CRISIS POLITICS IN UKRAINE: Regime Split, Pre-Coup, Pre-Revolutionary Conditions

Kiev is now gripped by crisis politics. With the Ukraine’s defense lines and army in slow-motion collapse and extreme discontent among top military commanders and across the political elite, Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy is fighting for his political and personal survival. More importantly, the stakes could not be higher for the Maidan regime’s coalition of nationalists, neofascists, corruptionaires, new oligarchs, and the occasional republican. Meanwhile, the young Ukrainian state, based on still poorly consolidated quasi-republican institutions and a nationalist ideology, is at risk of disintegration, dissolution, and even disappearance.1 It was surrounded by growing threats: the Russian army, angry Ukrainian soldiers and commanders, Kiev’s financial and economic insolvency and dissipation, popular desperation, and the risk of palace or military coups, even a new ‘Galician’ civil war.2

We can understand possible futures of the crisis by looking at two already developing, nascent scenarios competing to sieze the day: A new revolutionary or quasi-revolutionary Maidan or Maidan 3, on the one hand, and a coup, whether a civilian ‘palace’ or armed military coup, on the other hand.3

For each of the more likely scenarios, a regime split is needed. A regime split involves a defection by regime elements from the present ruling group or coalition along political, ideological, or institutional lines. A major defection to opposition by significant military elements would be a regime split along institutional lines.4 It might be mixed with political or ideological differences. The most obvious political difference in Ukraine between the military and civilian leaderships is that over a future strategy for the NATO-Russia Ukrainian war or the potentially more divisive issue of whether or not to begin negotiations with Moscow. At present, the latter issue is not at the forefront but soon could become so. However, war strategy has been a driver of the growing deterioration in Ukrainian civil-military tensions since the war’s first summer, and in recent months has pushed polarization in those relations to the breaking point, with a pre-coup situation already extant.5 As the situation for Kiev at the front deteriorates, the intensity of the struggle over strategy is becoming an outright struggle for power involving various factions but primarily between Zelenskiy and his presidential team and allied corruptionaires in his ‘Servants of the People’ party, on the one hand, and various siloviki departments, foremost among the latter being the embattled military.

I have already written in the articles referenced above, there now are numerous signs of regime disintegration in Ukraine, in particular an ongoing power struggle between Zelenskiy and his top war general, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhniy.6 I will briefly mention here those signs I have already written about and more recent articulations made by close associates of Zelenskiy separating themselves from the president and his disastrous decision to continue the war rather than continue promising talks with Russia in Gomel and Istanbul in March 2022 that led to an initialed preliminary agreement. Kiev’s mayor, UDAR party leader, and one of the leaders of the Maidan protests, Vitaliy Klichko accused Zelenskiy of authoritarianism. Former president Petro Poroshenko was caught on tape discussing with oligarch Rinat Akhmetov a coup plot he and the top military command are/were apparently planning. 7Shortly thereafter another audiotape appeared supposedly featuring Ukrainian general Zaluzhniy’s Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Lieutenant General Rodion Tymoshenko discussing with other officers the need for a coup (see below). At the same time, Zelenskiy associates have been making statements that cast a doubt on the cause of the war and thus on th need to continue it at such great cost. Gomel and Istanbul negotiator and head of the parliamentary group of Zelenskiy’s party, Davyd Arakhamiya, came forth to confirm various foreign officials’ claims regarding this in early December. Zelenskiy’s former advisor and spokesman Oleksiy Arestovich, who planned to run in the 2024 presidential election against Zelenskiy until the latter cancelled it, has made similar remarks and more recently called for ending the war, aligning with Russia, and filing a class-action suit against the US.8 After Christmas, another negotiator and former Ukrainian ambassador to the Council of Europe, Oleksandr Chalyi, reiterated Putin’s willingness to come to an agreement during a presentation at the Geneva Center for Security Policy9. Chalyi noted that Putin “tried everything possible to conclude agreement with Ukraine” and took a “personal decision to accept the text of this communique”.10

An intersecting or overlapping elite split could occur between the dominant moderate nationalist (Right Sector, Azov, Ukrainian Volunteer Corps, etc.) and oligarchic (Poroshenko, Fial, Pashinskii) elements, on the one hand, and its minority but powerful ultranationalist and neofascist element — Right Sector, Azov, Ukrainian Volunteer Corps, etc. – on the other hand. This split or a similar one could push one faction or another – in this case, the latter ultranationalist/neofascist faction – to attempt armed coup led by a small group of military elements in Kiev or by a broader military coup led by top-ranking commanders.

