Texas, a proportion that is growing swiftly, but they are under-represented in the Republican Party; out of a GOP delegation of 95 in the Texas House of Representatives, only three are Hispanic, while Latinos form an absolute majority of the Democratic delegation: 29 out of 55. This is a good sign for the Democrats. Latino voters represent a segment of the population that is increasing sharply both in size and in political engagement, and the Republican Party seems hellbent on alienating them.

Professor Mark Jones, who chairs the political science department at Rice University in Houston, warns that the Democrats can’t just wait for the demographic shift to come to them. “If the Democrats sit back and do nothing, they’re depending on the Republicans continuing to commit the same errors they’ve been making up until now,” he says. “The worst-case Democrat scenario is, they do nothing, and the Republicans bite the bullet and kick the immigration issue. If that happens, then the Republicans can cling on to dominant status here for 20 to 30 years.”

But, Jones says, if the Republicans don’t rid themselves of their anti-immigrant rhetoric, even if Democrats continue to sit back and do nothing, the state could shift sooner than that: perhaps within 15 years. “The third scenario, the best-case scenario for Democrats, is that Republicans continue the same way – adopting a very hard line on immigration; allowing that to dominate the image of the party – while Democrats get their act together and do a good job of mobilising and registering Hispanics. Then we could see a shift even sooner: in, say, eight years.” That means Texas would flip to the Democrats more or less “by the end of the decade”.

***

In the 2010 census, Texas had grown sufficiently to merit the addition of four seats in Congress – the number of federal senators is fixed at two per state regardless of size but the House of Representatives uses a metric based on population. That growth was almost exclusively in the Hispanic population.

However, it is important to note the differences within that community. National political strategists have usually lumped all Hispanic interests together, but this is wrong. Even at a casual glance, the Mexican-American population is very different from the Cuban Americans, who lean more conservative. Most of the Republican Party’s highprofile Hispanic candidates: Marco Rubio in Florida, Ted Cruz in Texas – candidates on whom the party pins its hopes for winning over the entire Latino community – are Cuban-American and will struggle to win over the Hispanic voting bloc en masse. To win the primary for his Senate race, Cruz ran to the right on many issues that the Latino community finds troubling, promising to build a wall at the border, for instance, and to triple the size of the border patrol. This has not found him favour with many Latino voters. Eddi Regolado, for one, says that he thinks they would be much more likely to support a white Democratic presidential candidate such as Hillary Clinton than someone like Cruz or Rubio.

“It’s interesting in Texas that the reputation of the state is [that] it’s overwhelmingly Republican,” says Joe Holley, the political editor of the Houston Chronicle. “And yet every one of its big cities are Democratic.” To some extent, Texas has always been a oneparty state, and it was actually a Democratic stronghold from the Reconstruction era – the 1860s and 1870s – right up until the 1980s, as Holley explains. It gradually began to change in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and by the 1990s Texas was still a one-party state, but that was now the Republican Party.

Now, once again, the demographic change is slowly loading weight back on the other side of the see-saw.

“This is sort of, in kind of a quirky way, the second Texas Revolution,” says Holley, smiling. “And this time, the Mexicans are going to win.”

***

Jon Greene teaches English as a foreign language in downtown Houston, and he invites me to sit in with him on the course. It’s a chilly Thursday night, the last lesson of the term. There are ten people here, some young and some old, all Hispanic. Immigration is a sensitive subject in Texas, so the status of the students – illegal or legal – is off the table, as are names. I will lend some of the classmates a nom de guerre for the purposes of this article. The class is split about half and half between those of Mexican and El Salvadorean origins. Most say they came to America looking for work, or as children with their parents doing the same. A few of the El Salvadoreans say they came fleeing violence; a civil war raged in El Salvador from 1979 to 1992.

Many are educated professionals in their country of origin but struggle to find work in the US – one, Sofia, a lawyer back in Mexico, has been working as a babysitter. Many of the students are here because speaking English helps in the search for work, but many are also here to help them communicate with younger, more integrated members of their families. Cristina, who came to the US in 1980, is one of the latter: her daughter is an opera singer and her son is a trainee journalist, and for both of them their first language is English.

