Ukraine: Why and Whither?

QUERY | March 24, 2014     

Ukraine: What happened? Where's it going? What's to be done?The Ukrainian revolution was caused by gross policy incompetence at a time when Kiev needed heroic leadership. Ukraine’s moment may have passed. It will take even greater heroic leadership – and great luck – to stitch the country back together

In the Fall 2013 issue of GB, prior to the start of the Maidan protests in Kiev, I wrote the following: “Having enjoyed little more than a year of true self-government – in the event, between 1918 and 1919, under history professor-turned-president Mikhail Grushevsky – before its independence at the fall of the USSR, it is by no means manifest that Ukraine will or should continue to exist as a self-governing state in the decades to come. Its survival dance is exceedingly delicate. The Ukrainian state must still be stood up, and the country’s future must be secured. Whether this happens will depend to a great extent on the skill and luck of Kiev’s governing classes.”

I went on to argue: “As such, the relevant question or ‘frame’ for gauging the future of Ukraine is not democracy versus non-democracy – but rather pioneering competence versus the absence thereof. [...] Can Kiev project strategic-constitutional legitimacy across the entire territory of a state the coherence of which, in identity terms, is not yet affirmed, and the material well-being of which remains unimpressive and vulnerable? Or will the country [...] reduce to a strategic cripple, buffeted between larger powers and perhaps even seeking refuge with one of these (most likely Russia)?”

The demise of the government of Viktor Yanukovych was indeed the result of rank incompetence. It was patently not, as some overzealous or otherwise naïve Western commentators and practitioners would like to believe, a victory of Ukrainian democratic or popular will over a brutal dictatorship. This is a distorted frame that only succeeds in ascribing legitimacy to new authorities in Kiev who are largely representative of the same inept and corrupt governing class as that of the Yanukovych team (as I wrote, Yushchenko was even more inept, while Tymoshenko – a darling reborn – was arguably more corrupt), and partly representative of extreme nationalist forces in the country that are the very antithesis of the values at the heart of the European Union in particular, and Western civilization in general. Meanwhile, armed militias – led by Pravy Sektor, the highly organized, motivated and violent network at the sharp end of the uprising against Yanukovych – patrol Kiev and other cities in place of any legitimate police force, threatening and forcing at gunpoint officials affiliated – closely and loosely alike – with the deposed government to resign or flee. (The entire leadership team of the prestigious Higher School of Public Administration in Kiev – meant to develop the future public leaders of Ukraine, and one of the sole successful major reforms of the Yanukovych period – was forced at gunpoint to resign, in front of the students of the School. Half of this leadership team was appointed not by Yanukovych, but by Yushchenko.) In their frenzy, these militias are crippling and destroying the very national institutions – from ministries to universities – that Ukraine so desperately needs if it is to survive in any recognizable form as a self-governing state.

Commentators who have turned the Ukrainian revolution into a facile morality play in which Yanukovych is easily vilified as a regressive puppet of Russia and those who have deposed him as Western-oriented democrats or progressives misrepresent a revolution that is, on the ground, consuming its children. These commentators misunderstand the causes of the revolution and, as a painful result, fail to appreciate its consequences both for Ukraine and for its neighbours in Russia and the EU – and ultimately for other strategic theatres around the world. Poor analytics and a fervent attachment to simplistic narrative will lead these countries either to irrelevance in the resolution of the Ukrainian question or, worse still, improper calculation in respect of what is to be done for such resolution.

