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.
Of course not, Ukraine is not a lost cause. Ukraine is in a democratic transition, and transitions take time.
A look at other democratic transitions shows that all of them have lots of difficulties, especially in the early years. In Indonesia, the years after the fall of the dictator Suharto in 1998 were extremely difficult. East Timor gained independence in 2002 after a referendum and violence that killed more than 1,000 people. The next Indonesian president had to resign after losing a confidence vote, and his successor was accused of corruption and impeached two years later. But despite its difficult start, Indonesia is now a stable democracy.
There are so many examples of countries that needed ten to twenty years in their transition from dictatorship to stable democracy. Countries like Romania or Bulgaria are still having difficulties despite the fact that they are member states of the European Union. Other countries, like Hungary and Poland, are regressing from liberal democracy.
Saying Ukraine is a lost cause after only two years of transition would be highly unfair. Instead, Europe should step up its efforts to support Ukraine on its long path to liberal democracy.
Never say die. But the year 2016 is crucial for Ukraine. The major battle is no longer with Russia, which seems to have lost its appetite for a prolonged conflict with Ukraine. Now, the battle is a domestic one about reform of Ukraine’s old, undefeated oligarchic system.
The theatrical-political show played out in the parliament, the Rada, on February 16, illustrated the scale of the problem. At one moment, under Western pressure, members of parliament voted for a resolution declaring the work of the government “unsatisfactory.” A few minutes later, the same parliamentarians—many of them associated with the old oligarchs—voted to keep Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk in his job. The evident conclusion is that Yatsenyuk is a key member of the old system and that removing him would be dangerous for the survival of that system.
Two years after dozens of Ukrainians died in central Kiev during antigovernment protests, some incremental reforms have been made in Ukraine—in the police force, on public procurement, and on decentralization. But there have been no high-profile prosecutions, and most of the old guard is still there.
Both Ukraine’s public and its Western partners are losing patience with this state of affairs. If there is no change soon, some of them may indeed declare the country a lost cause.
There are no lost causes, only abandoned ones. Similarly, there are no unreformable systems, only unreformed ones.
Ukraine stumbles not because it is inherently corrupt or backward but because reform is hard. Ukraine’s Western friends are asking people who have no power and very little money to create an entirely new system of political and economic governance—against the interests of a powerful and rich elite and a very large neighbor—while simultaneously trying to feed their families and fight a war. If reform is to succeed, Ukrainians will need leverage, a fulcrum by means of which they might multiply the force they can exert on their rulers. Europe can help, but stern finger wagging won’t cut it.
In the past one hundred or so years, only two foreign policy tools have brought about lasting institutional change in Europe. One is military defeat and occupation. The other is a clear (if long) path to EU membership, coupled with real conditionality and free and fair elections. That, of course, comes with a very real cost. The cost of abandoning the cause, however, will be another generation of hardship and turmoil.
Ukraine is a lost cause only if looked at through the lens of unrealistic Western expectations. Under pressure from the winners of the 2013–2014 Maidan revolution and due to Russian aggression, the West largely accepted Ukraine’s broad postrevolution coalition of oligarchs, civil society, and far-right groups. The West wanted to believe that this new Ukraine would deliver far-reaching reforms. Given that the oligarchs formed the best-organized structures, Ukraine naturally returned to its old format.
The West is honest neither with Ukraine nor with itself. Currently, the EU is incapable of providing a realistic integration path for Ukraine. While the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area between Ukraine and the EU was touted as a panacea, the country lacks an economic trajectory that would trigger modernization. As the West has neither the necessary resources nor the political will to fully embrace Ukraine, the country will be kept financially afloat at best.
Nevertheless, Ukraine is moving forward with reforms, but at a slow pace. The so far limited results in reducing the power of the oligarchs and in implementing the Minsk agreements to alleviate the war in eastern Ukraine show the country can resist Western intentions. If the West is serious about reforms, it should put less emphasis on people and more focus on institutions and be ready for the long haul.
Nor should the West let Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk monopolize the European agenda. Instead of big promises, the West should focus and insist on realistic next steps. Otherwise, the West will end up with a Ukraine that is anti-Russian but fragile, fragmented, and frustrated.
If a conflict is lost once it is forgotten, Ukraine is not yet a lost cause. Productive developments like the European Union’s support for a visa-free travel regime for Ukraine and the Ukrainian finance ministry’s constructive austerity efforts are evidence of real progress, but perhaps not enough to make up for the rampant corruption in Kiev.