I ask a few questions about politics. Greene, their teacher, had warned me that the English of some of the students was pretty basic, but we make impressive progress as the class warms to the subject.

After introductions, we go around the room namechecking highprofile Hispanic politicians. Many of them talk about Adrian Garcia, the popular sheriff of Harris County in metropolitan Houston. Rick Perry, the Republican governor, gets short shrift, but the Castro brothers – Joaquin and Julián, the former the new congressman for the 20th district of Texas and the latter the mayor of San Antonio, whose keynote speech at last year’s Democratic National Convention gave him a public profile across the country – are warmly approved. Maria cites the appointment to the Supreme Court of Sonia Sotomayor, a Puerto Rican, as another sign of a Hispanic political awakening.

“This is the first time a black person stands for president,” says Juana, from Mexico. “Maybe next time, a Hispanic?”

“Maybe a woman, too?” Cristina shoots back. Grins of female solidarity dart across the room. Some of the men – somewhat unwisely – giggle. Sofia the lawyer snaps at them in Spanish, and the debate descends into a lively row.

I ask if any of them is a particular fan of the Republican Party. That makes everyone go quiet. There is a long silence, broken by a cough. Cristina shakes her head slowly. How about Romney? “He don’t like the Hispanic people,” says Rafael, one of the younger El Salvadoreans. There are murmurs of agreement. “I vote for Democrats. I’m a Democrat,” Cristina says. The other classmates nod their assent.

***

The following day, as the storm cloud that has been hanging over Houston for days finally breaks into torrential rain, I drive out to an adjunct tower block near the Rice University campus to meet Steve Murdock, the director of the Hobby Centre for the Study of Texas, a professor of sociology, a former official state demographer for Texas and, before that, the director of the US Census Bureau.

Murdock, as his background would imply, is a man who loves his data. My interview with him involved the prolonged viewing of no fewer than 120 charts and visualisations showing projections of the Hispanic populations of Texas and the US. As he says to me with a grin when I sit down: “You have to watch out for a demographer – they always want to show you data.”

The numbers are staggering. In the age group 65 and over, there are many more Anglos – a Southern slang term for non-Hispanic whites – than Hispanics: 67.6 per cent to 20.5. But as age descends, the ratios switch over. In the 35-to-39 age group they are about equal and by the time you get to the under-fives there are considerably more Hispanics than Anglos – 50.6 per cent to 31.7 per cent. In total, Hispanics account for 48.3 per cent of the under-18s in the state and that figure is rising. By the time the current cohort of children is of voting age, Hispanics will be the majority in Texas.

“You really have, in the US, two populations,” says Murdock, as lightning streaks the sky outside: “an ageing set of non-Hispanic whites, whose fertility has been below replacement for over 20 years, and a young and growing minority population.”

Texas and other states that have had high levels of Hispanic immigration, such as California, are some decades ahead of the curve, yet the census data shows a similar trend in the US as a whole. “[What we’re seeing is] one of the largest changes to occur in US history in terms of broad changes in ethnic composition,” Murdock says.

He shows me another graph, this time of projections of the US population out towards 2050. It shows a dramatic shift. The non-Hispanic white population rises just seven million, from 196 million to 203 million. The Hispanic population, however, nearly quadruples, from 36 million to 133 million. The difference in percentage change is enormous. In Texas, the projection is even starker. Assuming zero net migration, the population of Texas will be majority Hispanic – just – by 2030. Assuming the same net migration as in the years 2000-2010, that will happen before the end of the decade, and the projection is that by 2050 Texas will have nearly three times as many Hispanics as Anglos – although, because that figure includes the under-18s, the switch-over from minority to majority in terms of the electorate will happen a little while later. Murdock is the first to note that long-term projections can be shaky – there is a wide margin of error at play – but according to even his most conservative estimates, the change is inevit able. “Demographically,” he says, “we’re not looking with much question at what the future is going to be.”

***

Demographics are different from politics. While the former may be changing swiftly and unstoppably, working out how this will affect the latter is a more complex endeavour. By no means should we take it for granted that a rising Hispanic population will lead to a corresponding rise in the Democrat vote – and the Democrats have been blasé in their approach to Texas.