The by now well-known tensions between Zelenskiy and his top military commander, Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhniy, points to an already existing civil-military, institutional regime split. As I noted in late November: “A regime split is already under way, and civilian elements that might ally with the military or other armed elements include those that support former president (Petro) Poroshenko, a bitter opponent of Zelenskiy, and/or Kiev mayor (Vitally) Klichko and his UDAR party”.11

December did not see a reduction of tensions between the military and civilian leaderships have not subsided.12 Listening devices were found in offices into which Zaluzhniy and his staff were preparing to move.13 

Zelenskiy gave a press conference in which he refused to put talk if a civilian-military, Zelenskiy-Zaluzhniy rift to rest.14 The president also blamed Zaluzhniy indirectly for the failure of the summer counteroffensive by explaining said failure by way of open talk about where the Ukrainians were preparing to attack; something Zaluzhniy but many others were guilty of.15 There was a hint of a potential treason charge here, especially as Zelenskiy’s SBU has been questioning his top commander in connection with possible treason charges for ineffective military work at the beginning of the war in the south, as I have discussed earlier.16 Zelenskiy and the Presidential Office (PO) have also been trying to lay blame for a new mass mobilization of half a million on Zaluzhniy, by noting that the military command requested such a draft.17 Days later, on December 20th, an audiotape appeared of an ostensible telephone conversation between Ukrainian generals discussing the need for a coup against Zelenskiy. The pro-Kremlin hacker group ‘Beregini’ published the SBU-tapped phone of Zaluzhniy’s Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Lieutenant General Rodion Tymoshenko, who calls for a coup. Tymoshenko criticizes the actions of Zelenskiy and PO head Andriy Yermak for demanding offensive actions from the General Staff that were unlikely to be successful and have led the Ukrainian army to suffer monumental losses. “Either we will continue to attempt offensive actions with tens, hundreds of thousands of corpses. Or we will force the president to think the way the general staff, the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine needs it. In a couple of months, or whatever is the maximum, we will lose all reserves,” the supposed voice of Tymoshenko is heard to say.18 The tape seemed real enough but could be a fake distributed by the Russian SVR or GRU.

Tensions could not help but be raised further by a recent poll which found that if Zaluzhniy would create his own political party it would outperform a hypothetical new Zelenskiy party by a margin of 36 percent to 27 percent, with Zelenskiy’s old Servants of the People party having a paltry popularity rating of 5 percent. Moreover, Zaluzhniy’s approval rating recently overtook and continues to exceed Zelenskiy’s, with 63 percent fully and 19 percent mostly supporting Zaluzhniy and only 39 percent fully and 39 percent mostly supporting the president.19

The caveat to my claim of an already existing civil-military institutional regime split is that the depths of the split remain unclear; that is, how far beyond Zaluzhny the discontent with Zelenskiy extends among generals and within the overall officer corps. A small military-based clique could be supplemented and powerfully so by rank-and-file soldiers disserting or having already returned from the front due to wounds and/or by the aforementioned ultranationalist and neofascist groups, with their roots in society and the army’s rank-and-file. Neofascist Right Sector founder Dmitro Yarosh and other extremists have called for ‘completing the nationalist revolution”: a Maidan 3 finishing what they see as the insufficiently nationalist Maidan 2 of February 2014 revolt, which they played the lead role in instigating through a cooptation of the more moderate anti-Yanukovych Maidan demonstrations by organizing a ‘false flag’ snipers’ massacre of demonstrators and Berkut police to incite the final seizure of power.20 Yarosh has been an advisor of Zaluzhniy since well before the war in its present form broke out nine years after the Maidan revolt. Beyond the aforementioned extremists, one must also include neofascist groups outside but within the orbit of the regime, such as C14, whose leader Yevhen Karas is currently fighting at the front.

