A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Max BaderAssistant professor of Russian and Eurasian studies at the University of Leiden
There are many reasons to believe Ukraine can turn the corner if one sets realistic expectations. A sober look at the reform process since the 2014 revolution reveals that many pieces of much-needed legislation have been passed. A crucial issue is how the reforms are implemented by the state at different administrative levels. Ukraine will continue to need international engagement, including funding, to help turn the reforms into successes.
Much of the almost proverbial Ukraine fatigue is driven by a steady stream of corruption scandals. While each episode is troubling, the widespread attention on these scandals shows just how low the tolerance for corruption now is. Rather than declaring reform in Ukraine a sham or a failure with each scandal, observers need realistic expectations: even if anticorruption policies are broadly successful, the level of corruption a decade from now will not be lower than that of Bulgaria or Romania.
The one big known unknown in Ukraine’s drive for reforms is whether and to what degree Russia will continue to seek to derail the process. In the face of Russian intransigence, Ukraine deserves its share of international solidarity.
Carl BildtFormer foreign minister of Sweden
In key respects, Ukraine has already turned the corner. Now it’s a question of whether the country can stay the course.
In 2014, there were two great questions: whether the country could stand up to Russia’s sustained destabilization efforts; and whether Ukraine was ready for major macroeconomic stabilization and attempts to cut subsidies, primarily in the energy sector. In neither respect was the answer obvious.
Now it is clear that the answer was positive in both cases. Cutting away energy subsidies that amounted to approximately 7 percent of GDP—a turbocharger for the mother of all corruptions—wasn’t easy but has been done and has so far been sustained, in spite of populist siren songs.
Much remains to be done. Ukraine will have to maintain its reform efforts for years. Having turned the corner, the country now has to keep on track.
Thomas de WaalSenior associate at Carnegie Europe
It is unrealistic to expect a radical breakthrough in Ukraine. There will be many corners and many false dawns.
In Kyiv last week, I observed what might be called two endurance contests.
One is between Russia and Ukraine. The peace process in Ukraine’s southeast is fragile. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko cannot or will not deliver on the political decentralization package that Ukraine agreed to in Minsk in February 2015, chiefly because the Ukrainian parliament, the Rada, simply will not accept it. The Russians seem reluctant to deliver on their security commitments because that means giving up their leverage to destabilize Ukraine. So each side is trying to outlast the other, hoping they can do just enough to see Western sanctions on Moscow either lifted or maintained.
The other endurance contest is a three-way battle on the domestic front between Western-backed reformers suffering from low morale, the old elite hoping to wear everyone down through a war of attrition, and a population that is in no mood for revolutionary change but whose patience with Ukraine’s ruling class will surely expire again someday.
Perhaps the best observers can hope for in Ukraine is what one might call a Trojan horse effect: the ruling elite agrees to incremental reforms for the sake of financial stability, and those reforms slowly alter the system from within.
Samuel GreeneDirector of the Russia Institute at King’s College London
The tasks facing Ukraine’s government, economy, and society are gargantuan—nothing less than the radical transformation of how the entire system of political and economic power functions—and there will be many more than one corner to be turned. The recent experiences of Hungary and Poland show that even when you think progress has been consolidated, backsliding is hard to rule out.
It is difficult to expect any progress at all, however, when the entire political process is overshadowed by the constant threat of war. The unpredictability of the conflict in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, coupled with the indefensible demand that Kyiv surrender sovereignty over its constitution to regain control of its territory, amounts to a tax on any and all political and economic gains in Ukraine, which Moscow can (and regularly does) impose at a time and rate of its own choosing.
At present, then, the corner needs to be turned not by Kyiv but by Ukraine’s well-wishers in Europe and North America. They could relieve this untenable tax by admitting that the Minsk process aimed at ending the war is a dead end and by making normalization of relations with Russia contingent on a real, workable settlement that fully respects Ukraine’s right to manage its own affairs. That would not guarantee progress, but it would at least make it possible.
