This year Ukraine has seen a bizarre string of deaths involving high-ranking officials, including a ex-city mayor, a former railway executive, and the former head of the state body in charge of privatization.
A total of five officials died in a single 34-day period between January 28 and February 28. In each case, the deaths have been ruled probable suicides. But the victims’ political allegiances and job histories have led many in Ukraine to suspect that the men were in fact murdered.
That of course was an ironic “huh” in my brief introduction to the story. Because of course we can be all-but-certain that Moscow is behind these “suicides,” and that Vladimir Putin is behind any major actions directed by Moscow. Or are Putin’s hands clean this once?
The most recent death was that of Mykhaylo Chechetov, “the ex-deputy chairman of the Party of Regions faction in Ukraine’s parliament, died after jumping or falling out of the window of his 17th-story apartment.”
The death came just days after Chechetov was arrested for fraud and abuse of office stemming from his two years at the helm of the powerful State Property Fund. (Chechetov posted bond to avoid being held in pretrial detention.)
Chechetov’s time at the property fund, from April 2003 to April 2005, marked one of the busiest periods of post-Soviet privatization, with the steel giant Kryvorizhstal among the cut-rate sales made during his tenure. The plant, notoriously, was sold to a group that included the son-in-law of former President Leonid Kuchma, Viktor Pinchuk, for just $850 million. (In October 2005, Viktor Yushchenko reversed the sale, reselling a 93-percent stake in the plant to Mittal Steel for $4.8 billion.)
Anton Herashchenko, a Popular Front lawmaker and adviser to the Interior Ministry, has speculated that Chechetov may have been driven to suicide by fellow old-guard members whose role in the deal stood to be exposed by his testimony.
Chechetov is now the third former head of the State Property Fund to die under mysterious circumstances.
This story gains extra relevance after reading a odd Stratfor piece I came across yesterday. I say it’s odd because, well, it’s odd. Stratfor usually does what its name implies: Strategic forecasts. But yesterday’s piece instead wargamed various scenarios for all-out war between Russia and Ukraine — or at least something closer to it than already exists. The point I suppose was to demonstrate Moscow’s military and geopolitical weaknesses.
But so what?
The entire point of Putin’s less-than-total war against Ukraine is to avoid exposing his country’s military and geopolitical weaknesses, while maximizing Russia’s strengths and leveraging Ukraine’s weaknesses. The fact that doing so also puts political and military strains on NATO is the dollop of sour cream in his tasty borsht.
As these mysterious deaths show, Ukraine has been politically dysfunctional from its independence in 1991. Militarily it isn’t in any better shape. That’s why Stratfor’s wargames were meaningless — all Putin has to do is keep up the pressure, try to avoid any more incidents like last year’s civilian airliner shootdown, and be patient. There’s short-term financial pain he and his cronies are suffering, but that’s nothing compared to the big prize of taking those parts of Ukraine he needs, Finlandizing the rest, and potentially shattering NATO.