I ask Mark Jones at Rice if that attitude on the left is matched by a disbelief on the Republican side that they could ever lose Texas. “I think the Republican pragmatists get it,” he says. “Even privately, some of the right wing gets it; they just don’t want to say it publicly. But the problem they run into is convincing those people who vote in primaries, some of the real activists, who either don’t believe it – they just don’t see a linkage between their rhetoric and the Hispanic vote – or who believe Latinos are all hooked on welfare and they’re never going to win them over.”

Maria Baños Jordan is the executive director of the Texas Latino Leadership Roundtable, a group that aims to foster and encourage leadership and political engagement in the Latino community. She is of mixed Hispanic origin. Her father was a Cuban refugee who came to the US in the early 1960s after the rise of Fidel Castro; her mother was a Mexican immigrant. They met in Houston.

“I grew up in the change, in the time where Houston started to really just explode, and the population started to become more diverse. When I was a little girl, I was the only Latina in my class. So I know what that felt like, and I know what it felt like to be questioned about your culture, and your behaviours and your tradition.”

Today, by contrast, the public school system in Texas is overwhelmingly Hispanicmajority, a reflection of the changing demographics. In Houston, non-Hispanic whites account for just 7.8 per cent of enrolled students. Hispanic students account for 61.9 per cent. Jordan’s organisation, in parallel, has taken off in a big way in recent years. “The feel in Texas right now,” she says, “is that the state is ripe for more Latino leadership.”

I wonder why an established, resident and maybe second- or third- or even fourth-generation immigrant population still gets angry about legislation affecting new or illegal immigrants. “The immigration issue is such an emotional one,” Jordan says, “especially when there are so many families that are intermarried, whether documented or undocumented, or first-generation or second-generation.

“It’s not black-and-white. We all have close friends or relatives that have issues with immigration. We’re dealing with it on a daily basis, so we are very tied to it. And we know that the law’s the law, but we need to see respect and dignity brought into the conversation. And it just hasn’t gotten to that point yet.”

“To be honest,” says Eddi Regolado, “illegal immigration will never stop. People would rather take their chances than stay. A fence is not going to keep people out. This country was founded by immigrants. There has to be a way to help people.”

Hispanic-American support for the Democrats is not fixed; historically, it has fluctuated from election to election. Latinos came out in force in 2012 for Obama – 71 per cent of them voted Democrat, according to the Pew Research Centre, a level of support surpassed only in Bill Clinton’s 1996 race against Bob Dole, in which 72 per cent voted Democrat. But the Bushes, George and George W, clawed back a large part of the percentage point gap among Hispanics, so much so that where Obama was 44 points clear of Romney, George W Bush’s support in 2004 was just 18 points shy of John Kerry’s – still a big gap, but a much healthier margin.

Leonard Rodriguez, a San Antonio native, was partly responsible for this. He was George W Bush’s head of Latino outreach and later worked in the Bush White House as a strategist. It was Bush’s political mastermind, Karl Rove, who first got him involved with garnering Latino support, and that was from the very beginning of the primary season, at the Iowa straw poll.

By contrast, Romney didn’t have anyone working on speaking to Latinos until much, much later in the campaign – by which time, Rodriguez tells me, it was “way too late” to push for any possible victory.

Even though Hispanics in Texas voted in higher numbers than was expected in 2012, and even though they voted overwhelmingly for Obama, there’s still a question as to when they will reach optimal force and influence and, more pertinently, whether the vote will be so dissipated when that happens that it will become no more or less significant than the Italian vote or the German vote. Republicans are hoping that, as the Latino community becomes more assimilated, it will vote less on immigration and more on social and economic issues – issues that Republicans hope they can use to strike a chord with Latinos as a socially conservative Catholic community that places high emphasis on family values. But those same values will also mean Hispanics identify Republicans as being “not for them” long after they have assimilated.

Bush continued to be sensitive to Hispanic Americans throughout his campaign, saying in a speech during a campaign stop in Texas in 2000: “Family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande River . . . People are coming to America because they are moms and dads trying to feed their children. As long as people are coming to feed their families, our country must be mindful that they’re human beings as well.” Just imagine a Republican candidate winning in the primaries today after giving a speech like that.