To the extent any illegal seizure of power from Zelenskiy aims to establish a new socio-political, ideological, and institutional social order, it would constitute a revolutionary regime change. An example would be the so-called completion of the nationalist revolution as envisaged by ultra-nationalists and neofascist, which would establish a far more authoritarian, centralized, ethnic, and militarized Ukrainian state – a new state and social order – from that which exists today. This would be true of such a transformation regardless of whether it occurred by way of a military or civilian-led armed coup, a non-violent palace coup. A scenario in which a coup from within, and by state structures – military or otherwise – overthrew the Maidan regime would constitute a revolution from above (RFA). The extent to which any regime transformation is led from below – say, by rank-and-file soldiers who deserted or simply left a collapsed front, perhaps marching on Kiev in discontent – such would be a revolution from below (RFB).

A civilian RFB scenario cannot be ruled out. Indeed, Zelenskiy himself recently warned of this danger, a Maidan 3, qualifying his ‘analysis’ with the convenient charge that this possibility was being artificially fomented by Russian intelligence.21 Zelenskiy was clearly attempting to taint preemptively any oppositional activity, whether military or civilian, elite or popular as collaboration with the enemy and treason. An actual, organic societal opposition could be based on the recently emerged movement demanding the rotation of forces from the front organized by relatives of long-fighting soldiers badly in need for an overdue stint of rest and relaxation. The movement recently gathered the 25,000 signatures needed to mandate that the president issue a decision for or against such a proposal. With nearly a month since the attainment of the 25,000-signature plank, a decision has still not been forthcoming from the Office of the President. Political stability might also be shaken by the plan to cut the state apparatus by 20,000 bureaucrats on 1 January 2024.22 These former officials will be left at best unemployed in a war torn country with limited resources for welfare expenditures and at worst vulnerable to the mobilization and being sent to the front. If one adds in growing disenchantment with the war in general and the financial crisis that threatens the state’s ability to make social payments to wounded soldiers and others, one can see a popular revolt might take place, though it could be coopted as the 2014 Maidan.23

A less revolutionary-aimed seizure of power from above or below would eschew a revolutionary reorganization of state and society. An elite coup might seek merely to overthrow an erratic, ‘delusional’, president or begin talks with Moscow that such a president refuses to initiate. Such a coup might be sponsored by Kiev’s Washington and NATO backers with the goal of reinforcing the military effort by way of a military regime and/or anti-corruption regime, for example. Similarly, a revolt rather than a RFB might seek merely to remove Zelenskiy and/or end corruption without introducing an ultranationalist or neofascist order.

But revolts, coups, and revolutions are messy things. Often one form contains elements of the other, and in the making one or another form may come to dominate in the end, before which several permutations of the noted forms of crisis politics may temporarily predominate. The combinations of forms are many, but some seem more likely than others. As I have discussed elsewhere, likely scenarios of combined forms include: (a) a joint civil-military opposition coup led by Zalyuzhniy, former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, and Kiev mayor Vitaliy Klichko and (b) an alliance of military officers ‘above’ and a soldiers’ revolt from below, perhaps with the latter coopted by military elites or with the soldiers overwhelming to officers above and staging a RFB or revolt aimed at one type of order or another but one unlikely to be republican.