To repeat, the principal cause of the fall of the Yanukovych regime was policy and administrative incompetence. His regime was just as democratic (or non-democratic) as those of prior Ukrainian presidents in the post-Soviet era – only his incompetence came at a far more critical point in the historical arc of Ukraine’s improbable state-building project. As such, it is important to observe that Yanukovych’s government was, for the majority of its life, guiding Ukraine toward European integration: the school and university curricula across Ukraine reflected this, with European integration classes and full academic departments laying the intellectual and cultural groundwork; contacts and relationships with EU officials and leaders were close and regular, with many EU line programmes proliferating across Ukrainian territory; and, most importantly, there was very respectable policy and political space and light between Yanukovych’s team and that of Vladimir Putin – that is, the former was very consciously not aligning with the latter, even if this team recognized the critical nature of productive relations between Kiev with Moscow. (Ukrainian, not Russian, was the lingua franca of government under Yanukovych.) The initialling by Kiev of an association agreement with the EU was certainly part of this general vector or European pivot, as it were – even if, by this time, Yanukovych doubtless already knew that full signature of the agreement would be met with resistance from business interests in Ukraine and consequences from the Kremlin.

The central policy challenge for Yanukovych and his government over the three years since election was to found, build and consolidate the national institutions, material well-being, national psychology and single, unified conception of Ukraine that would allow this fragile state to pivot toward Europe without alienating Russia, and to prepare to resist the inevitable pressure – deliberate and inadvertent – that would be exerted from Moscow and indeed from within Ukraine as Kiev attempted to pry itself even partially from the general Russian gravity. In this central policy challenge, Yanukovych and his team failed abysmally – a failure caused by indecision, distraction, corruption and a signal incapacity to think systematically and strategically about Ukraine and its structure and interests. This failure was compounded by the erstwhile inability of the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko government – paralyzed by internal conflict and even greater ineptitude – to meaningfully move the yardsticks of Ukrainian state-building.

Yanukovych’s reversal on the EU association agreement at the eleventh hour was the move that collapsed a pyramid of almost a score of failed proposed reforms by his government – from pensions to the public service. These reforms did not succeed in creating a national Ukrainian bulwark – geopolitically, economically and psychologically – that would consolidate the Ukrainian state across its significant territory and across the internal divisions and contradictions among its citizens. However, the reforms did succeed in driving the expectations of many, if not most, Ukrainians to the effect that the country was moving inexorably toward Europe. Yanukovych’s volte-face on the European agreement flew in the face of the great expectations that he and his team had set, and led immediately to the mass protests on the Maidan – protests lubricated by a general and legitimate national frustration with the quality of life in Ukraine, and with the obviously poor and crooked character of the country’s political classes.

On top of the patent absence of adequate national preparation to meet the terms of the EU agreement, two factors would have obviously precipitated the volte-face – a volte-face that would have incensed even the properly patriotic members of Yanukovych’s own team: first, analysis from Ukraine’s bureaucracy to the effect that, in order to meet the stipulations and standards outlined in the EU agreement, the near- and medium-term cost to Ukraine would be in the dozens of billions of dollars (discounted net benefit aside) – a point driven home by Ukraine’s Russia-leaning oligarchs; and second, threatened sanctions and a large financial package from Moscow.

Between the costly requirements of the European pivot and the opportunity costs brutally imposed by the Kremlin, Kiev was ultimately unable to extract the rents that, were it playing its strategic game properly, should be Ukraine’s as it pivots promiscuously between Brussels and Moscow – with perhaps Beijing added for good measure – all for the advantage and benefit of the Ukrainian state and its people. But then again, it would have taken a heroically talented class of political leaders and pioneers to effectuate these promiscuous pivots between major powers in the extremely short window of world-historical time that was given to Ukraine to build and solidify a bona fide state where there never was one.

Even at 46 million, 24 oblasts (plus Crimea) and sizeable geography (larger than that of Germany), Ukraine is far less complex to govern, internally, than, say, a federation like Canada. Its constitutional structure is unitary, its population – far more than that of the Russian Federation – is ethnically largely homogeneous (albeit with religious differences), and the command-and-control ‘power vertical’ from the Presidential Administration (the cabinet office) down through to the governors of the oblasts is taut. The linguistic, religious and mentality differences that split the east and west of the country are far less profound than those that have historically divided the French- and English-speaking populations of Canada, not to mention Canada’s Aboriginal people. With a highly educated and cultured population, the essential ingredients were in place for talented leaders to steer the country and its citizens to prosperous, independent statehood.