It didn’t stop after Bush’s victory, either. In 2001, one of his first actions as president was to change the custom of a new White House administration inviting the Canadian leader to be the guest at its first state dinner: Bush’s first state dinner was with the president of Mexico. “Compassionate conservatism” was to be at the heart of his administration’s domestic policy, and that meant credible immigration and domestic reform. At last, here was a conservative willing – even eager – to reach out to the Latino community.

“And then,” Leonard Rodriguez says, “we got hit with 9/11. No longer was that [domestic and immigration reform] agenda we’d been working on a top priority . . . since then, [Republicans have] been hijacked by this very right-wing, anti-immigrant dialect, and that’s one of the things the party’s been struggling with ever since.”

Maria Baños Jordan says that when Romney started to speak out against immigration and talk about imposing “self-deportation”, she “immediately know it was over. It showed that, whatever advice he was receiving, he was absolutely out of touch with what was happening across the nation.

“It was sad, in the sense that I felt that there were many Latinos waiting for someone to step up and speak to them with respect and in a way that translated, and at that point it was obviously not going to happen. And I don’t think he ever recovered.” T here is no doubt that it is the Republicans’ stance on immigration that is destroying them. At present, there is little discernible sign of interest in the party in doing anything about it.

Rodriguez is deeply saddened by this. “If you look at the structure of the Republican Party, I doubt they’ll go back to what Bush was trying to teach them, even when the party gets its leadership together. They’ll go back to the bad habits. I don’t expect that there’s going to be any Hispanic personnel in the next Republican Party.”

***

Towards the end of my time in Texas, I finally make the pilgrimage to San Antonio to see the Alamo. The shape of the old building – actually the original chapel, where the women and children took shelter – is instantly familiar. Outside, schoolchildren, most of them Latino, are gathering. A preacher, old and bearded and spitting vigorously, harangues the crowd. It is December but it is still very hot outside. A sign says “Welcome to the Alamo: the shrine of Texas liberty”.

Inside, it is cooler. Tourists study the displays of banners and scale models of the battle that are scattered about. I speak to one, a US army veteran and third-generation Mexican American who is visiting with his family. I ask what this place means to him, and he nods over his shoulder at the elderly white couple gazing at a glass case with Davy Crockett’s leather pouch in it.

“To a white Texan, it means everything,” he says. Then he asks if I can quote him anonymously. Yes, I say, absolutely.

“Me personally?” He leans in towards me conspiratorially. “I don’t give a shit about this place.”

Nicky Woolf is a contributing writer to GQ and reports for the New Statesman from the United States

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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How Vladimir Putin lost Ukraine

Putin’s war cost Russia its centuries-long shared identity with its neighbour. Now, Kyiv risks betraying the spirit of the Maidan revolution.

When the Russian inquest finally comes, the answer will be clear. It was President Vladimir Putin who lost Ukraine – after a millennium of shared east Slav identity. When the Ukrainian inquest into who lost the ­Euromaidan’s “Revolution of Dignity” finally comes, the answer, on the present evidence, will also be clear. It was an elite core of politicians and oligarchs who first worked a miracle in fighting Russia’s military Goliath to a stalemate – only to revert to kleptocratic business as usual when the acute threat eased.

Ukrainians’ consolidation of a distinct national identity after centuries of being regarded as a fuzzy subset of the dominant Russians – and after a quarter-century of independence – began in February 2014. It sounds banal to say that when one nation attacks a neighbour, especially if the two have regarded each other as brothers for a thousand years, the victims feel aggrieved and pull together against the attacker. But this is what happened when Putin launched his undeclared war on Ukraine, sent hooded “little green men” to take over Crimea’s regional parliament by intimidation, and then annexed the peninsula. The mutation of this early tactical success into strategic failure is best traced by reviewing the players and the dynamics as Ukraine held off Russia and crystallised its singular new identity.