One cannot rule out a revolt or even nationalist revolution from below, that might be called a Maidan 3. This model needs to be defined, however. Does one mean a popular revolution from below, as the Maidan revolt was painted by the West and the Maidan regime Ukrainians or does one mean a false flag or some other nefarious seizure of power – as was the actual Maidan of February 2014 — having little to do with popular demand for republican government? Zelenskiy himself recently raised the specter of a “Maidan 3” being instigated against him by Russia’s intelligence services, but it is unclear which variation on the model he meant.24 Zelenskiy sees his regime splitting, popularity rating in decline as the front crumbles, and the rise of a movement demanding rotation of troops so those exhausted at the front can have some rest and relaxation. He has to see the possibility of some sort of revolt or revolution against him, and his statement that a Maidan 3 was being fomented by Russian special services and plays into Russia’s hands is clearly setting the stage to color any move against him as Russian-inspired. It is no accident that Zelenskiy made this statement as considerations of another mass mobilization were underway. This is a politically risky move, and is likely to provoke greater public discontent, even the feared revolt. The risk inherent in this step is evidenced by Zelenskiy’s attempt to attribute the idea of mobilizing 500,000 to the military top command and in Zaluzhniy’s denial of having made any request for a specific number of conscripts.25 Zaluzhniy then attempted to side with the growing movement in support of the rotation of troops long-serving at the front by announcing the General Staff proposed releasing all conscripts from active service into the reserve for rest.26 Thus, each side is trying to lay the responsibility on the other for what is sure to be a highly unpopular idea of a massive mobilization and a policy that could explode into tensions between state and society.

There is no doubt of the potential for a revolt or even revolutionary (including deep social change whether republican or neofascist) coalition of an anti-war, anti-mobilization, war veteran, and deserters from the collapsing front arising to remove the Zelenskiites from power. In addition, Ukraine’s ultra-nationalists and neo-fascists have long argued that Maidan was the first phase of, or incomplete nationalist revolution from below. It cannot be ruled out that they could coopt or hijack deserting troops, anti-war, and anti-mobilization elements in a violent revolution truly reminiscent of Maidan 3 in an attempt to ‘complete’ the revolution.

Several arguments are posed to cast doubt on the likelihood of any revolt or regime change under the Maidan regime’s third president (if one includes as first president, acting president Oleksandr Turchynov in 2014). One turns the argument that today’s Ukraine is more authoritarian than republican and that Zelenskiy has ‘consolidated’ his ‘power vertical, controlling parliament, the government, the regional governmental and military administrations. This was true until this autumn, with the failure of the summer counteroffensive’s profound failure and the exposure of the Zelenskiy government’s extensive falsifications, as evidenced by his falling popularity and the splits within Kiev and his regime, military and civilian. There is no reason to believe that similar schisms are not being replicated in the regions.

Second, it is argued that the military itself is divided or at least not organized by a single center; even Zaluzhniy does not have influence over the entire military. This is hardly an argument against the possibility of a military coup. In chaotic or pre-revolutionary situations, particularly during war time and a perhaps a collapsing army, no state or institution is united, and we have seen many such military or military-participant armed coups through out history.

Third, there is the argument that the ongoing war is a “conservative valve” that shuts off or discourages any step that might destabilize Ukraine and put the state and society at risk (27).27 There is some truth that the dire straits Ukraine finds itself in demand and up to a point will reinforce unity. However, once the situation becomes dire enough and other draconian measures, such as mass mobilization, have been exhausted, the cost-benefit calculation regarding the need for a radical change of course and of a leadership unable to make that change can tip the scales in favor of even a very risky coup or revolutionary gambit.  

One final variant is peaceful revolution from below. This seems highly unlikely in Ukraine. The suffering, level of discontent, and political passions caused by the war are too high, particularly given Ukraine’s less than republican, compromising culture of comity.


Regardless of who engineers a coup or undertakes a revolutionary regime transformation, the outcome of any such initiative may not be controllable. Whoever might succeed in rising to and consolidating power will be in question for some time, and it is unclear whether any united state organization can be established by one or several allied forces in the event. Some force or coalition might be able to dismantle the Zelenskiy government or the entire Maidan regime, but they might not be capable of consolidating power and building integrated authority. Chaos and social or state collapse cannot be excluded.


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