Since the question of where Ukraine is headed has far-reaching implications for security in Europe, and for relations between Russia and the United States, it is imperative to take a systematic, realistic look at the possible scenarios.
Birth of a Nation
The biggest item on the plus side of the ledger is the formation of a Ukrainian national identity. Despite war and consistently crooked politics, Ukraine is surprisingly well on track toward becoming a nation-state. The loss of Crimea and the separatist-held parts of Donbas has even been helpful, as it removed large numbers of the Russian-speaking population. But the real driver was Russian aggression as such and Ukraine’s resistance to it. Both have fanned national sentiments and fostered emotional bonds with the independent Ukrainian state.
This marks an important break with the Russian imperial tradition, which has blocked any move toward nationhood in Russia itself. It also gives the lie to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s classic quip to President George W. Bush, uttered at the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest: “You have to understand, George, that Ukraine is not a state.”
Ukraine’s ongoing consolidation has been a huge setback to the Kremlin. This process has been accompanied by the inculcation of a common set of beliefs – that Ukraine forms a natural part of Europe, that the country should aspire to membership in the European Union and NATO, and that society should mobilize to resist the armed insurgency in the east.
Young men and women responded to recruiting calls. The formation of a new National Guard, in particular, caught the Kremlin off guard. Kiev’s “anti-terror operation” in 2014 came very close to snuffing out the insurrection, and it was this early success that forced a Russian intervention.
The armed forces of Ukraine are now far from capable of staging an offensive to reestablish government control over the separatist-held areas. Such a move would lead to an overwhelming Russian intervention, and perhaps even to a full-scale war – one in which the Kremlin would relish pointing at Kiev as the aggressor.
But following more than two years of recruitment and training, Ukraine is sufficiently strong to ensure that a renewed Russian military offensive, going beyond the daily grind of shelling along the line of confrontation, would encounter very serious opposition. It would in consequence require Moscow to commit forces so large that plausible denial of its involvement would no longer be possible.
Put simply, Ukrainians have decided that fighting for the freedom and sovereignty of their country is a worthwhile cause. In so doing, they have scuttled the Kremlin’s early hopes that the “fascist junta” in Kiev would be swept away by civil war and state collapse. Instead, Russia is trapped in a war of attrition, where combat teams from regular units across the federation must be sent on illegal tours to Ukraine, suffering casualties that must also be kept secret.
The main weakness in this positive story of national consolidation is that it pertains mainly to the central and western parts of Ukraine. The southeast, the home territory of former President Viktor Yanukovych and the heartland of his Party of Regions, remains far less homogenous. This reflects the distinct mentality of the borderlands between Russia and Ukraine, where differences in historical memories have helped shape different forms of self-identification.
The Kremlin was badly disappointed in its early vision of creating a “Novorossiya” in the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine. But that does not mean these contested regions have evolved a Ukrainian identity. The prospects of Ukraine eventually reintegrating the separatist-held areas must be regarded as poor.
At this stage, both sides believe that simply freezing the conflict is preferable to resolving it. Ukrainian politicians win by fueling national mobilization against Russia; some even have serious business interests that thrive on war and instability. Meanwhile, the cost to Russia of supporting the self-proclaimed “people’s republics” is bearable, probably less than $1 billion per year, much less than the cost of sustaining Chechnya.
The Kremlin has also been proven wrong in its prediction that forces of the far right would rebel against Ukraine’s government, thereby triggering state collapse. While Russian propaganda has maintained a steady drumbeat about the “fascist junta,” and about widespread Ukrainian support for nationalist heroes of the far right, that propaganda rings increasingly hollow.
A case in point is Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist and Nazi collaborator whose followers participated in the killing of many Jews and Poles. In January 2010, President Viktor Yushchenko decided to award him the highest state honor of “Hero of Ukraine.”
The weak point in this otherwise hopeful account is that if the moment is right, and the legitimate government is discredited, even a small group of highly motivated extremists may achieve dramatic results. One needs only recall what the Bolsheviks did in 1917.
Change from Below
The trigger could be serious economic deterioration. Fortunately, there is plenty of good news to suggest that this is not in the cards. Early fears of a sovereign default have been laid to rest. The National Bank of Ukraine performed impressively in its struggle to stabilize the currency, which in 2014-2015 was in free fall. It has also succeeded in bringing under control once-rampant inflation, which slowed from a peak of 60 percent in 2015 to 12.4 percent at the end of last year.
Economic growth has returned, and structural reforms are being pursued. The government, under tough pressure from the International Monetary Fund and the EU, at last took serious steps toward fighting corruption, creating an Anticorruption Bureau and requiring civil servants to declare their wealth. A cleanup of the banking system has started, including the nationalization of oligarch Igor Kolomoisky’s notorious Privatbank, and the energy sector is undergoing a much-needed overhaul.
Meanwhile, a vibrant civil society is emerging. The Ukrainian case helps confirm a key lesson derived from the Russian experience of failed reforms: sustainable change cannot be decreed from above. It must spring up from below, and that is precisely what has happened in Ukraine.
For all the rampant corruption and abuses of power at the top, initiatives from the grassroots have helped compensate for areas of state dysfunction. Volunteers have made large contributions, both in raising money to support soldiers at the front and in helping take care of internally displaced persons. Civic initiatives also counterbalance otherwise unbridled corruption, and they thrive in a climate of relatively free media.
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