A lack of more promising change has added to sentiments of Ukraine fatigue in the EU and United States, where lawmakers are preoccupied with domestic battles and the war in Syria. With the EU scrambling to avoid a British exit from the union and find a solution to the migrant crisis, and the United States in the midst of election-year gridlock, the Kremlin may see an opening to quietly bolster separatist forces in Ukraine’s eastern regions.
Two years after former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych fled the country, hostilities have once again picked up on the front line with rebel-held territory, undercutting the Minsk agreements. Ukraine will only be lost if this time the world fails to notice.
Considering the plethora of recent corruption scandals emanating from Kyiv, the unabated threat from Russia, and weaknesses in the West, one conclusion could be that Ukraine is indeed a lost cause—meaning that it has failed to reform and is drifting in its poorly governed state toward Russia’s sphere of influence.
However, such a conclusion is false for three reasons. First, a longer look at Ukraine’s history of attempts at reform shows a significant difference between the makeup of today’s Ukrainian political elites and that of their predecessors. While oligarchs still exert enormous control over Ukrainian decisionmaking, their power is more limited now than after the 2004–2005 Orange Revolution or during the 2010–2014 presidency of Viktor Yanukovych. Changes in civil society and the presence of reform-oriented change agents, while still in the minority, in all key branches of the government mean that the pressure for reform is now much greater than before.
Second, the legacy of the 2013–2014 Maidan revolution signified that many ordinary people were not just relying on the government to bring about reforms but also took some responsibility for making them happen. The war has triggered a deeper reflection on Ukraine’s civic national identity.
Third, the EU and the United States have become more attentive to Ukraine and more mature in their assessment of Russia.
These factors can help Ukraine avoid becoming a lost cause, but they should not be taken for granted as they can change for the worse. Besides the need for a strong domestic political will, international pressure to eradicate corruption will remain crucial for the success of the country. But support needs to be coupled with some flexibility, nuanced conditionality, indefatigability, and a razor-sharp focus on details on the ground.
On February 16, the Ukrainian parliament, or Rada, voted on anticorruption laws tied to the liberalization of EU visa rules for Ukraine. In the process, the laws were hastily amended to have virtually no anticorruption effect. After two days of outcry from civil society activists, European diplomats, and the media, the Rada passed the original, effective versions of the legislation—though the parliament has yet to create an effective online asset declaration system.
In mid-February, the Ukrainian Anti-Corruption Action Center launched a website on the public procurement of medicines. Users can check which medicines have been procured under public tenders.
E-data, a new portal launched in connection with a law on the open use of public funds, allows users to track all transactions that state-owned companies make with public funds.
A travel blogger wrote a post about burdensome and corrupt procedures for foreigners seeking to obtain Ukrainian visas. He asked people to report visa-related incidents they had experienced. A day later, he received dozens of messages from citizens and foreign businesses about visa problems and bureaucracy. He was also invited to the Ukrainian foreign ministry to discuss options to tackle these issues.
These changes are not visible in Western press headlines. Nor are they the irreversible transformations that the international community expects to see in Ukraine and that Ukrainians themselves are pushing for. However, they prove that Ukraine is not a lost cause to Ukrainians. Instead, a challenging and frustrating yet motivating struggle continues.
Ukraine is not a cause. Ukraine is a country. It is a country with incurably reckless elites, a declining economy, and fragile state institutions. Simultaneously, it is a country with a vibrant civil society and thriving political pluralism, and a nation that identifies its future as European.
The two sides of Ukraine—like the banks of the Dnieper—are inseparable. Two previous revolutions in 1991 and 2004 did not shake the country’s equilibrium. This lasting balance resulted in a strange sociopolitical dystopia: whatever impulse unsettled Ukraine, its effect was soon extinguished, and immovability endured. Development seemed impossible.
Nonetheless, the 2013–2014 Euromaidan revolution and the war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region have profoundly altered the country’s sociopolitical ecology. There is no center anymore, and static equilibrium is no longer possible. Ukraine is doomed to either move on or be ruined.
The risk of a negative scenario for Ukraine is growing. After the war in the east was restrained in September 2015, the next biggest challenge was the elites’ behavior. Events in February 2016 showed this challenge to be as damaging as the fall of Ilovaisk.
Yet the positive alternative is still stronger. There is a growing critical mass of people and groups forcing the elites to limit their egoism and deliver what they promised. The wise support of Western powers for these healthy groups is now critical for Ukraine’s development as a free European polity. Europe’s doubts about Ukraine, however reasonable they may seem, will only help the negative scenario come true.