On the Russian side only one actor matters: Putin. When the old Soviet Union split apart in 1991, its kleptocracy was replicated in its two biggest east Slav successor states. By 2015 Russia ranked a joint 119th out of 167 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Ukraine was 130th. A Wild East capitalism prevailed, in which emergent oligarchs carved up the state’s wealth through murky privatisation deals. But there was one main political difference between the two countries. Putin quickly restored the primacy of politicians over Russian tycoons after he became president. In Ukraine, oligarchs were able to use their new wealth to dominate politics.

When Putin suddenly broke out from Europe’s seven-decade peace order in February 2014, Western policymakers asked the diminished number of Kremlinologists in their midst why he was acting this way. Some, such as Dmitry Gorenburg, an associate at Harvard’s Davis Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies and a military analyst, pointed to fear as the Russian president’s root instinct. Putin has shown little interest in economics; he has not worried about looming inflation or capital flight, or Russia’s distorting reliance on oil and gas revenues. What he was afraid of, it seemed, was unchecked democratic contagion: as transmitted from Poles in the 1980s to restive East Germans and then Czechs in 1989, to Ukrainians in the mid-2000s, and even on to Muscovites in 2011/12 before Putin managed to stop their street protests.

This analysis is plausible. In 1989, as a young officer of the Soviet Committee for State Security, Putin was serving with the KGB’s Dresden outpost. He saw the Berlin Wall fall – overnight, under the press of East Berliners who mistakenly thought it had been officially opened. He later faulted the then Soviet Communist Party chief, Mikhail Gorbachev, for failing to intervene militarily when the wall crumbled, or when protesters stormed the Stasi headquarters across the street from his office to halt the incineration of incriminating files by East Germany’s adjunct of the KGB. He watched Moscow’s 20 top divisions, which encircled Berlin for half a century after the glorious Soviet victory over Hitler in 1945, retreat ingloriously a thousand miles to the east.

Putin further witnessed the swift break­away of Moscow’s external empire, in the stampede of the freed central Europeans, from Estonia to Romania, to join the European Union and Nato, and the 1991 break-up of Moscow’s internal Soviet empire. He called the collapse of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. And as late as 2008 – 17 years after more than 92 per cent of Ukrainian citizens, including the 21 per cent ethnic Russian minority, had voted for independence – he told President George W Bush, “You have to understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a country.”

***

Most agonising of all, in his first term as Russia’s president in the 21st century, Putin had to listen to American triumphalism about the series of pro-democracy “colour revolutions” in the streets of ex-communist Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004. For him, as a career secret policeman, these revolutions represented no broad social yearning for “dignity”, as the Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa first phrased it. Rather, it was an inexplicable victory by American CIA manipulations – in what was Moscow’s own sphere of influence, by right – over the manipulations of Russia’s FSB, successor to the Soviet KGB.

The uprising that aroused the most angst in the Kremlin was the Orange Revolution on Kyiv’s main square, or maidan, where protesters demanded and won a repeat of the 2004 election after blatant vote-rigging in favour of the then prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian heir apparent to the Ukrainian presidency. It was bad enough for Moscow when the west Slavs in Poland and Czechoslovakia instantly ditched their Slavic identity for a European one in the 1990s: Poland uprooted systemic corruption, built robust democratic and judicial institutions, and went from having a poverty rate that matched Ukraine’s to a per capita GDP three times the size of its neighbour’s today. It was devastating when the Little Russians, too, began to do so, rejecting Yanukovych and Russia’s network of control in the rerun of the vote in 2004.

In the event, Putin need not have worried. The Orange Revolution self-destructed in the fratricide between its two top leaders, who forfeited leadership to Yanukovych in the reasonably fair 2010 election.

On the Ukrainian side of the 2014 Euromaidan revolution, four figures stand out. The two chief rivals are the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko (worth $979m, and number six on Novoye Vremya magazine’s 2015 list of the richest Ukrainians), and the then governor of Dnipropet­rovsk in central Ukraine, Ihor Kolomoyskyi (number two on the list, at $1.9bn).

