Brian Bonner left the St. Paul Pioneer Press for good in 2007, eventually returning to the Kyiv Post in Ukraine, where he was quickly reappointed chief editor of the small, independent paper. A classic, tough, gumshoe reporter for 24 years in St. Paul, Bonner is currently leading his staff through first-person, ground-level coverage of arguably the most dangerous international face-off since the end of the Cold War.
Via e-mail, we sought Bonner’s unfiltered views of the current situation.
MinnPost: Is there any verifiable consensus on what the majority of the population — across the entire country — wants, in terms of enhanced association with Europe, or a restored alliance with Russia? I read a lot about the disgust with rampant institutional corruption, but in a rational world wouldn’t that argue against any kind of closer ties with Russia?
Brian Bonner: Most polls, including in Crimea before the invasion, show no majority support for seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia. It registered the highest in Crimea, with 41 percent before the invasion, so it was Putin’s strongest target. Here’s a recent one.
Yes, Russia is probably even more corrupt than Ukraine’s former government, so there’s no upside to joining Russia. Putin is fueling the discontent eastern Ukrainians have with the central government in Kyiv and their poor standard of living; but for most Ukrainians, the solution is a European Union-style of democracy, not a return to Putin’s neo-Soviet state.
MP: There is a belief here in the States that the appeal in Crimea of restored bonds with Russia had at least as much to do with the promise of increased pension payments as any deep love of the Motherland. What is your sense of the root of the “passion” for Russia, at least in the east and in Crimea?
BB: In eastern Ukraine, I think the passion is higher for a better standard of living than any return to Russia. I think those in Crimea who thought joining Russia is the answer are already having second thoughts. They will have even more when they see what a wreck the Russian economy is for most people, and they’ll soon find out they have no freedom of information, speech or any ability to change or control their government or hold anybody accountable — Putinland.
MP: The coming elections seem to be boiling down to a choice between chocolate oligarch/TV station owner Petro Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. I read that Poroshenko is regarded as the favorite. Why? Who is regarded as most credible by the protest organizers? How much electoral potency do they have?
BB: Petro Poroshenko is probably emerging as the favorite in the polls because he is lately seen as having taken a courageous, early stance during the EuroMaidan Revolution, long before victory was certain. His businesses — Roshen chocolate and others — paid the price in Russia, [which doesn’t] like his pro-European Union stance. However, Poroshenko has been on all political sides over the years, regrettably necessary to survive in Ukraine, but also something that fuels cynicism. People feel that Yulia Tymoshenko is part of the past, and it’s unlikely she will rebound. But she has the best chance to defeat Poroshenko and she certainly earned credibility by taking on the former regime early and paying the price with 2.5 years in prison.
There are new faces in the presidential race, but none of them has a chance electorally. They either just are not known or they are not experienced politicians.
MP: Where do the latest facts point in terms of responsibility for the massacre by sniper fire on Institutska Street? Frankly, the Russian explanation seems preposterous. But several reports suggest that by killing both police and protesters the point was to ratchet up hysteria and violence and thereby “encourage” a Russian invasion to restore calm.
BB: The Russian explanation is preposterous. The sniper shootings mirrored what the overthrown Yanukovych regime said it was going to do — conduct anti-terrorist operations and authorize police to use lethal force. That’s exactly what happened. On the most deadly morning, police retreated up the hill, causing the frontline of the protesters to take the bait and move forward, where they got mowed down by snipers.
It was cold-blooded. Police forces wore red reflective material so the snipers could identify them from everyone else when they directed fire. Numerous eyewitness and photographic evidence supports the case of government-sponsored violence. So do the preliminary results of the official investigation.
There were people killed on both sides, which gives urgency for a fast, convincing and complete investigation to kill the conspiracy theories, once and for all. That rarely happens in Ukraine, and actually may be a secondary reason for Putin’s invasion — to put so much pressure on the current government that it cannot function and to hide Russian complicity in the crackdown. Putin was encouraging such a crackdown well before it happened, and publicly.
MP: Ukraine alone seems defenseless against further Russian aggression, and it’s very hard to imagine either the U.S. or NATO stepping up, even if the next move for Putin is to claim the eastern half of the country. Is there a realistic economic remedy the West can offer that might dispel the appeal of Russian annexation for those presently willing to accept it?
BB: Regrettably, the Ukrainian military has been starved, hollowed out and demoralized to the point where it could not withstand an all-out Russian invasion. But a military victory will not necessarily mean a political victory for Russia, they would be seen as an occupying force by most Ukrainians.
The West’s response has been dismal. Probably because they are uncertain whether this government will stand and fight. At the least, the West could stop doing business with Russia, impose punishing economic and diplomatic sanctions. Instead, the London banks still do business with the Russian oligarchs, France is still thinking of selling warships to Russia, energy giants are still willing to do business, the U.S. even has a contract for $1 billion worth of Russian helicopters for Afghanistan. All in all, still far away from Iran-style sanctions.
As for significant economic aid, the Ukrainian government still has a lot of corruption to clean up before the West would be willing to invest much in Ukraine beyond the amounts needed to ensure its survival.
Note: Shortly after I first contacted Bonner, our former boss Ken Doctor filed this story with Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab. And yes, Bonner and his colleagues will gratefully accept contributions from MinnPost readers.
More about Bonner from his official bio: Bonner has served as the chief editor of the Kyiv Post since 2008. He also held the job in 1999, three years after first arriving in Ukraine to teach journalism. Bonner is a veteran American journalist who spent most of his professional life with the St. Paul Pioneer Press in Minnesota, where he covered international, national and local news during a nearly 24-year career in which he was a staff writer and an assigning editor. Bonner left the St. Paul newspaper in 2007 to become the associate director of international communications at the Campaign For Tobacco-Free Kids in Washington, D.C. He also served as a political analyst with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe during six election observation missions in Ukraine, Belarus, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. To contact: email firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook at www.facebook.com/brianbonner, Twitter @BSBonner and Skype at brian.bonner1959.