Why The Hell Did Turkey Shoot Down a Russian Fighter Jet?

On Tuesday, a Turkish Air Force F-16 shot down a Russian Su-24 that had intruded into Turkish airspace. If Turkish reports are to be believed, two Russian jets were warned over emergency frequencies as they approached the border. One broke off and headed south. The other did not respond to the 10 warnings issued over five minutes, so the Turkish fighter fired a missile, downing the Russian plane. Its two occupants are both believed to have ejected. One is currently reported alive; the status of the other pilot is unconfirmed.

The incident happened over the Turkish border with the chaos formerly known as Syria, slightly inside or slightly outside Turkey, depending on whose account you believe. That border extends more than 500 miles, or 800 km — a considerable amount of terrain to patrol and monitor for the flow of weapons, refugees, and fighters that constantly wash back and forth across the line. And what happens around, and above, that border increasingly determines the fate of the Syrian civil war.

While the government led by Syrian President Bashar al Assad hasn’t been in a particular state of conflict with Turkey over the last few years, there has been a regular string of border skirmishes, punctuated with the occasional downing of a jet or helicopter. Turkey is determined to keep the mess at bay on the other side of the border. Meanwhile, the Syrian government, or what’s left of it in areas close to the border, is determined to prevent Turkish territory from turning into a safe haven, supply depot, or base for anti-regime forces.

Related: A Group of Veterans Is Equipping Western Fighters Heading to Battle the Islamic State

And it was almost inevitable that when Russian forces got involved, without much if any coordination with the other nations flying heavily armed planes over and around Syria, someone would get shot down sooner or later.

As for the border region over which much of this heavily armed flying happens, it has taken on a life of its own — and a dangerous one.

There’s a strip of formerly Syrian territory between 25 and 50 miles (80 km) wide that runs most of the length of the border between Turkey and the mess to the south. Sometimes called Rojava, it is land held by Syrian Kurds, who — being Kurdish — share the other Kurds’ longstanding enmity towards Turkey. The Turks spend a lot of time bombing the Kurds in this de facto almost-state, even though both are ostensibly fighting against the Islamic State.

Then there are the nearby parts of northern Syria heavily populated by Turkmen people — who are Syrian-born ethnic Turks. Over the last few years, forces representing those people have combined forces into a collection of Syrian Turkmen Brigades. These brigades are reportedly receiving funding, support, and training by Turkish Special Forces. Given that some of the training is supposed to occur on both the Turkish and Syrian sides of the border, it’s not a huge jump to assume that the Turkish “advise and assist” mission involves some number of Turks on the ground in Syria.

The Syrian Turkmen Brigades are roughly aligned with various elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), who are opposed to both the Assad regime and IS, but relatively ambivalent toward the Kurds.

Since the Russians have arrived in Syria, they’ve been bombing from the air various militias and groups they label terrorist, and that includes the FSA-aligned Syrian Turkmen Brigades, which hold territory that for the Russians is dangerously close to their airbase in Syria. Quite predictably, their bombing has resulted in some civilian casualties among the population of Syrian Turks.

Thus the Russians stubbornly insist on bombing targets that aren’t properly part of the Islamic State they are officially fighting, like those forces a few dozen miles away that happen to be not just ethnically Turkish, but supplied, armed, and trained by Turkey.

That’s not going to turn out well.

Indeed, if you look at the flight path of the downed Russian jet and overlay it with maps showing Russian airstrikes, it’s pretty clear that the planes overflew areas likely held by the FSA, if not directly by Syrian Turkmen Brigade units. Early reports don’t indicate whether the Su-24 (a ground-attack aircraft) was on its way back from a bombing raid, but that would certainly be a logical explanation.

So yes, in retrospect, this seems about as inevitable as a scene where a foot is slowly descending on a banana peel.

Which raises questions about why it happened now and what happens next.

That’s hard to say, because this exchange occurs at possibly one of the least opportune (or at least most confusing) moments in the Syrian civil war.

Just a couple days ago, Russians asked nearby Lebanon to shut down its airspace so they could go blow stuff up. This is on the heels of a vigorous round of Russian airstrikes. Those strikes were arguably intended to let France know that Russia is backing France in its response to last week’s brutal bout of terrorist attacks in Paris.

On the other hand, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was scheduled to visit Turkey on Wednesday. That visit has been cancelled. As much as saber-rattling is a time-honored tradition in nation-to-nation diplomacy, actually firing a shot in anger and taking down an aircraft is not normal.