Poroshenko was a second-tier oligarch who had served briefly as foreign minister in the Orange Revolution government and as minister for trade and economic development under Yanukovych in 2012. He helped fund the pro-Europe, anti-corruption protest against Yanukovych’s authoritarian rule from the movement’s spontaneous inception in November 2013, and his TV news outlet Channel 5 gave full coverage to the three-month agora and its estimated one million participants.

After Yanukovych finally sent his special police to suppress the protest by killing dozens of the demonstrators in late February, the Ukrainian president’s own Party of Regions deserted him. He absconded to Russia overnight with an estimated personal fortune of $12bn, amassed in four years in office. Parliament, by a majority that suddenly included the Party of Regions, appointed an interim president and government and set presidential elections for May 2014. The “Chocolate King”, as Poroshenko was nicknamed for his confectionery empire, was duly elected president of the new Ukraine with a 54 per cent majority.

Kolomoyskyi, who also holds Israeli and Cypriot citizenship, was called back to Ukraine from his Swiss residence by the improvised government just as Russia was annexing Crimea. He was appointed governor of his own regional stronghold of Dnipropetrovsk with a mandate to mount a defence against the Russia-stoked secession brewing in neighbouring eastern Ukraine. Kolomoyskyi was famed for his hostile takeovers of rival banks as well as oil, media and other firms. He quickly raised and underwrote several militias among the 40 to 50 volunteer battalions that sprang up to fight against westward spread of the start-up separatist Donetsk (DPR) and Luhansk (LPR) People’s Republics. These battalions were instrumental in holding the line against separatist/Russian forces and giving the Ukrainian state time to rebuild the army that Yanukovych had bled of its budget.

Two oligarchs who did not cast their lot in with post-Euromaidan Ukraine were Rinat Akhmetov (at $4.5bn still the richest Ukrainian, even after losing more than half of his wealth over the past year) and Dmytro Firtash, whose net worth has fallen to $1bn. Both had been leading supporters of Yanukovych and his party, and since his departure they have hedged their bets between Kyiv and Moscow. Their recent losses have resulted partly from a redistribution of their wealth to other oligarchs.

Akhmetov, the son of a coal miner who rose to become the “godfather” of the Donetsk clan – and the owner of Shakhtar Donetsk football club – has his coal and iron base in the war-ravaged Don Basin (Donbas) and relies on Moscow’s goodwill there. Firtash, who under President Yanukovych controlled the lucrative distribution of Russian gas through Ukrainian pipelines to Europe, is also dependent on Russia. In spring 2014, he asked the Russian oligarch Vasily Anisimov to pay a record Austrian bail of €125m ($141m) in cash to get him out of jail. Under the bail terms, Firtash is barred from leaving Austria as he awaits the final legal decision on a US extradition request on charges of international bribery. Yet from Vienna he still wields his political clout, funds several Ukrainian parties across the political spectrum and, it is widely reported, brokered a division of power between Poroshenko and Vitaly Klitschko in the run-up to the May 2014 presidential election, in which Klitschko stood down as a candidate. (The former world heavyweight boxing champion is now mayor of Kyiv.)

***

Putin no doubt saw his annexation of Crimea – and his follow-on campaign to reconquer Catherine the Great’s “Novorossiya”, comprising the eastern 40 per cent of today’s Ukraine – as compensation for the abrupt downfall of his acolyte Yanukovych, and thus the end of Russia’s rightful suzerainty over all of Ukraine. Europeans, Americans and Ukrainians, on the contrary, saw the first formal takeover of a neighbour’s land in Europe since the Second World War as Putin’s return to a 19th-century concept of “might makes right”, as well as a violation of international law and treaties Moscow had signed to respect Ukrainian borders.

The West was cautious in reacting. It baulked at getting sucked into another intervention in a theatre of complicated logistics and little geopolitical interest. It knew as well as Putin did that Moscow enjoys escalation dominance in its home region by virtue of geography, its claim to a vital interest in Ukraine that the West lacks, and the Russian president’s willpower in a world of European peace and US exhaustion. It had no desire to put Putin’s repeated brandishing of his nuclear weapons to the test over a second-order confrontation. The West therefore responded by imposing financial rather than military sanctions, which Putin prematurely scorned as a pinprick.

