In a bit of bad news for Vladimir Putin, steel workers have apparently organized themselves into a force to be reckoned with in Ukraine’s east, seizing the city of Mariupol in Donetsk’s south and expelling its pro-Russian forces. Or at least that’s the reasonably upbeat framing for the story given by the the New York Times’s coverage:
Thousands of steelworkers fanned out on Thursday through the city of Mariupol, establishing control over the streets and banishing the pro-Kremlin militants who until recently had seemed to be consolidating their grip on power, dealing a setback to Russia and possibly reversing the momentum in eastern Ukraine.
But is this really people-power in action? It’s not quite so simple. The Reuters headline is closer to the mark as to what’s going on: “Fortune threatened, Ukraine’s richest man joins the fray“. Key passage:
Though largely symbolic, the scene showed the extent to which the crisis has come to threaten the interests of Ukraine’s richest man and the lengths he will go to protect them.[Rinat] Akhmetov, whose fortune is estimated by Forbes magazine at $11.4 billion, has acquired almost feudal status in the industrial hub of Donetsk in the past 20 years – but the separatist rebellions there have altered the dynamics of power.As pro-Russian rebels declaring independence seized public buildings across the steel and coal belt which is the basis of his colossal fortune, he issued repeated written statements in support of a united Ukraine. […]The rebels’ ‘declaration’ of an independent Donetsk region on Monday, however, and their appeal for Russian annexation pose a major threat to Akhmetov’s holdings and his fortune.
As the Maidan was going on and Yanukovych was still clinging to power, we were on the lookout for which way the Ukraine’s powerful oligarchs would break. Eventually, realities on the street overwhelmed whatever political maneuvering was going on behind the scenes, as Yanukovych was hounded out of Kiev shortly after having signed an EU-brokered agreement with the opposition. The compromise outlined in the February agreement presumably would have been acceptable to most of the oligarchs. After all, the kind of instability that has been wracking Ukraine since Yanukovych’s ouster cannot be good for their bottom line. The status quo ante worked well enough for them: they could do business with both the EU and Russia.As the head of Ukraine’s largest financial and industrial services firm, Akhmetov certainly does a fair bit of business with Russia. But as Reuters notes, his firm doesn’t do business only with Russia, and one of the primary sources of his wealth—Ukraine’s steel industry—has him exporting everywhere but Russia, which is itself a net steel exporter. His prospects would be greatly limited if the eastern Ukrainian provinces declared independence only to be recognized by Russia alone.Additionally, the prospect of Western financial sanctions must be playing a role in Akhmetov’s calculations. His vast wealth would be threatened if he is seen as part of the pro-Russian camp and loses access to the Western financial system.Akhmetov is hardly a darling of the Maidan, having been the key bankroller of Yanukovych and his Party of Regions. And he is himself no fan of Kiev, being a strong proponent of the devolution of power to the provinces. But with this move, we might be seeing the limits of separatism in Ukraine. If one of the world’s richest men stands to lose in a big way, Putin’s gambit to create a failed state directly to his west is much less likely to succeed.