Similarly, French President François Hollande arrived in Washington on Tuesday in order to seek support for a grand coalition with Russia to take IS down. These talks are starting as the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle is moving into the eastern Mediterranean, bringing French jets in range to hit IS, and the French military is opening new communication channels with their Russian counterparts. Unfortunately, this incident, one that Russian President Vladimir Putin has likened to being stabbed in the back, is going to make an already ambitious diplomatic feat all but impossible.

In the end, and true to the ongoing madness that is Syria, it’s going to be very difficult to dig down, over the next few months, to what actually happened and when. Did Russian jets habitually buzz Turkish airspace on their way back from bombing missions? Was the airspace incursion deliberate or accidental? Why did one pilot turn away and the other stay on course?

Similarly, even as facts are established, the sheer density of coincidences and timing make the immediate consequences completely unpredictable. Politicians who subscribe to the idea that one should “never let a crisis go to waste” will be scrambling to establish competing narratives.

So far, there are few winners in this. The pilot or maybe pilots who find themselves in the hands of Turkey-aligned rebels, rather than of the Islamic State — who immolated the last pilot it captured — are probably having the best worst day of their lives. Or at least better than those guys in the Russian helicopter that got shot down on its way to rescue the downed pilots.

From – https://news.vice.com/article/why-the-hell-did-turkey-shoot-down-a-russian-fighter-jet?utm_source=vicenewsfb

A Russia expert explains how Putin will likely respond to his downed plane

On Tuesday, Turkey shot down a Russian warplane that it says had crossed into its airspace from Syria. Though Russia denies it had violated Turkish airspace, Turkey has been complaining of such Russian violations ever since Russia began its military intervention in Syria this September.

To understand why Russia might do this and how Moscow might respond to this incident, I called Mark Galeotti, a professor at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs who focuses on Russia. He suggested that Russia could have been poking at NATO, as it has in the past, but also discussed some much deeper, and more important, issues in the Russia-Turkey relationship and Russia’s military adventure in Syria. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Zack Beauchamp: Why would Russia fly into Turkey’s airspace in the first place?

Mark Galeotti: There are a few possible reasons.

First is pilot error. They were operating near the border and so strayed over by mistake. It’s unlikely, given modern avionics, but nonetheless we can’t completely exclude the possibility.

The second thing is that this could, since Turkey is a NATO state, have been Russia just trying to flex its political-diplomatic muscles. Wanting to make the point that they can do this with impunity — which, of course, they have done in NATO’s northern reaches.

The third possibility is that this was just a brief foray into Turkish airspace, and the bomber pilot was just setting up an attack run. And given that the Turks are actively supporting some pretty toxic rebel groups, it could have been that the target was just inside Turkish borders. That’s the problem when you have a target-rich environment on both sides of the borderline.

It’s [also] worth noting that we heard that one of the two pilots was gunned down by rebels while parachuting down, which means that it’s possible that it was in Syria. Nonetheless, the fact that the Russians are operating so close to the Turkish border in any case does say something about a certain arrogance and a certain brinksmanship.

Zack Beauchamp: Speaking of brinksmanship: Immediately after the attack, Putin threatened “serious consequences” for the Turks after the plane went down. How seriously should we take his threat?

Mark Galeotti: These days it’s very hard to predict Putin. But I suspect Moscow is not keen to start yet another diplomatic war, let alone anything more than that. They’re stuck in a quagmire in Ukraine. There’s a very dangerous commitment to Syria. They have a whole series of international sanctions on them.

What we’re likely to see is some kind of symbolic act: maybe banning Turkish airliners from landing in Russian airports, some kind of economic sanctions, words with the Turkish ambassador, that kind of thing. [Ed. note: after this conversation, the Russian Ministry of Defense suspended military-to-military communications with its Turkish counterparts.]

At the same time, they’ll hope for there being even the faintest signs of contrition from Ankara, which would allow Putin to tell the Russian people that “the Turks messed up, the Turks have acknowledged that, we move on.”

Zack Beauchamp: So what is the Russian public reaction to this going to be?

Mark Galeotti: The first indications are that there’s a definite surge of public anger. They only know what the Kremlin is going to tell them, which is that this was a Turkish attack on a Russian plane over Syria while it was trying to bomb terrorist targets. All Putin’s rhetoric about being stabbed in the back will have resonance, particularly because Russians — even more so than many other people — are very conscious of their history.