In addition, Putin misread Ukraine’s military resilience. Easy success in Crimea – and strong domestic approval of his boasts that he was restoring Russia’s greatness in the world – emboldened him to probe further in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine’s ragtag army had put up no resistance in Crimea, for three reasons. First, years of embezzlement of defence budgets had left it with only 6,000 combat-ready soldiers and with two-decade-old weapons. Second, it was subverted by the many Ukrainian officers who were loyal to Moscow rather than Kyiv. Finally, there was Ukrainians’ sheer disbelief – despite Stalin’s mass starvation of Ukrainian peasants in the 1930s – that Russians would actually shoot at their proclaimed younger brothers.

Putin expected an equally cost-free operation in the Donbas. He seemed to believe his own propaganda that disgruntled Russian-speaking citizens of eastern Ukraine were Russians manqués and would rush to rebel against Kyiv, if only the charge were led by a few Russian commandos. Eastern Ukraine was, after all, the part of the country in which identity was most blurred; easterners paid little attention to differences between Ukrainians and Russians in everyday life, and most had cousins in both Russia and western Ukraine. In a way, the region was the ideal test of Putin’s construct of a unifying goal to fill the vacuum left after futurist communist ideology evaporated. The campaign was first presented as Putin’s dream of a Eurasian Union, but that was dropped once it became clear that Ukraine would not be a part of it. Thereafter it was repackaged as gathering in fellow ethnics left outside the “Russian world” by the Soviet collapse, and then as retaking the tsarist Novorossiya.

At first, the Russian-backed secessionists took quick control over roughly two-thirds of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, or provinces. Putin, however, overestimated the warrior zeal of the easterners and the usual gripes of any province about the meagre payouts it gets from central government. In the early days, the local people warmed to the promises of higher pensions made by the separatists. And grandmothers visibly enjoyed acting as civilian shields by surrounding local administration buildings that were occupied by separatists and preventing Ukrainian soldiers from reclaiming the offices. But as the novelty wore off and the hardship of war increased, Moscow and the secessionists it sponsored increasingly had to rely on a motley band of mercenaries and Donbas criminal gangs that did well in firefights only when they were assisted by Russian “volunteers” and armed with the heavy weapons the Russians were shuttling across the border.

In purely military terms, Putin probably could have escalated in the spring of 2014 from the kind of limited, disguised and therefore deniable warfare that the West calls “hybrid”, replacing the hooded “little green men” with regular Russian soldiers in marked uniforms in an all-out invasion of the Novorossiya oblasts. That was certainly the Russian president’s threat in massing 80,000 troops on the northern, eastern and southern borders of Ukraine and exercising them on high alert.

As late as September 2014 Putin boasted to President Poroshenko that if he so desired, “Russian troops could be in Kyiv within two days – and also in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw, or Bucharest.” But he did not invade when Ukraine’s provisional government was still shaky – and still reeling under the Russian show of force.

Three reasons for Putin’s decision not to order an invasion in spring 2014 might be inferred. The first was a tactical reduction of his bellicosity at a time when the European Union was still debating financial sanctions on Russia for annexing Crimea. The second was the weakness of the novice Ukrainian government, which could foreseeably have collapsed and left Kyiv with a political vacuum the Russians could fill without firing a shot. The third was perhaps a premonition in the Russian army that it was being overstretched and that an occupation of its neighbour, given Ukraine’s strong military tradition, might turn into a quagmire of messy guerrilla warfare.

Putin’s military threats to Ukraine were counterproductive and stoked Ukrainian anger. In May 2014 a Pew survey found that 77 per cent of Ukrainians, including 70 per cent of those living in eastern Ukraine outside the Donbas war zone, thought that their country should remain united instead of breaking up. And in early July, even before the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines MH17 civilian jet by a Russian-made Buk missile fired from insurgent territory, Pew reported that 60 per cent of Ukrainians had a general negative view of Russia. It was a sharp reversal from 2011, when 84 per cent of Ukrainians had viewed Russia positively.