Balazs JarabikNonresident scholar in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program
Yes, Ukraine can turn the corner—if Ukrainians are willing to change. Despite talk of oligarchs, the country’s (lack of) reforms, or Russian aggression, change has come and will continue to come from the Ukrainian people. Ukrainians have shown unexpected resistance in the past—just think of the 2013–2014 protests on Kyiv’s Independence Square, or Maidan, or the response to Russian aggression. Despite the war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region and the country’s economic hardship, there is a cultural revival in Kyiv.
However, the majority of society is becoming more conservative, and the mood is still gloomy. Many Ukrainians expect no change, show a high level of tolerance toward corruption, and have little appetite for action. Economic and social hardship has been leading to disillusionment in the post-2014 government, while there is no credible political alternative. Radicalization of the population is hardening, not opening, hearts and minds.
Ukraine is romantic: ideas matter most. Change requires a focus on practice, though. The West should help by finally adopting a long-term strategy addressing Ukraine’s current needs and challenges. The EU should note the article by Volodymyr Horbulin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s national security adviser, about what could be called Ukraine’s unilateral strategy. It boils down to the country keeping a firm Western orientation but finding its own solutions. Focusing on the middle class, job creation, economic development, and modernization may bring a fresh start. There is no need to dream about a Marshall Plan for Ukraine, but there is an urgency to develop a local strategy.
Svitlana KobzarHead of the Department of International Affairs and academic director for European peace and security studies at Vesalius College, Vrije Universiteit Brussel
Yes, Ukraine can turn the corner. But reforming a country takes time, political will, and the perseverance of everyone involved.
The challenges are daunting, not least because corruption is an important factor deeply entangled in Ukraine’s domestic politics and a defining feature of its relationship with Russia. The gap between the needs of the Ukrainian people and the deeds of the elites continues to feed into the country’s unsustainable governance model. Corruption has also become an important foreign and security issue that reaches deep into the internal fabric of the EU’s member states.
The scars from the war in eastern Ukraine and the conflict’s uncertain future add another layer of complications to reforming Ukraine. Balancing the needs of deterring Russia while pursuing state and peace building simultaneously with democratization requires serious commitment.
Despite all of this, many positive changes have been taking place since Ukraine’s 2014 Revolution of Dignity. Regular people of different walks of life have become a part of the collective agency of change. Now, long-term commitment is needed in those areas that are crucial for success and require greater effort. Increasing support to Ukraine in developing and harnessing the power of its human capital can go a long way. The EU needs to consider much more ambitious investment in education, greater engagement with the youth, and increased people-to-people contacts.
Taking a long view and making a truly strategic commitment to involve Ukrainians in the European project can help the country turn the corner.
Anna KorbutDeputy chief editor at The Ukrainian Week
As long as a determined counterweight to Ukraine’s elite remains resilient, the country can turn the corner.
Ukraine’s most immediate and difficult challenge is the fact that those in power are instrumentalizing it in ways similar to those of their predecessors, even if they are more sensitive to public pressure and criticism. Ukraine’s leaders are trying to balance between taking steps that benefit the country and its voters, on the one hand, and preserving crucial controls over the state and ways to offer benefits to their circles of loyal friends, on the other.
As a result, the prime minister appointed a healthcare minister who solved some of Ukraine’s most pressing issues in the health sector within two months in office. At the same time, journalists revealed the administrative leverage of a candidate loyal to the president’s party, the protection of friendly business interests, and the resistance to change in entities tasked with ensuring the rule of law, the most basic ingredient to success in transformations.
This leads to the rise of corrupt populists, an erosion of trust, and frustration among Ukraine’s foreign partners. However, it also leads to a number of positive effects. One is the space and demand for new forces. Such forces are emerging and could bring in a badly needed new political culture in Ukraine. But without access to oligarch-controlled mainstream media, they need huge efforts to become visible to voters.
John LoughAssociate fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House
Yes. Although the pace of reform has inevitably slowed, conditions are still in place that should keep Ukraine on a reformist path. Russia’s goal of neutering Ukrainian independence continues to force Ukrainians to come together and bring the country closer to the EU. An already capable civil society is continuing to develop and gain in strength. This provides hope that a new generation of leaders less tainted by the past will come to power in the next five to ten years and provide improved standards of leadership. Western support that was vitally important in 2014–2015 for stabilizing Ukraine is still in place and is set to continue, albeit at lower levels.