Russia has a long pre-Soviet history of rivalry with the Turkish Ottoman Empire, and a sense that the Turks are not to be trusted, rooted in crude cultural stereotypes. But one has to realize that it’s not as though they’re demanding war: They can, to a large extent, be modulated and if need be distracted through the state controlled media. I don’t think this is, in any meaningful sense, a constraint on the Kremlin.

“TURKEY HAS — AT BEST — BEEN A FRENEMY TO MOSCOW”

In Russia, the whole Syrian adventure has been played as “strike the terrorists in Syria before we have to fight them in Russia.” It’s been sold as an operation that’s tremendously successful. You could argue with how effective the airstrikes are — let’s be honest, the best the Russian airstrikes can do is slightly slow the rate at which Assad is losing the war; they won’t turn the tide. But that’s not how it’s being sold in Moscow. Finally, it’s been sold as a safe operation: no large ground troop commitments, the Russians are doing everything at arm’s length away from danger.

One plane being shot down — and by another country, not the rebels — is not going to change that last element. But it really does point to the fact that if the Russians do start taking losses, losses they can’t paper over with their propaganda machine, then there are risks that this will quite quickly become less popular.

Zack Beauchamp: That point you made about historical animosity between Russia and Turkey is interesting, and brings up a bigger issue: how do you see the Russian-Turkish relationship today more generally? Will this incident change anything?

Mark Galeotti: We saw, at one point, something of a connection forming between Turkey’s [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and Russia’s Putin. Both of them were leaders in the strongman roles.

But to be perfectly honest, Turkey has — at best — been a frenemy to Moscow. Under Erdogan, Turkey has embarked on a campaign to assert itself as a regional power. To essentially acquire a sphere of influence, and in the process it is inevitably challenging and competing with Moscow.

“PUTIN IS MUCH MORE CONCERNED WITH THAT POLITICAL DIMENSION THAN THE MILITARY ONE”

This predates Syria. I remember when I was in Azerbaijan, there were a whole variety of actors competing there, very clearly including Turkey. Turkey was making quite a push [to the chagrin of] the Russians. There’s actually a long history of rivalry in the modern era; the Russians have clearly infringed on Turkish sovereignty, including the assassination of Chechen rebel fundraisers on Turkish soil by what were almost certainly Russian intelligence officers.

Relations are unlikely to change, then, because they’ve always been quite tense and antagonistic.

Zack Beauchamp: Another thing you said I’d like to pick up on: The more Russia takes casualties, the more of a burden the Syria war will become for Putin. If that’s the case, then is this incident going to make Putin less assertive in using military force in Syria?

Mark Galeotti: It depends very much on the scale. If we’re talking about a slow-drip feed — a soldier killed by a sniper here, a plane shot down there — it’s a lot more manageable. On the other hand, I’m thinking back to when Ronald Reagan was forced to call back the US Marines from Lebanon after the major truck bombing in the barracks [in 1982]. A single, cataclysmic loss of life made this much more of a story.

But let’s be honest. Moscow is not looking for an open-ended, much less an expanded, military effort in Syria. The purpose of the air attacks is, more than anything else, to place Moscow within the decision-making cycle about what happens in Syria. What the Russians are actually looking for is to be some part of a political settlement.

Now, a political settlement would actually see Assad go — the Russians are probably the only people who can get Assad out of Damascus peaceably and offer him sanctuary in Russia. It would also include the creation of some kind of political settlement, including the rebels and the Alawite elite. That’s the only way you’re going to get enough combatants on the ground in Syria to actually take on the Islamic State.

Putin is much more concerned with that political dimension than the military one — he wants to be moving on that political dimension as soon as possible. And thanks to the Paris attacks, it looked like the momentum was actually going his way. This shoot-down could stymie efforts at reaching a West-Russia deal, or it could make it more urgent. We really don’t know at this stage.

From – http://www.vox.com/2015/11/24/9794816/turkey-russia-plane-galeotti

Obama Should Have Given Weapons to Ukraine, Says Former Pentagon Russia Official

Evelyn Farkas, who stepped down last week as the Pentagon’s top policy official for Russia and Ukraine, says the U.S. should open a military base in Eastern Europe to send a message to Vladimir Putin.

The Obama administration should send Ukraine antitank weapons to fend off Russian-backed separatists in the eastern region of the country, a recently departed top Pentagon official said.

