Double Take: Two writers. Two views. One issue.
A More Secure Ukraine
Ukraine is facing a host of political and economic challenges, but it is far from the country it was two years ago. The most significant change that has taken place since February 2014 is the transformation of Ukraine’s geopolitical position. Ukraine has long been vulnerable geographically, but Russia’s levers in the country have eroded greatly.
How has the Kremlin started losing its grip? For one thing, the Kremlin has traditionally used energy to maintain influence in and over Ukraine. Ukraine depended heavily on natural gas imports from Russia, and the Kremlin has, at various times, used cutoffs as a warning to Ukrainian decision-makers, and offered discounts as an incentive for cooperation from Kyiv. However, as Ukraine’s Prime Minister, Arseny Yatsenyuk, proudly announced on Feb. 16, Ukraine did not buy any natural gas from Russia this winter. The country did purchase some supplies from Russian energy giant Gazprom in October and November, but met the rest of domestic demand by drawing on imports from Europe and underground reserves. Ukrainians are heating their homes during winter and supplying their factories without being highly dependent on Russia, thus limiting the Kremlin’s ability to pressure Ukraine.
The second change that contributed to the erosion of the Kremlin’s influence in Ukraine was a shift in Ukrainian public opinion. The annexation of Crimea, as well as fighting in the east, has made some Ukrainians who previously held more neutral or pro-Russian views wary of their eastern neighbor. In particular, military service meant that young men from across Ukraine, as well as their families and friends, were directly impacted by the fighting. At the same time, the annexation of Crimea and fighting in Donbas changed the composition of the Ukrainian electorate. These are regions that have traditionally voted for relatively pro-Russian parties, and, in a twist through which Russia seemingly failed to think, their absence from formal Ukrainian political life weakens Russia’s hand in Ukraine.
Russia’s actions in Ukraine also prompted the U.S. to create a stronger deterrent to further Russian aggression in the region and to invest in a more prosperous and stable Ukraine. The Russian threat has led the U.S. and NATO to increase their military presence along NATO’s eastern edge, in the Baltic states, and in Central Europe. Russia is undergoing its own economic crisis , and Western governments—motivated to prevent Moscow from regaining a foothold in Ukraine— are willing to assist the country with funding, provided that Kyiv maintains its commitment to reforms.
Ukraine is a flat country with no geographic barriers to protect it from Russia, but the country’s geopolitical position has shifted significantly as traditionally powerful Russian political and economic levers weakened. Ukraine’s energy diversification, changes in the country’s domestic political scene, and the West’s commitment to the region’s defense and economic stability are the most significant transformations of the past two years. Ukraine may be in the same place on a map, but it is not where it was this time two years ago.
Lili Bayer is a senior analyst at Geopolitical Futures.
This Revolution Could End Like the Last
Independent Ukraine’s second revolution— here: Maidan Two— began at the end of 2013, triggered by a foreign policy reversal: Many Ukrainians expected an agreement with the European Union, but then President Viktor Yanukovych’s government suddenly opted for closer ties to Russia. Given Yanukovych’s solid record of corruption and abuse, this move was seen as opportunistic. More importantly, the EU seemed to represent the last hope for reform and to offer a way out of the cronyism, social injustice, and shameful elite failure that have marred post-Soviet Ukraine – and not only under Yanukovych. Rising up, Ukrainians may have been over-optimistic about the EU and the West; they were realistic, however, about their own country, its sorry state, and urgent needs.
Independent Ukraine’s first revolution in 2004/5– usually known as the “Orange” Revolution; here: Maidan One— had no special EU perspective. But it was, in essence about the same issues: saving Ukraine from both Russian influence and its own elites. That revolution, almost forgotten now, succeeded only in order to fail, squandered in a repulsive display of egotism by some of the same politicians running Ukraine again now and by a frustrated 2010 electorate ready to make Yanukovych, the perfectly unrepentant election-stealer of 2004, President, this time legally.
Ukraine’s crucial test now is not if things are better than under Yanukovych. Frankly, what would there be to even talk about if they weren’t? Ukraine’s test now is if things are better than after Maidan One, between 2005 and 2010, when it wasted its first post-revolutionary chance. And because the fundamental issues at stake now are what they were then, the fact that Ukraine has concluded its EU agreement as well as secured unprecedented Western political and financial support is important but secondary, as is the matter of Russia. To be clear: Russia is an aggressor and has broken treaties, international law, and basic ethical rules. But, in the long term, Ukraine’s ability to withstand Russian pressure is not a question of war, including the conveniently overrated ‘information warfare,’ but of the home front: the crucial and hard test for Ukraine is, once again, domestic reform. What has changed in this regard?
Ukraine is having reasonably clean elections again, at least for now. Its media is as free and problem-ridden as before Yanukovych, i.e. an essential if imperfect pluralism has been regained; its civil society has asserted itself. But fetishizing civil society is an old mistake of Ukraine’s intellectuals and well-meaning international supporters. Its civil society is brave and attractive; its representatives have much media savvy (traditional and social) and good English, to the delight of fleeting Western pundits in search of where to celebrate regime change next.
Ukraine’s vital problem, however, is the state. It’s there that Maidan One was stymied and it’s there that Maidan Two could be buried as well. Here, the signs are bad: Oligarch-President’s Poroshenko’s refusal to let go of his business and media power (despite clear words from the OECD on the latter); the failure of the reform of the judicial system (despite clear words from the American ambassador); the recent resignation-with-a-bang of the reformist-outsider Minister of the Economy; the ongoing influence of oligarchs, including Yanukovych’s former key backer Rinat Akhmetov at the very top of the government; essentially unchanging and abysmal ratings by Transparency International – these are mere symptoms of the deep culture of illegitimate business influence, corruption, and sheer cynicism that has not yet been changed.
What now? An optimistic scenario: Ukraine has never been as dependent on the West as now for security and money, i.e. for its dear life. If the conflict with its own rebels and Russia freezes, then Ukraine’s Western backers may seize the opportunity to put massive pressure on Ukraine’s elite to reform or step aside. First signals in this spirit have already been sent. President Poroshenko is fond of lecturing on the evils of Russian propaganda. He should be told firmly now that his rule is the issue that the West wants to hear about from him.
A pessimistic scenario: Here is something obvious that has changed – Maidan One was largely non-violent; Maidan Two and the regime and then rebel and Russian response, not. By now Ukraine also has a well-developed and battle-hardened ultra-right scene. It is not running the country, but it is not irrelevant. If Kyiv’s elites fail again, a third Maidan may be the wrong place for western intellectuals to hobnob altogether.
Tarik Cyril Amar is a professor of Soviet, Russian, Ukrainian, and Cold War History at Columbia University.