Ukraine is not a lost cause, despite appearances. Today Ukraine’s leadership has little to be proud of. Two years since President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk took up the reins of power in 2014, they have failed to fix the broken system from which they have profited for years.
Ukraine remains locked in crisis. Beyond the ongoing conflict in the country’s eastern Donbas region, reforms are stalled, corruption remains endemic, and institutions are deadlocked, with disagreements between the political allies of Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk frequently making serious work impossible. Personal ambitions, hunger for power, and resources continue to trump commitments to deliver on promises to Ukrainian society. A failure to seriously tackle the legacy of corrupt governance and crack down on oligarchs has allowed them to continue to manipulate Ukraine’s political, economic, and legal systems.
Nevertheless, there is cause for optimism. Many people are still fighting for real change, determined and resolute in their commitment to fix Ukraine’s dysfunctional system. And failure to change not only represents a serious risk to Ukraine’s security, pushing the country toward the status of a failed state, but also—and more seriously—puts at risk Ukraine’s ability to continue to exist as an independent, sovereign nation.
It depends on what you think the cause is. If it is transforming Ukraine within two or three years into a squeaky-clean country with model governance, a prosperous economy, and a social security system like, say, Norway, then Ukraine probably is a lost cause. If the cause is helping the country negotiate the long and at times bumpy road leading to where it freely chose to go, it certainly isn’t. Sure, Ukrainian elites have learned to talk the talk, but when it comes to walking the walk, that walk is still largely remote-controlled by vested interests—and in Ukraine, money doesn’t just talk, it screams!
However, what has fundamentally changed is that in a country where until recently people didn’t even realize what it meant to be Ukrainian, what has set in—and, amazingly, persisted—is a sense of belonging and of being part of something bigger than the pursuit of self-interest and get-rich-quick schemes. This is particularly true among those who will be the country’s next generation of leaders. They—most of them bright, well educated, and ready to work hard—will secure Ukraine’s future and shake off the yoke of corruption. Their cause is Europe’s, and Europe stands by them. Slava Ukrayini!
In the day-to-day politics of Ukraine’s lively democracy and struggles over reform, it’s easy to get lost in the details, but in fact more change is happening now than at any time in Ukraine’s history. Since 2014, Ukraine has held successful presidential, parliamentary, and local elections. It has stuck to its IMF program of financial assistance. Cities across Ukraine have new, clean police that enjoy the public’s trust, as the remarkable demonstrations on February 21 to support the police in Kyiv showed. Ukraine has made progress on decentralization. Economic growth is returning, and a new free-trade zone with the European Union has opened new opportunities to leverage Ukraine’s untapped economic potential.
Ukrainians understand that more can and must be done, particularly in the area of corruption. But the progress of the last two years has shown that when Ukrainians stand together, no kleptocrat, oligarch, or foreign power can stop them. By continuing to press forward on building an inclusive, democratic government that truly serves the people, Ukraine’s leaders can still make good on the promise of the 2013–2014 Maidan revolution and show the world that there will be no return to the ways of the past.
There is a lot of fatigue about Ukraine. An uneasy stalemate—some diplomats call it a truce—rules the land, and more troubling issue are pressing on Europe and Russia. Oil prices are down, Syria is a huge challenge for Russian President Vladimir Putin, immigration still haunts the European Union, Islamist terrorism is spreading to Libya, and the media are mesmerized by Brexit and U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Corruption is ruining Ukraine, despite some efforts by President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to reign it in. Putin’s game is now wait and see: if Europe’s attention is distracted by domestic worries, the Kremlin may snatch another bite out of Ukraine or turn the screws on Kiev.
Yet there is a player both the Russians and the Europeans are underestimating. The U.S. defense establishment, both military and civilian, now considers Eastern Europe and Putin its number one strategic challenge. The Pentagon is redrawing plans to restrain and contain any future Russian deployment. Conversely, Russian military circles are talking again—bluntly and very likely as a propaganda tool, at least for now—about a nuclear first strike against the West should tensions escalate.
Ukraine should stop being “the same kleptocracy as it was before the people ousted the previous leaders” in the preaching words of Yegor Sobolev, head of Ukraine’s parliamentary committee on corruption. Untamed corruption in Ukraine could be the Trojan horse for more unrest and more Russian aggression. Yet the country seems to lack the moral energy to stem corruption, and Europe does not have the stamina or the political clout to enforce a purge against the rackets.