Evelyn Farkas, who stepped down Friday as deputy assistant secretary for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, said she advocated for sending these lethal weapons to Ukraine while at the Pentagon.

“I happen to personally fall into the camp that believes we should provide lethal defensive assistance to Ukraine, primarily antitank weapons,” she said at a Defense Writers Group breakfast Wednesday.

Ukraine has been pleading with the U.S. and its NATO allies for lethal weapons and other types of equipment for its military. The U.S. has promised to send small, unarmed drones, humvees and other basic equipment, but Ukraine has wanted more substantial gear.

“We need further military assistance, namely modern anti-tank systems, reconnaissance and combat unmanned aerial vehicles,” Army Gen. Viktor Muzhenko, chief of the general staff of Ukrainian Armed Forces, told Defense One in an email through a spokesman this week. “Another crucial area is electronic warfare and modern anti-aircraft systems.”

Muzhenko said Ukraine’s military is “sufficiently equipped and trained to adequately react to challenges that threaten Ukraine’s territorial integrity.”

Farkas said the White House decision to not send these types of weapons to Ukraine did not factor in her decision to leave. She complemented the Obama administration’s efforts to send Ukraine $266 million of “real assistance” through equipment and training, which “has improved” Kiev’s military forces.

“My departure has nothing to do with the ongoing work,” she said. “It’s a good time personally for me to leave and I feel that we actually have achieved a lot over the last three years.”

The U.S. should also consider basing troops in Eastern Europe, Farkas said, a move that Poland has called for on numerous occasions since Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

“We could examine whether we need to adjust our force posture to put more forces in further east,” Farkas said. “I think we should consider that.”

Instead, NATO has opted to preposition military equipment in Poland.

Farkas also argues money for the European Reassurance Initiative, which funds training and temporary military deployments to the continent, should be put in the Pentagon’s base budget. That would signal more of a permanence to allies in Europe, she said. The project is funded through the Pentagon’s war budget. So far, Congress has approved nearly $1 billion for the effort.

“The [European Reassurance Initiative] itself has to be tailored a bit so that it is more effectively focusing on deterrence and not so heavy on the presence,” Farkas said.

Applauding Secretary of State John Kerry’s current trip through Central Asia, Farkas also argues that top U.S. officials need to pay more attention to countries that feel threatened by Russia, including not just Ukraine, but Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

“The countries around the periphery of Russia, they need our political attention; they also need our economic assistance and then they need our military assistance,” she said. “All of that attention and all of that very real assistance will deter Russia.”

Russia and the Curse of Geography

Want to understand why Putin does what he does? Look at a map.

Vladimir Putin says he is a religious man, a great supporter of the Russian Orthodox Church. If so, he may well go to bed each night, say his prayers, and ask God: “Why didn’t you put mountains in eastern Ukraine?”

If God had built mountains in eastern Ukraine, then the great expanse of flatland that is the European Plain would not have been such inviting territory for the invaders who have attacked Russia from there repeatedly through history. As things stand, Putin, like Russian leaders before him, likely feels he has no choice but to at least try to control the flatlands to Russia’s west. So it is with landscapes around the world—their physical features imprison political leaders, constraining their choices and room for maneuver. These rules of geography are especially clear in Russia, where power is hard to defend, and where for centuries leaders have compensated by pushing outward.

Western leaders seem to have difficulty deciphering Putin’s motives, especially when it comes to his actions in Ukraine and Syria; Russia’s current leader has been described in terms that evoke Winston Churchill’s famous 1939 observation that Russia “is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside of an enigma.” But it’s helpful to look at Putin’s military interventions abroad in the context of Russian leaders’ longstanding attempts to deal with geography. What if Putin’s motives aren’t so mysterious after all? What if you can read them clearly on a map?

For Russia, the world’s largest country by landmass, which bestrides Europe and Asia and encompasses forests, lakes, rivers, frozen steppes, and mountains, the problems come by land as well as by sea. In the past 500 years, Russia has been invaded several times from the west. The Poles came across the European Plain in 1605, followed by the Swedes under Charles XII in 1707, the French under Napoleon in 1812, and the Germans—twice, in both world wars, in 1914 and 1941. In Poland, the plain is only 300 miles wide—from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Carpathian Mountains in the south—but after that point it stretches to a width of about 2,000 miles near the Russian border, and from there, it offers a flat route straight to Moscow. Thus Russia’s repeated attempts to occupy Poland throughout history; the country represents a relatively narrow corridor into which Russia could drive its armed forces to block an enemy advance toward its own border, which, being wider, is much harder to defend.

