Just days after President Petro Poroshenko was sworn in on June 7 in Ukraine's capital, a military plane carrying Ukrainian troops to Luhansk was shot down by rebel forces sending shockwaves across the country. The tragedy underscored the challenge facing Poroshenko and the entire nation: without a military surge in the East, reforms in Kyiv and the rest of the country seem like an impossible task. But a military surge in the East runs the risk of antagonizing Donbas and Luhansk even more, prolonging the conflict and creating new tensions with Moscow.
The tasks facing Poroshenko and the country are enormous, and peace is urgently needed to tackle them. The list is long and daunting: winning the war in the East; reforming the security sector; reaching a gas deal with Russia; reaching a new modus vivendi with Crimea; re-structuring and reforming the economy; and on so on. The West has neither the political will nor the financial resources to help Ukraine deal with these challenges. In the meantime, Ukraine is about to lose the “hidden rents” it has been getting from Russia in the form of “dependent” trade. Domestic support for reforms—which so far seems rock solid, fueled by the newly found national pride of “United Ukraine”—could begin to dissipate once Ukrainians confront the pain associated with these reforms. All these factors should propel President Poroshenko to act fast, but while everyone expects him to perform miracles; he is still constrained by the reality of his country.
His first appointments suggest that his team was not ready when he won a strong mandate in the first round. His closest associates are tested managers from his business past. Ukraine indeed needs strong managers, not a Belarus style father of the nation. Boris Lozhkin as chief of staff, a self-made Ukrainian media mogul, who merely a year ago reportedly was forced to sell his media group to Serhiy Kurchenko who acted as a front for the Yanukovych family businesses. Lozhkin has no previous political experience, but does have good ties with all oligarchs. Euromaidan voices have already raised concerns about Lozhkin's connections to Russia and about the new head of State Affairs Administration Serhi Berezenko's previous job as adviser to the controversial former mayor of Kyiv Chernovetskiy. But Poroshenko's priority is to bring his people in and organize the presidential administration. He needs loyal managers rather than strong political figures to avoid the emergence of another “eminence grise” such as Yanukovych’s former chief of staff Serhiy Lyovochkin.
Poroshenko's next move—within his new mandate—will be to frame his foreign and defense policy. His inauguration speech outlined a strong pro-European commitment. Ukraine will sign the long awaited Association Agreement with the European Union on June 27. Poroshenko’s foreign policy team include Valeri Chaliy, the former deputy minister of foreign affairs and deputy director of the Razumkov Center. Acting foreign minister Andrii Deshchytsia may be sent as Ukraine's ambassador to one of the important Western capitals, especially after his diplomatic misstep during the unrest around the Russian Embassy in Kyiv. Pavlo Klimkin is frequently referred to as the likely new foreign minister. A native of Kursk, Russia Klimkin was the chief negotiator with the EU as head of the EU department at the MFA and later as deputy minister. Negotiations with Russia over Ukraine's trade agreements will be just as important as the implementation of the agreement with the EU. Although the latest trade data show that a growing majority—even from Donetsk and Luhansk—of Ukrainian products go to the EU, Russia is indispensable for a number of key industries, especially the defense industry.
As the new commander in chief, Poroshenko's position is much more ambivalent when it comes to defense. Andriy Parubiy, the National Security and Defense Council head, as well as Acting Minister of the Interior Avakov, are Maidan veterans with independent political standing. Parubiy, who wanted at one point to form a new political party on the basis of Maidan self-defense forces, is in a particularly strong political position in Kyiv. Avakov's performance has been criticized widely. Poroshenko sacked the army's chief of staff over the Luhansk plane incident. But not leaving those “acting” in defense positions since Yanukovych fled the country would keep the main reason for armed insurgency in the East. Hitherto, that would leave only a military scenario for Donbas.
Presiding over Ukraine’s fractious policymaking won’t be easy. Although Poroshenko pledged to hold early parliamentary elections, after the return to the 2004 constitution, that decision is no longer his and will require convincing the parliament to go along. The elections are viewed as necessary to infuse fresh blood into Ukraine's crumbling political body, but the growing number of casualties in Eastern Ukraine, as well as the lack of strong political parties may facilitate the rise of populists such as Oleh Lyashko who came third in the presidential elections. Such a turn of events would make the tasks of Ukraine’s new managers even more difficult than it is today.
A president elected at a time of great crisis is a natural center of attention and high expectations. However, to move Ukraine forward the president and his team will need to put aside their own ambitions and seek support from both the parliament and the government, which will be difficult for Poroshenko to secure from them in their current composition. Without a new government and a new parliament, Poroshenko cannot be expected to carry the country out of the crisis on his shoulders. It is time for Ukraine to unite, not only in rhetoric toward Russia.