As far as Russia is concerned, Ukraine will probably have a window of opportunity over the next five to ten years. Russian elites will be preoccupied with growing economic problems and the challenge of political succession. During this time, transition in Central Asia is also likely to take up Moscow’s attention, making Ukraine less of an immediate priority. However, the danger for Ukraine is that a populist backlash against economic austerity leads to a new configuration of political forces that postpones reforms and loses the support of Ukraine’s Western partners.
Bruno MaçãesNonresident associate at Carnegie Europe
The question remains whether Ukraine can create an open, liberal, modern society while large numbers of Russian troops are stationed on Ukrainian territory and war keeps raging in the country’s east. Every week for two years, there have been fatal casualties. The war effort also continues to prevent a strong economic recovery and poisons almost every political issue. Russia regularly uses the threat of an intensification of the war to push forward the question of a special status for Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, an approach that would be very destructive for the unity of the regime.
In sum, Ukraine can turn the corner but probably not before the international community moves beyond the Minsk agreements aimed at ending the war and starts working on a real solution to the conflict. Patience is and will be necessary.
Andrew MichtaProfessor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies
Ukraine can still turn the corner to safeguard the fundamentals of its sovereignty, but the odds against it continue to grow. This is a formidable task, for in addition to continued Russian aggression, the persistent weakness of the Ukrainian state remains key. Corruption is a fundamental problem that Kyiv must address—and there, the jury is out. Still, on the positive side, there is a younger generation of Ukrainians coming into its own, determined to jettison the old ways of doing business.
Russian President Vladimir Putin remains determined to undermine the Kyiv government and turn Ukraine into a vassal as the centerpiece of his project to create a sphere of privileged interest along Russia’s periphery. Since its March 2014 annexation of Crimea, Moscow has played its weak hand well, but Putin’s relative success has also been a function of the West’s inability to respond with sufficient resolve to his geostrategic assertiveness, not only along NATO’s Eastern flank, but also in the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere.
In Ukraine, the key to whether Moscow succeeds or fails in its project also depends on Ukrainians themselves: whether they can create the requisite conditions for a functioning state. Ultimately, whether Ukraine can resist Russia’s political and military pressure is dependent on the Ukrainian state’s ability to strengthen its domestic institutions.
The views expressed above are the author’s alone.
Christopher MillerUkraine correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Kyiv
Maybe. But Ukraine seems on the brink of squandering yet another revolution and opportunity to move away from Russia’s orbit once and for all.
Nearly three years after the start of the Euromaidan uprising, the values and hopes for which Ukrainians spilled blood on Kyiv’s Independence Square are yet to be fully realized. Members of the country’s political old guard who are resistant to such drastic but necessary progress still hold power. Among them is Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, an oligarch who has continued to profit while the country is at war and broke his promise to sell off his business assets after taking office. On his watch, reforms—especially crucial anticorruption efforts—have been slow, superficial, or minimal at best. His appointments of cronies to key positions have only helped consolidate his power and impede what little momentum remains from the revolution.
But it’s not all Ukraine’s fault. The country is in conflict on multiple fronts with Russia, a formidable opponent. And Kyiv’s Western allies haven’t done enough to help. Sanctions against Russia and its proxies in Ukraine as punishment for the March 2014 annexation of Crimea and the military intervention in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region should have come sooner and been harsher. And the military and other aid the West provided has been largely inadequate.
Still, it’s up to Kyiv to decide whether it wants to see the mistakes made after the 2004 Orange Revolution repeated. Ukraine must act now or risks falling back into Moscow’s shadow.
Amanda PaulSenior policy analyst at the European Policy Center
Ukraine remains a deeply flawed country, but it can turn the corner if it musters sufficient political will to seriously push ahead with crucial political and economic reforms and if it takes further steps to crack down on rampant corruption. Establishing a functional justice system and breaking the grip of Ukraine’s notorious oligarchs on the country’s economy, politics, and other areas, once and for all, are prerequisites for this change.