This is a terrible question that is far more indicative of the mind-set of those posing it in Brussels than of anything happening in Ukraine. It reflects the naive notion that after the 2013–2014 Maidan uprising, Ukraine would march straight toward democracy, prosperity, the rule of law, and integration into European structures. Equally naive was the notion that Russia would simply accept it, get out of the way, and leave Ukraine alone.
The disappointment that comes today as the country copes with a war in the east, huge economic losses, a political crisis, and an increasingly loud chorus of doubters abroad can be explained only by the ignorance of the disappointed about the scale and scope of Ukraine’s challenges. The country’s problems accumulated over the course of many, many years. They will take decades to overcome. There is no guarantee of success. If success comes, it will be along a nonlinear path, full of detours and setbacks.
The question implies a fatalistic attitude that Europe cannot afford. The consequences of a failed Ukrainian state would be more costly than efforts to rethink and step up targeted assistance aimed at strengthening democratic state structures.
The unresolved war in eastern Ukraine, a by-and-large stalled domestic reform process, a divided executive, a weak parliament, the lack of a functioning opposition, and a disenchanted public are the component parts of Ukraine’s current crisis. After he narrowly survived a parliamentary vote of confidence on February 16, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s relationship with President Petro Poroshenko became even more strained, and two parties left the governing coalition. If a new majority in the parliament cannot be formed, Ukraine will have to embark on another cycle of early elections that will be followed by even greater political divisions.
However, Ukraine’s vibrant civil society is at odds with these developments. The EU should aim to connect civil society more closely to the reform process, for example through a wider public debate about constitutional reforms. Such changes include the as yet incomplete separation of powers between the different branches of government and the pros and cons of decentralization with an elected tier of regional government for the whole country.
Moreover, as long as the parties to the Minsk process to end the war in the east continue to negotiate concrete steps such as more effective monitoring of the ceasefire and facilitating local elections in the eastern regions, it would be irresponsible for external actors to talk of a lost cause there too.
The belief that Ukraine is a lost cause is older than Ukraine’s existence as an independent state. In Russia, the axiom that Ukraine will never be able to stand alone has served as a principle and a warning for two hundred years. If Ukrainian statehood were a lost cause, the country would have collapsed in spring 2014. Instead, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s revanchist Novorossiya project collapsed.
But a second cause, Ukraine’s reform, is not winnable in timescales congenial to Ukraine’s Western backers. This is not because no real reform has taken place. It is because Ukraine’s culture of power has learned how to regenerate itself and obstruct systemic change.
The strength of Ukraine lies in its parallel civic state, not its legal state. The relationship between the two—part co-optation, part co-existence, and part war—is necessary for the country. In Ukraine, there is no contradiction between contempt for the country’s legal authorities and solidarity in the face of an external enemy.
The West should not confuse these issues either. Russia is fighting a war not against Ukrainian corruption but against Ukrainian independence and the legal order that underpins it. Those causes, which are of vital importance to Europe, are far from lost. They should not be held hostage to Ukraine’s internal progress.
Ukraine is not a cause but a country, and it will remain a large and important European country. Given that reality, the EU has a strong interest in a stable Ukraine. Stability requires an end to Russian attempts to destabilize Ukraine, and it requires the building of a liberal democracy.
The West is supporting Ukraine, using sanctions to help the country push back against ongoing Russian aggression and providing funds and assistance for Ukrainian reform efforts. But that may not be enough. The ancien régime, the old system, is still in place, while the new system emerges but remains weak.
What is needed is a game changer: a declaration at an EU summit that European leaders are willing to support Ukraine’s request for EU membership once it has successfully reformed. That could help the reformers in Ukraine gain a critical mass. It could be the signal for oligarchs in Ukraine, small and big, that serious change is under way and that they have to adapt themselves to the country’s transformation from shadowy to legal structures. And it could show investors that investing in Ukraine is safe.
Ukraine is certainly not a lost cause. In fact, recent political instability in the country may be a positive sign. The intrigue that derailed an anticipated vote of no confidence in Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk on February 16 resulted in a de facto breakdown of the ruling coalition. This indicates that both Yatsenyuk and President Petro Poroshenko are coming under increasing pressure from political and societal forces that support genuine reform.