The Euromaidan spirit drew in ever more Ukrainians who had been politically passive. Volunteers flocked to enlist in the army, in the revived National Guard and in the private militias raised and paid for by Kolomoyskyi and other oligarchs. Civilian volunteers cooked and delivered food to recruits. Techies designed and built their own surveillance drones from scratch to observe border areas that Ukraine no longer controlled.

Ukrainian veterans who had once formed the backbone of the Soviet army’s rough equivalent of Western non-commissioned officers, together with local Afgantsy – veterans of the Soviet army’s doomed expedition in Afghanistan in the 1980s – gave the rookies accelerated basic training. Weapons factories in Ukraine that had once supplied the Soviet army managed to repair 20-year-old tanks and build new ones even as the battles raged. And morale was vastly better on the side of Ukrainian defenders against a threat to their very existence than it was among opportunistic rebel mercenaries and criminal gangs. By mid-August 2014, Ukrainian troops had recaptured most of the rebel territory and reduced the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics to two small pockets.

That was too much for Putin. At the end of August, he signalled his red line in the sand: he would not let his proxies be defeated. He sent elite airborne troops into the Donbas to mount a counteroffensive alongside separatist/Russian ground forces armed with Russian heavy weapons. Within days, they broke the Ukrainian siege and restored the secessionists’ control of about half of the territory that the DPR and LPR had ruled at their height.

President Poroshenko understood the message and immediately proposed a truce, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, brokered the Minsk ceasefire of 5 September. The shaky agreement at least reduced the scale of violence for five months, until the separatist/Russian forces made a fresh effort to break through strengthened Ukrainian lines in January and February of 2015 – and failed. A further shaky “Minsk-2” truce followed. But on 1 September 2015 the heavy guns abruptly fell silent and, for the most part, remained silent. For the first time in a year, overjoyed babushkas in the separatist Donbas enclave could walk across the front lines to reach Ukrainian-held towns seven kilometres away and buy salo (pork rind), butter and eggs at far cheaper prices. They returned to tell journalists that their greatest wish was simply for the fighting to stop.

***

At the end of September Putin opened a front in Syria, and reportedly redeployed some special forces from Ukraine to the new battlefield. Ukraine dropped off Russian TV bulletins. The war there had
caused 8,000 deaths and forced 2.4 million people from their homes. It was clear that Putin was belatedly acknowledging that the war also had strategic costs for Russia.

He had first lost all of Ukraine, with the exception of Crimea, to the Euromaidan that he despised. He had failed to salvage Novorossiya for Russia. He had failed, too, to maintain the shelled and charred Donbas region in any form he wanted to annex or subsidise – and keeping it as a zone of frozen conflict for future mischief-making wasn’t much of a consolation prize. He had provoked the West into resuscitating Nato and imposing sanctions that damaged the Russian economy. He had alarmed Belarus, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan into distancing themselves somewhat from Moscow.

Moreover, the Russian war in Ukraine raised the spectre of the failed Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that killed 15,000 Soviet soldiers in the 1980s and gave birth to the Russian Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, which tries to ferret out facts about their dead sons. Last May, after many inquiries by the committee about Russian casualties in Ukraine, the Duma passed legislation banning the spread of information about Russian casualties across the border. In this context, it seemed unlikely that Putin would risk incurring a rise in Russian deaths by resuming heavy fighting in Ukraine.

This appraisal, however, takes the pressure off the Ukrainian oligarchs to grow beyond the robber-baron stage and become patriotic philanthropists. On the present evidence, they no longer sense much urgency with regard to implementing reform legislation, installing the rule of law, building democratic institutions and rooting out kleptocracy as opposed to exploiting it.

Putin has surely lost Ukraine. The Ukrainian oligarchs have not yet surely lost their own country. But how ironic it will be if he manages to melt their urgency into complacency by easing the pressure on Ukraine, thus paving the way for that final loss of the Revolution of Dignity. It would give the last laugh to Georgy Arbatov, the Kremlin’s leading Americanist who prophesied as the Cold War ended: “We are going to do to you the worst thing we possibly could – we are going to take your enemy away.”

Elizabeth Pond is based in Berlin and is the author of several books about Germany, Europe and the Balkans. They include “Beyond the Wall: Germany’s Road to Unification” (Brookings Institution)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war