While this may seem like a huge mountain to climb, there are reasons to be optimistic. Despite facing several setbacks and unprecedented challenges—including weak institutions, a lack of political unity, ongoing Russian aggression, and more than two decades of misrule and corrupt governance—since 2014 Ukraine has shown impressive resilience and is moving in the right direction. In fact, the country has made more progress in the last two years in terms of economic and political reforms than in the two preceding decades.
Building a strong, democratic, and prosperous state will be a triumph not only for the Ukrainian people but also for the EU, which should continue to offer Ukraine the necessary political and economic support on this difficult journey.
Fabrice PothierSenior associate and director of the Ukraine project at Rasmussen Global and nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council
In a way, Ukraine has already turned a corner. The country still faces many more important corners ahead. But in 2014 when Ukrainian people took the streets and later voted a new government into power, they made a clear choice to anchor Ukraine in Europe.
Since then, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and his government have pushed through more reforms of Ukraine’s institutions and economy than in the preceding twenty-three years since independence. The gas market—one of the biggest sources of corruption—has been restructured and the country’s dependence on Russian gas reduced from almost 92 percent in 2014 to less than 37 percent today, based on figures provided by Ukraine’s National Reforms Council. The banking sector has been cleansed of its many zombie banks. Major anticorruption institutions have been created, and one of the world’s most comprehensive declaration systems has been launched, obliging more than 300,000 Ukrainian public servants to declare their assets or face prosecution.
Now more than ever, the devil is in the implementation of reforms. It is critical for the president to show that reforms can deliver real benefits to the majority of Ukrainians. This will help defeat the loud populist voices in Ukraine that attack every reform measure but propose little more than a return to the status quo ante. Here the international community can help, especially the EU. By granting Ukrainians visa-free access to EU countries this fall, the union would give Kyiv tangible and popular proof that Ukraine has turned the corner, and that there is no way back.
Gwendolyn SasseNonresident associate at Carnegie Europe
Ukraine has so many corners to navigate that its reform path resembles an obstacle course rather than one neat turn. There is no single step that could ensure that the country implements pending reforms or convinces Western supporters of the reform commitment of the political leadership. The discussion about a possible Russian veto of the next tranche of International Monetary Fund backing for Ukraine highlights the country’s continuing dependence on external support; a decentralization bill and wider constitutional reforms are stuck in a parliament without a strong governing majority; the implementation of judicial reforms is at best edging forward; and the prospects of delivering on the Minsk agreement to end the war in the eastern Donbas region are bleak.
Ukraine is being pulled in two increasingly incompatible directions: fighting a protracted war that commands the state’s material and immaterial resources and frames every other aspect of Ukrainian politics; and pursuing domestic structural reforms that require the unwavering commitment of the governing elites for whom they are a political risk. The war is now frequently invoked as a justification for the lagging implementation of reforms. Breaking this pattern is the next corner of many that Ukraine will have to turn to keep its reforms on track and maintain legitimacy vis-à-vis the West.
Tetiana ShevchukEducational programs coordinator at Transparency International Ukraine
Ukraine can turn the corner. Moreover, it is on its way. But change will happen only if observers accept the reality and are not discouraged by the everyday struggle that requires hard work to build a country its citizens want to live in.
Two years after the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, more and more Ukrainians (and others) are starting to question if the goals of the revolution will ever truly take hold. The hopes and aspirations for a better country are giving way to disappointment and disillusion. Skepticism about Ukraine’s ability to change is growing.
But critics are responsible for their own unrealistic expectations. The revolution was not the end but only the very beginning of the long process of state building. It was never realistic to think that the oligarchs who for decades lived comfortably and possessed all the country’s assets would simply disappear thanks only to the will of the people.
A country as large as Ukraine, living for decades under corruption as its modus operandi, cannot produce tangible results of improvement in just two years. The mentality of 40 million people who for centuries relied on paternalism and patronage does not simply transform into a progressive, proactive, and responsible outlook in twenty-four months.
If observers really expected all that to have happened by now, it shows only how deeply they underestimated Ukraine’s challenge.