Some of these forces, such as former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, are primarily looking for a way to raise their own political profile. But many, including the Self Reliance party as well as numerous members of parliament and second-tier officials, desire a government that will pursue effective reforms, including in sensitive areas such as the rule of law. Even if Yatsenyuk, tacitly supported by Poroshenko, manages to hold on to power for the next few months, there are strong signals that the current halfhearted approach to reforms will not be tolerated for much longer.
The EU needs to apply targeted and visible conditionality to support those Ukrainians in favor of sustainable change. At the same time, the EU should keep up the pressure on Russia not to further destabilize Ukraine. This will provide reform-oriented Ukrainians the breathing room they need to push through necessary changes in a very difficult and resistant domestic environment.
Many comments about Ukraine’s recent governmental crisis, which was triggered by the stepping down on February 3 of the economy minister, Aivaras Abromavičius, have been alarmist. But I see this rupture as a positive development. Abromavičius’s well-timed move and following events like scandalous voting in the parliament have sent encouraging shock waves through Ukraine’s political class. Such developments show that Ukraine’s social and political institutions are able to transmit popular interests to the top echelons of power. Over the coming months, I therefore predict a wave of deep reforms and further consolidation of the current transitional alliance of progressive bureaucrats, civil society, Western diaspora, and foreign donors.
To be sure, Ukraine is still a sick society heavily infected by corruption, nepotism, graft, and manipulation. Yet the country has also developed self-healing abilities that will, especially if supported by the West, secure a gradual cleansing and rationalization of Ukraine’s public administration in the next few years.
The main risk for Ukraine’s survival was and is Russia. Since 2014, the Kremlin’s foreign behavior has proved unpredictable as it has repeatedly contradicted core Russian national interests. Against this background, Ukraine needs more foreign support to secure its borders, sovereignty, and integrity. Otherwise, the West’s well-meant help to improve Ukraine’s system of governance and economic performance will remain useless.
The current political quagmire in Kyiv, stirred by the improbable fight against corruption, can give the impression that Ukraine is struggling unsuccessfully to put itself on the path of reform. Additionally, some actors in or outside Ukraine may be tempted to make the case that reform is failing. This would mean that the 2013–2014 Maidan revolution was an impossible dream and that the time is ripe to go back to business as usual, at least in the economic field. Such a conclusion would have strong geopolitical implications by giving new arguments to those who promote a reinvigorated rapprochement with Russia.
Is this sense of historical fatalism unavoidable? Far from it. Ukraine has already launched a courageous batch of reforms, and the country is home to resources and capacities that remain genuine assets. As for the West, particularly Europe, it has a special responsibility to provide trade arrangements, financial assistance, and expertise to help ensure a convincing reform success in Ukraine. Economic reform represents the one significant field in which Europe can act and needs to deliver if it wants to fulfill its proclaimed ambition of securing stability in Europe’s Eastern neighborhood.
What, then, is missing to prevent Ukraine from becoming a lost cause? As all too often in similar situations, what is needed is a steady political will based on a common understanding of what is at stake and some solid follow-up to ongoing legislative work. Not an impossible challenge, but one that requires consensus—in other words, strong mobilization around a national cause.
No. Ukraine remains a long-term opportunity to revive the vision of a Europe whole, free, and at peace and to bolster the liberal international order. Ukraine fatigue is a simplistic reaction to a complicated historical process that is in the fundamental interests of Europe and North America.
The situation in Ukraine today represents a defeat for the Kremlin. Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea and its invasion of parts of eastern Ukraine helped consolidate Ukrainians’ national identity and commitment to their state, while ensuring historically high support among Ukrainians for a European future. At the same time, the 2013–2014 Maidan revolution was an inspiring expression of civil society’s demands for a new Ukraine—and yet, the revolution produced nonrevolutionary leaders who were actors in the old Ukraine, although clearly committed to a European future for Ukraine.
Thus, today’s leaders must be seen as transitional figures who will help tip the balance away from Eurasian malaise toward a European perspective. Observers should expect that the leaders who eventually follow, without being moored to the habits of the past, will be in a position to more decisively move Ukraine toward Western Europe.
Given the stakes for Western interests, the West needs to continue to both prod and support Ukraine’s leaders today, while continuing to lay the groundwork for a decisive movement of Ukraine toward Europe in the coming decade. The failure of Ukraine—and the failure to implement the Minsk accords aimed at restoring Ukraine’s control over its own eastern border—would accelerate the unraveling of European security, marked by Russia’s manipulation of territorial conflicts to destabilize Eastern Europe for years to come.
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