The European Plain

On the other hand, Russia’s vastness has also protected it; by the time an army approaches Moscow, it already has unsustainably long supply lines, which become increasingly difficult to protect as they extend across Russian territory. Napoleon made this mistake in 1812, and Hitler repeated it in 1941.

Just as strategically important—and just as significant to the calculations of Russia’s leaders throughout history—has been the country’s historical lack of its own warm-water port with direct access to the oceans. Many of the country’s ports on the Arctic freeze for several months each year. Vladivostok, the largest Russian port on the Pacific Ocean, is enclosed by the Sea of Japan, which is dominated by the Japanese. This does not just halt the flow of trade into and out of Russia; it prevents the Russian fleet from operating as a global power, as it does not have year-round access to the world’s most important sea-lanes.

Russia as a concept dates back to the ninth century and a loose federation of East Slavic tribes known as Kievan Rus, which was based in Kiev and other towns along the Dnieper River, in what is now Ukraine. The Mongols, expanding their empire, continually attacked the region from the south and east, eventually overrunning it in the 13th century. The fledgling Russia then relocated northeast in and around the city of Moscow. This early Russia, known as the Grand Principality of Moscow, was indefensible. There were no mountains, no deserts, and few rivers.

Enter Ivan the Terrible, the first tsar. He put into practice the concept of attack as defense—consolidating one’s position at home and then moving outward. Russia had begun a moderate expansion under Ivan’s grandfather, but Ivan accelerated it after he came to power in the 16th century. He extended his territory east to the Ural Mountains, south to the Caspian Sea, and north toward the Arctic Circle. Russia gained access to the Caspian, and later the Black Sea, thus taking advantage of the Caucasus Mountains as a partial barrier between itself and the Mongols. Ivan built a military base in Chechnya to deter any would-be attacker, be they the Mongol Golden Horde, the Ottoman Empire, or the Persians.

Now the Russians had a partial buffer zone and a hinterland—somewhere to fall back to in the case of invasion. No one was going to attack them in force from the Arctic Sea, nor fight their way over the Urals to get to them. Their land was becoming what’s now known as Russia, and to invade it from the south or southeast you would have to have a huge army and a very long supply line, and you would have to fight your way past defensive positions.

In the 18th century, Russia, under Peter the Great—who founded the Russian Empire in 1721—and then Empress Catherine the Great, expanded the empire westward, occupying Ukraine and reaching the Carpathian Mountains. It took over most of what we now know as Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—from which it could defend against attacks from the Baltic Sea. Now there was a huge ring around Moscow; starting at the Arctic, it came down through the Baltic region, across Ukraine, to the Carpathians, the Black Sea, the Caucasus, and the Caspian, swinging back around to the Urals, which stretched up to the Arctic Circle.

At the end of World War II in 1945, the Russians occupied territory conquered from Germany in Central and Eastern Europe, some of which then became part of the U.S.S.R., as it began to resemble the old Russian Empire writ large. This time, though, it wasn’t the Mongols at the gates; after 1949, it was NATO. The fall of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 caused Russian territory to shrink again, with its European borders ending at Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, even while NATO crept steadily closer as it incorporated more countries in Eastern Europe.

Russia’s Changing Borders

Two of Russia’s chief preoccupations—its vulnerability on land and its lack of access to warm-water ports—came together in Ukraine in 2014. As long as a pro-Russian government held sway in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, Russia could be confident that its buffer zone would remain intact and guard the European Plain. Even a neutral Ukraine, which would promise not to join the European Union or NATO and would uphold the lease Russia had on the warm-water port at Sevastopol in Crimea, would be acceptable. But when protests in Ukraine brought down the pro-Russia government of Viktor Yanukovych and a new, more pro-Western government came to power, Putin had a choice. He could have respected the territorial integrity of Ukraine, or he could have done what Russian leaders have done for centuries with the bad geographic cards they were dealt. He chose his own kind of attack as defense, annexing Crimea to ensure Russia’s access to its only proper warm-water port, and moving to prevent NATO from creeping even closer to Russia’s border.