Of course, as mentioned, the window of opportunity for Ukraine was small, and it may not return. States over the last two centuries have tended to last no longer than 60 years – after which they have tended to collapse or change constitutionally, through combinations of internal or external forces; that is, through constitutional or strategic upheaval. This means that statehood is never foreordained, and that its continuation is not inevitable; in other words, statecraft requires skill and, to be sure, luck. If Ukraine was to succeed beyond its two decades of post-Soviet statehood where it only enjoyed one or two years of statehood in all of its history, then the skill requirement would presumably supersede that of good fortune. And the standard of performance of Ukraine’s political elites was, on this score, inadequate.

In the vacuum created by political-constitutional collapse, Moscow has intervened militarily – likely in breach of international law – to secure its naval interests and broader symbolic attachment in Crimea. The intervention has two audiences: the first international, with the Kremlin signalling its fury at the prima facie unconstitutional ouster of the government of its most important neighbour within less than 24 hours of Western states and Ukraine’s opposition leaders having signed (and, in many cases, hailed) an agreement with Yanukovych to hold presidential elections in December of this year; and the second domestic, where President Putin plays to metaphors of Russian prestige and, to some extent, distracts the population from the systemic ills of Russia proper. This military intervention will, by design, apply significant pressure on Kiev and, most importantly, the eastern regions of Ukraine, where the large populations of major cities like Kharkov, Donetsk, Lugansk, Odessa and Dnipropetrovsk are in great part sceptical about, if not outright hostile to, the new authorities in Kiev. In the meantime, these authorities, of very dubious legality and limited technical talent, are struggling to assert some degree of constitutional-strategic legitimacy across the territory and population of the country – this in the absence of functional national institutions, and in the face of the said marauding militias who, hardened by the Maidan protests, have become an authority unto themselves. Note: These extreme militias will not be assimilated easily into mainstream Ukrainian institutions – even in the medium term. They may before long turn on the new authorities in Kiev. And, most importantly, they may have already ushered in a new era of political-constitutional relevance for extreme nationalist forces in Eastern and Central Europe – a relevance that may consolidate depending on the evolution of Russia’s military intervention into Ukraine.

What’s to be done? It is far from certain – indeed improbable – that Ukraine will be stitched back together in its erstwhile form. But a newly elected president and a heroic team could perhaps, with great luck and indulgence from Russia (and Western states, to a lesser extent), begin the long and arduous mission of restoring central government legitimacy over a country that may by then have new borders and a revised constitutional structure – including greater degrees of autonomy for a number of regions or oblasts. Russia will have a near-veto on the prospects for such legitimacy and the erection of sustainable, credible, whole-of-Ukraine institutions, but it will need to be sure that it does not engage in la surenchère parisienne – overreaching into Ukrainian territory and expending its military, economic and strategic resources in a way that ultimately compromises the always-precarious internal stability of the Russian Federation. Finally, the EU and North America will also have to continue to calibrate their interventions in Ukraine and the former Soviet space in a way that is perpetually mindful of the need to avoid direct military clashes with Russia and to return Moscow to a diplomatic and economic logic without, paradoxically, altogether destabilizing Russia internally – something that would surely be disastrous for the stability of the world entire. Finally, for a number of Western states – and in particular for Canada – there will have to be a sober realization that Russia is no longer to the east, as it were, but due north across the Arctic. Strategy in the Ukraine theatre cannot be delinked from critical interests in the far more important Arctic theatre, and the fiction of an interminable Pax Arctica that should guide the settlement of the numerous, complex claims and interests in this new theatre should finally be put to rest.

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Irvin Studin is Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Global Brief.

(Photograph: The Canadian Press / AP / Sergei Chuzakov)

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