YULIA TYMOSHENKO, Ukraine’s former prime minister and the country’s most skilled politician, has always taken her hairstyle seriously. Her tight blond braid was a symbol of the peaceful Orange Revolution in 2004. While spending two and half years in jail during the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych, a Russian-backed kleptocrat, she let her hair down.
When she emerged from prison, following the Maidan revolution in 2014, many Ukrainians wrote her off as a spent force. But Ms Tymoshenko is back in fighting form. And on February 3rd, as she flew to Washington in an uninvited effort to meet Donald Trump, America’s new president, she restored the braid. As the first Ukrainian politician to shake Mr Trump’s hand, she hoped to be recognised from the days when she was the televised face of the country’s politics.
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Ukraine tries to persuade Donald Trump not to give up on it
Ms Tymoshenko managed to corral Mr Trump during his appearance at a national prayer breakfast, where she was photographed clinging to him tightly. Her stunt infuriated Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president. But it was a public-relations coup for Ms Tymoshenko’s campaign to present herself as an internationally recognised leader and to supplant Mr Poroshenko in power. A few days later Mr Poroshenko spoke to Mr Trump on the phone, discussing the latest escalation in Ukraine’s long-running war with Russia.
Neither Mr Poroshenko nor Ms Tymoshenko officially disclosed the content of the conversations, and reports were confusing. Some said Mr Trump had described the conflict in Ukraine as a civil war, a formulation used by Russia. Others said he confirmed the view of his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, that America should have provided Ukraine with weapons.
One thing is clear: Mr Trump and his team have not decided what they want to do about the country. Mr Trump’s election has thrown Ukraine’s politics into turmoil. In particular, it has underlined the inadequacy of the Minsk Two ceasefire agreements, which Russia in essence imposed on Mr Poroshenko in February 2015. The agreement followed a heavy Russian military intervention in eastern Ukraine in mid-2014, which thwarted a Ukrainian army offensive that had recaptured two-thirds of the territory held by separatist rebels.
After the Russian army went in, Ukraine had little hope. At one point, “I was down to one battalion,” says Mr Poroshenko. In 2015, “90% of the negotiations in Minsk in were simply about halting fire.”
On paper, the Minsk agreement gave Russia almost everything it wanted: a Russian-controlled autonomous territory inside Ukraine with its own militia, administration and justice system, with Russian television dominating the airwaves but Ukrainian taxpayers footing most of the bills. Ukraine was required to change its constitution to make the arrangement permanent. Given Ukraine’s deep problems, Mr Putin expected it would quickly collapse.
It did not. For two years Mr Poroshenko’s approach to the Minsk agreements has been “procrastination”, according to a recent report by the International Crisis Group, a think-tank. He claims he lacks the votes to pass the legislation demanded by the agreements. This has bought Ukraine time to build up its army and repair its economy. “When I came to power we had no army, a massive budget deficit, 50% inflation and no money,” says Mr Poroshenko. “Today I have one of the strongest armies in Europe, with unique experience of how to fight a hybrid war against Russia.” Ukraine’s combat-ready forces total 250,000 men, of which 60,000 are deployed in the east.
The battles that raged near the town of Avdiivka over the past week were seen by the Ukrainians as a success. Despite a heavy barrage of Russian Grad missiles, Ukraine captured new territory in the “grey zone” occupied by separatists in violation of the Minsk agreements. It coped with the humanitarian consequences of the fighting, and communicated effectively with both foreign embassies and the families of the soldiers in combat, according to a foreign diplomat.
Ukraine is still crippled by corruption and cronyism, much of it emanating from Mr Poroshenko’s own circle. But it has pushed through some reforms, eliminated its dependency on Russian gas, cleared its banking system and stabilised its economy. However, the election of Mr Trump, who is said to be considering a grand bargain with Russia, could change the status quo. Russia demands that the Minsk agreements are implemented and wants Mr Trump to put pressure on the government in Kiev. The problem is that Russia’s aims are opposite to those of Ukraine. Mr Poroshenko and his backers see the Minsk process as a way to preserve the country’s territorial integrity and push Russia out of Donbas. Russia sees the agreement as a way to further destabilise Ukraine or push it to collapse.