Although there is no direct proof of its involvement in the Mukachevo incident in southwestern Ukraine, the Kremlin might have an interest in destabilizing this region.

Right Sector members and their supporters during an ongoing protest rally near the Ukrainian presidential administration building. Photo: RIA Novosti

 For a very different take, read: "From Maidan to Mukachevo: Evolution of the Ukraine crisis" 

On July 11, a skirmish occurred in the city of Mukachevo in the Transcarpathian region of Ukraine, killing three people. Criminal proceedings have been launched. The Prosecutor General of Ukraine has established an operational investigative team made up of staff from the central bodies of the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Security Service and the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs. The Ukrainian parliament has also set up a temporary fact-finding commission. The investigation is ongoing.

The tense situation in the country, coupled with the economic crisis and general instability, is weighing heavily on society. The negative processes taking place in the east of Ukraine are having a deleterious impact on the country as a whole. No social organism can be healthy when it has blood pouring from a gaping wound, both literally and figuratively.

Therefore, the Mukachevo incident cannot be viewed in isolation from the political, economic and social processes that have dominated Ukrainian society for more than a year, or without taking into account the external factors impinging on the country’s domestic agenda.

First and foremost, the events in Mukachevo are the natural result of the negative developments in the region over the previous decades, when weak (or even indulgent) central governance led to an unnatural symbiosis between individual members of the local political elite, law enforcement bodies and organized crime. That gave rise to the monopolization and criminalization of customs activity and a surge of unchecked smuggling.

The negative economic effects, exacerbated by the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of hostilities in the Donbas region, intensified the search for new cash flows, which (for obvious reasons) promptly and sharply decreased. To replenish them, new sources of revenue had to be found, or existing ones expanded, one of the most effective of which was smuggling, especially in border regions. That led to increased competition between gangs, including those with political influence at both the regional and the national level.

The situation is further aggravated by the lack of appreciable reform, procrastination and foot-dragging, all of which has left a negative mark on public sentiment.

The passionate zeal that gathered head during the period from fall 2013 to winter 2014 has not completely petered out over the past year. Part of it has been transmuted into visible resistance against the advancing enemy in the east of Ukraine. But most has taken the form of latent energy, distributed more or less uniformly throughout Ukrainian society — from west to east, north to south.

And it is this energy — engendered by hopes for positive change and then partially transformed into the defense of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity in the zone of ​​anti-terrorist operations — that is increasing its claims to a special place in society. This energy need only be channeled in the right direction, something that all parties concerned are trying to do.

Hence, the events in Mukachevo can be seen as a vivid manifestation of how Ukraine’s past is resisting the changes that are so desperately required. Not only are they having a negative impact on the already less-than-breezy internal politics, but also damaging the country’s image abroad. Neighboring Slovakia, for instance, has beefed up security along its border with Ukraine. And Hungary for some reason saw fit to announce that its intelligence services are operating in Ukraine.

On top of that, it appears that the escalation of tension in Transcarpathia could negatively impact the diversification of natural gas supplies to Ukraine. Kiev has refused to renew its contract for the purchase of Russian gas under the terms proposed by Moscow. As a result, since July 1 this year Ukraine has been receiving gas from Slovakia. This gas is delivered to Ukraine through the Transcarpathian region; likewise gas from Hungary, Ukraine’s second potential supplier of European gas (as a commodity, not a domestic product). Destabilization of the situation in the region objectively plays into the hands of the “injured” Gazprom and its Kremlin masters.

 Also read: "Petro Poroshenko has a mandate to fix Ukraine. Can he do it?" 

In continuing the theme of Ukraine-Russia relations in overall relation to the Transcarpathian region, it must be stressed that Moscow has ample opportunity to undermine the situation in the region, in particular by exploiting the religious component (the influence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate), and the so-called “Ruthenian” factor or its adherents among members of the former Social Democratic Party (united).

Through its regional influence, alongside gas supply matters the Kremlin can try to regulate a whole host of other issues related to both the territorial integrity of Ukraine and its general plans for European integration.

It is known, for instance, that in March 2014 Poland, Hungary and Romania received an official letter from the Russian State Duma with a proposal to consider the theoretical division of Ukraine. In particular, it was suggested that Poland hold a referendum in five western regions of Ukraine (Volyn, Lvov, Ivano-Frankovsk, Rovno, Ternopol) on public attitudes toward Poland. Similar proposals were made to Hungary and Romania in respect of the Transcarpathian and Chernovtsy regions, respectively.

Of course, officially none of these countries took Moscow’s proposals seriously. Nevertheless, the events in Mukachevo, despite their apparent internal causality, dovetail nicely with Russia’s policy on Ukraine. All the more so, given that the situation around Russia is compelling its leaders to seek new ways, forms and methods to exert influence on external partners to minimize the negative impact of sanctions and counter Russia’s further isolation in the international arena.

Besides, the appearance of another flashpoint, this time on the western border of Ukraine, once again plays into the hands of Moscow by showing European partners the fragility of Ukraine’s domestic situation and the possible destabilization of regions seemingly remote from the combat zone.

Is the Ukrainian leadership aware of the danger? Judging by its responsiveness to events on the ground and the measures it has taken, the answer is a clear “yes.”

This challenge is perhaps even more dangerous than the open confrontation in the Donbas. First, it affects the interests of the neutral or even mildly pro-Kiev stratum of entrepreneurs, politicians and security officers who in one way or another benefit from activities that cannot be described as entirely legitimate.

Second, the central authorities will have to take some very quick and radical decisions on the fate of those paramilitary volunteer units that played a role in Maidan and the anti-terrorist operation in the east of the country. That task is an order of magnitude more complex.

Related problems include curbing corruption, reforming the law enforcement and judicial systems, and creating mechanisms for effective control over the movement of arms.

The only way to resolve these issues is through the focused and volitional implementation of comprehensive reforms. Whereas before Mukachevo delays in the process could be justified for various reasons, post factum the country’s leadership will finally, and properly, have to start living up to the lingering expectations of its citizens.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.