The Ukraine Buffer

The same geographic preoccupations are visible now in Russia’s intervention in Syria on behalf of Putin’s ally, Bashar al-Assad. The Russians have a naval base in the port city of Tartus on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. If Assad falls, Syria’s new rulers may kick them out. Putin clearly believes the risk of confronting NATO members in another geographic sphere is worth it.

Russia has not finished with Ukraine yet, nor Syria. From the Grand Principality of Moscow, through Peter the Great, Stalin, and now Putin, each Russian leader has been confronted by the same problems. It doesn’t matter if the ideology of those in control is czarist, communist, or crony capitalist—the ports still freeze, and the European Plain is still flat.

Poster Girl for the New Ukraine?

Mikheil Saakashvili has rarely been out of the headlines since his appointment as Odesa Governor in mid-2015. The crusading Georgian reformer has made it his mission to transform the Odesa region into a model for the new Ukraine and a laboratory for the changes that will allow the country to transition from the post-Soviet to the European development track. He has employed all manner of eye-catching tactics to draw attention to his reformist drive, but none has raised more eyebrows than the appointment of untested 26-year-old Yulia Marushevska as the new head of the Odesa Port Customs Service.

Unveiled as the city’s new customs chief in mid-October, Ms. Marushevska had previously spent some months on the Saakashvili team as Deputy Head of the Odesa Regional Administration. Her appointment as customs chief met with a considerable amount of disbelieve, sparking lively debate over her suitability for the role. Inevitably, Ms. Marushevska’s lack of experience in the field of customs clearance has been a key focus of this debate, as has her relatively tender age. Some have accused Odesa’s Georgian Governor of seeking to use her as a front to gain direct personal control of the port customs service. Others have called the appointment a PR stunt that owes more to Ms. Marushevska’s photogenic appearance and English-language skills than her credentials to take on the task of cleaning up what many believe is Europe’s most corrupt port.

Such criticisms run the risk of significantly underestimating Yulia Marushevska and the strength of her personal ambition. Originally from southern Ukraine, Ms. Marushevska was educated at Kyiv National University and at America’s Stanford University before shooting to overnight prominence during Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution as the star of a viral protest video entitled ‘I am a Ukrainian’. This simple but powerful video featured Ms. Marushevska speaking to the camera from the front lines of the Euromaidan protest movement in downtown Kyiv and explaining, in disarmingly simple terms, what the protestors were hoping to achieve.

The video proved a massive online hit, attracting millions of views and widespread praise from around the world, while also earning the backhanded compliment of a Russian smear campaign that branded it the work of the US State Department. Ms. Marushevska has since explained that she was motivated to make the video by a sense of frustration at the widespread ignorance about Ukraine among international audiences, and the failure of many outside the country to understand what was driving the Euromaidan protests.

Following the success of her ‘I am a Ukrainian’ video, Ms. Marushevska found herself very much in demand and began making public appearances across the world as a representative of the ‘new Ukraine’. She proved herself to be a media savvy and engaging spokesperson capable of articulating the complex issues at stake in the Euromaidan Revolution and the aspirations underpinning visions of a ‘new Ukraine.’

Ms. Marushevska’s obvious poise and confidence in front of the cameras led many to predict a future political career, but there was nevertheless a sense of shock when Governor Saakashvili appointed her as one of his Odesa deputies in summer 2015. This surprise was perhaps misplaced – Mr. Saakashvili himself became a Georgian MP while still in his 20s, and was once Europe’s youngest elected head of state. He is someone who believes in giving young talent a chance to blossom, having achieved impressive results in his native Georgia by replacing older members of the political establishment with young and untried but untainted reformers. In this sense, Ms. Marushevska is a typical Saakashvili pick: a young and highly educated political novice complete with brimming self-confidence, English-language skills and Western mindset.

Governor Saakashvili has defended the appointment of Ms. Marushevska as Odesa Port Customs Service chief by calling her lack of experience ‘an advantage’. He has the support of President Poroshenko, who has praised Ms. Marushevska as a ‘talented woman’ with ‘very good organizational skills’. Crucially, this south Ukrainian native has no connections to the corruption that has long been the defining feature of Odesa Port, and will be able to approach her task as a relative outsider who enjoys the advantages of local knowledge.

