Crimea, annexed by Russia. Donetsk and other eastern cities falling to pro-Russian mobs, undoubtedly at least funded by Moscow. Russian troops massing on Ukraine’s borders. The West — Washington and Brussels — paralyzed, with the grand military of the alliance weakened by budget cuts and poor leadership. If Ukraine does not stand alone, certainly it stands in peril.
And so Yulia Tymoshenko, once again a presidential hopeful, travels to Donetsk to hold a press conference.
Instead of mobilizing her formidable public relations army to move the West to commit to Ukraine’s defense, instead of using her old ties with Vladimir Putin to ease Russia from the gates, Tymoshenko decided to hold a campaign stunt. While very much in her idiom — longtime observers will recall that she substantively abandoned governance from 2008 on to attack then-president Viktor Yushchenko and hold a series of thinly-disguised governance stunts (culminating in the manufactured bird flu scare) to put Yulia Tymoshenko at the forefront of the news, just in time for the elections.
This is the mark of a politician who is willing to have a Ukrainian rump state, so long as she governs it. It is not so much a sign of weakness in the face of a Russian threat as an indicator of complete indifference. It is intended to show Ukrainians that she is personally quelling what could be a separatist uprising; what it shows instead is that she sees every crisis as yet another opportunity to show the world how splendid she truly is.
Yet as weak and silly as this particular effort at self-aggrandizement has been, the press conference itself was worse.
“Everyone I talked with in Donetsk said they wanted to live in peace and they only wanted the Donbass to be respected,” Tymoshenko told her adoring crowd of assembled reporters. “There is complete readiness to eliminate these pockets of instability promptly in a peaceful and legitimate manner,” she added.
Some context is required here. Although she was born in and came up in the Dnepropetrovsk Clan machine, Tymoshenko’s early career was launched in part by leveraging off of the Donetsk political machine, exploiting the traditional independence of the Donbass (a coal-mining region that has had a separate cultural existence for over a century) to advance her pre-blonde-braids career. Yet she openly and explicitly burned her ties to the East as a whole after she was catapulted to power in the wake of the Orange Revolution, and no small number of the grassroots pro-Russian protests in Donetsk that started during the Maidan protests featured signs demanding that Tymoshenko remain in prison.
Taken to its most basic possible level, Yulia Tymoshenko’s word and authority in the Donbass is virtually non-existent. The idea that she represents some sort of great mediating force who can bring together East and West by her mere presence is a dangerous fantasy.
Yet it is a fantasy she is openly willing to promote. Rather than rallying the West to Ukraine’s side, rather than working to end the proto-secessionist movement by hard work on the ground, Tymoshenko is selling a naïve fantasy to her voters in western Ukraine and her supporters abroad.
Today, Ukraine needs strong leaders, able to pacify Russians to the East and exhort Europeans and Americans to the West. It needs men and women who seek office for Ukraine, not those merely trying yet again for personal gain. It needs leadership who will sacrifice for a nation badly wounded by the last six weeks, not mere politicians looking for another photo opportunity.
Next month, Ukrainians will choose their next president. For their sake, let us hope they choose those who are working to end the Russian threat, rather than those who are merely giving one more interview about it.
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