Ulrich SpeckIndependent foreign policy analyst
Ukraine after the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution is different from Ukraine after the 2004 Orange Revolution. This time, real reform is taking place. Yes, much too slow; and yes, much too little. But the doomsayers have been proved wrong.
Unlike after the Orange Revolution, civil society has not retreated from politics since 2014; instead, it has become a forceful driver of reform. Russia’s attack on Ukraine’s east has contributed to the momentum by uniting the nation and turning reform into a patriotic project.
At the same time, Western support has helped create the political space for reform by pushing back against Russian aggression and by helping Ukraine through the International Monetary Fund and all kinds of assistance.
The achievements remain fragile, and the situation in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region is far from settled. Ukraine remains vulnerable. A clear perspective leading the country into the EU would do a great deal to secure the gains and weaken the destructive forces.
Andreas UmlandSenior research fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv
I am cautiously optimistic about Ukraine’s ability to turn the corner in the medium term, given the substantively new constellation of domestic politics in the country after the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution.
To be sure, for the last two years, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has been trying to reinvent Ukraine’s patrimonial system under the novel conditions of Ukraine’s official European integration, Western orientation, and continuing democratization. He and his colleagues from the political and economic elites of pre-Euromaidan Ukraine are undertaking a range of attempts to fake the fight against corruption and undermine the officially liberal-democratic system via informal mechanisms such clan structures, nepotistic appointments, and oligarchic subversion.
Yet, Ukrainian civil society and various Western actors play a much larger role in Ukraine’s public life now than before Euromaidan, and they are coordinating their assault on Ukraine’s post-Soviet system. Sooner or later, they will prevail.
What is much more worrisome is that Ukraine’s coming resurgence could be also its curse. As the West remains timid in terms of both applying sanctions against Russia and supporting Ukraine’s military, Moscow will remain free to use its agents, proxies, and troops on Ukrainian territory and along the Russian-Ukrainian border to destabilize Ukraine. If the current situation of fragility and insecurity along the border continues, eastern Ukraine will become more unstable. This could then provide a suitable background for more Kremlin meddling of the sort seen in 2014.
Pierre VimontSenior associate at Carnegie Europe
There is little hope that a major political or diplomatic breakthrough will happen soon in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The Minsk agreements aimed at ending the fighting there will not deliver any meaningful result in the near future as Russia has shown no intention to move and it is hard to foresee any significant leverage that could make Moscow change its mind.
Faced with this reality, Ukraine can be offered two pieces of advice. First, it must be patient and admit that the situation on the ground is here to stay. This sober assessment should define a less emotional and more realistic attitude toward everything Russian. Kyiv should resume discussions with Russia on all current dividing issues—trade agreements, gas deliveries, and reimbursements of previous loans—with a strong determination to find balanced but effective solutions.
Second, the Ukrainian government must concentrate its efforts for the time being on modernizing its economy and governance. That means implementing the indispensable reforms the country desperately needs: fighting corruption, building a strong state administration, pushing back the whole oligarchic system, and freeing the country’s economic potential that is waiting to be unleashed.
This is an immense challenge. But Ukraine’s economic transformation remains the most effective response to Russian interference, as it would improve the living conditions of the population, attract foreign investment, and, more significantly, build up the image of a successful and attractive Ukraine.
Olena VynogradovaLegal analyst at the charitable fund Right to Protection
Ukraine has failed to ensure at least one of the steps it must take to obtain its desired EU financial assistance. So in this particular case, Ukraine will not turn the corner.
On April 15, 2016, the European Parliament and the Council of the EU decided to provide €1.8 billion ($2.0 billion) of macrofinancial assistance to Ukraine. According to this decision, a second tranche will be granted in accordance with Ukraine’s implementation of a number of reforms, including ensuring the effective provision of social benefits and services to internally displaced persons (IDPs) through adequate legislation and funding.
But contrary to its obligations in the first half of 2016, Ukraine adopted a number of amendments to the legislation on IDPs that include discriminatory provisions in contradiction to international human rights law and Ukraine’s constitution. This was confirmed in a recent interview given by the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of IDPs, Chaloka Beyani, whose second visit to Ukraine ended on September 9.