She takes over at Odesa Port as the city prepares to introduce new digitalized customs procedures designed to speed up the customs clearance process while cutting out corruption. If these new measures are successful, Ms. Marushevska will benefit from considerable kudos, while her many detractors will be temporarily silenced. However, if implementation of the new customs system does not go smoothly, she may find herself singled out as a target by opponents of Governor Saakashvili’s entire reformist agenda. Business Ukraine magazine spoke to Ms. Marushevska about her meteoric rise to prominence, and asked whether she felt intimidated or inspired by all the criticism surrounding her appointment.

Your appointment has been greeted with a degree of disbelief due to your young age and lack of relevant experience in the customs service. What is your response to these criticisms?

People with experience made Ukraine the poorest country in the region. Under professional people with plenty of experience, Odesa regional customs became the worst, most corrupt in Europe. In my new position, I am essentially a crisis manager. My job is not to process the cargo coming into the port, but to implement reforms, to change practices and motivate people. CEOs of large corporations often do not know how to manufacture their company’s products, but they know how to motivate people. Governor Saakashvili sees me as someone who can do that. I had an interesting and thorough immersion in this process while working in the regional administration as Deputy Governor. This is a continuation of that work in a different, somewhat more focused, application.

Odesa Port is widely seen as one of the most corrupt in Europe. What are your priorities as you seek to combat this deeply entrenched corruption?

I intend to change procedures and push for changes in legislation, since corruption in the port is systemic in nature. The existing corruption in the system has not developed by accident. It is a direct result of the system itself. I want to simplify the procedures and make them transparent. I aim to create new customs procedures and practices that make clear how the new system is working. Customs must be a comfortable, predictable and easily understood service for business, not a barrier to business. This changeover will include reducing the size of our operation, creating new customs zones and making the customs service overall more efficient.

Odesa Port has the potential to become a major point of entry for Asian goods entering European markets. How do you plan to support this process?

By simplifying the customs process, we will create the necessary steps and proper strategies to attract greater Asian and European trade to Odesa Port. My task is to create an even playing field for all who wish to utilise our customs system. It is important that customs become transparent and predictable according to clear and equal rules for every market participant.

You have spoken about engaging the support of the international community in your Odesa Port reform efforts. Can you shed a little more light on these plans?

We intend to implement the very best world practices, to engage professional Ukrainian and International expertise, and to modify these best practices to meet with contemporary Ukrainian necessities and realities. At present, we are cooperating with USAID. They support us in the technical area and are helping to provide training for customs service personnel. I will work to attract and engage more international support.

Odesa Port is regarded by many as a symbol of the widespread alliances in today’s Ukraine between organised crime and corrupt state structures. In your new role at the port you will be entering into direct confrontation with these powerful forces. Are you concerned for your personal safety?

I am aware of the risks but this is a critical aspect of the broader Ukrainian reform drive and the job must be done. I took on this job in order to implement the necessary reforms and I understand that no quantity of bodyguards will stop determined criminals. This is why I am focusing on doing my job. Many courageous people on the front lines in east Ukraine are risking their lives and sacrificing much more than I am in Odesa. My battlefield is reforms.

Many commentators have argued that the only hope for reform in Ukraine is to completely replace existing personnel at a wide range of state services. How big an overhaul do you envisage at the Odesa Port Customs Service?

First of all, I must emphasize that reforms are not only about changing or replacing people. If regular customs officers have salaries of just UAH 1300 per month, they will be very susceptible to corruption. Unless these circumstances change, it really does not matter who you replace them with. Soon enough, you will probably find that the new officer is corrupt as well. The procedures must be simplified and automated to minimise the possibility of corruption. Of course, if there is direct evidence of corruption, the person involved will be fired. We share the philosophy of zero tolerance towards corruption. The rules have changed and if someone cannot abide by the new standards then that is considered grounds for dismissal.

Your rise to national prominence in Ukraine has been extremely rapid. Did you have any reservations about joining Governor Saakashvili’s team in such a senior position?

No, I didn’t have any doubts because I saw Governor Saakashvili and his team as a group of people that really want to change the country. That is the most important thing for me. The fact that he now believes I can do the Odesa Customs Service job is a great honour for me. I will do my best to live up to these expectations. I am proud to accept this challenge and to serve my country.

You have become a symbol of the new generation of young Ukrainians seeking to build what would essentially be a new country. How do you cope with the weight of expectation that this status brings?

It encourages me and brings me great hope. It challenges me to work harder so that the new generation of Ukrainians will succeed. I think the situation we are facing now is actually an amazing opportunity for all of us. While other countries were established a long time ago, we are in a great position in that we can model our country as we want.