Will ‘Chocolate King’ make it rain for Ukraine troops?

May 30, 2014 

WASHINGTON — As Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s newly elected president pledged that Ukraine would “not be turned into Somalia” and that he would put an end to the pro-Russian insurgency raging in the east of the country in mere “hours,” a far-fetched electoral promise surfaced online.

In a video from a campaign event, Poroshenko promises that he will raise the pay for Ukrainian soldiers participating in combat from $50 a month to an impressive $83 per day, Kyiv Post reported.

Assuming they get paid for the entire month, that would amount to a staggering 4,880 percent pay raise. He also promised to give each Ukrainian soldier an $83,000 health and life insurance policy. In comparison, the lowest basic pay for an active duty U.S. private amounts to about $50 a day, or $1,500 per month.

Providing for the army, Poroshenko says in the video, “will be task number one!” The guffawing crowd is skeptical, and someone asks “When will it happen?”

To that, the “Chocolate King” as the oligarch-turned-president-elect is known, answers animatedly pounding his fist in the air: “Write it down! May 26,” referring to the day after the presidential election. “Then, there will be no draftees, there will be only volunteers,” he says.

The crowd had every right to be skeptical. Ukraine’s economy is crippled by debt which may reach up to 50 percent of its GDP this year, according to the IMF, with $3.5 billion in Russian gas bills alone.

The army has been struggling with its finances so much that it had to turn to such innovative measures as an International Red Cross-style text message fundraising campaign. So unless Poroshenko, himself worth a billion dollars, reaches into his pocket and writes the army a check himself, his grand electoral promise may prove difficult to keep.

Of course, carrying out the promise may not be as important to Poroshenko as trying to raise the beleagured Ukrainian military’s morale by making the vow in the first place. Kiev’s armed forces have been locked in an increasingly bloody battle with pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east, and the military’s death toll has been steadily growing.

The fighting shows no signs of dying down: On Tuesday, the Ukrainian army took over the airport in the eastern city of Donetsk, killing at least 30 pro-Russian separatists.

Rebels in the city had declared Donetsk an “independent republic” after a sham referendum on May 11, Kiev has been trying to get it back ever since. And though the land and air assault was successful in taking back the airport, Ukraine’s Soviet-era fighter jets and helicopters could probably use some updating.

Now that the campaign is over, Mr. President, maybe it’s time to toss some money to the air force as well?

Hanna Kozlowska is a fellow at Foreign Policy.

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