Playing the Long Game in Ukraine

Europe and America must use a long-term strategy to reverse Russia’s moves in Ukraine. By helping Kiev to make a democratic Ukrainian state with a strong civil society, whose politics and economy contrasts favorably with life in any occupied Russian zone, the West will play to the soft power appeal of Europe over the local Russian military dominance. That will count for more over time. Since it is unlikely either Russia or NATO want a shooting war in Ukraine the “winner” of this contest will instead be the side which can fulfill the aspirations of Ukraine’s heterogeneous population the best.

Notions of national boundaries in Europe have become dangerously blurred since the end of the Cold War. Russia has co-opted Western humanitarian rhetoric to justify blatant interference in the internal affairs of its sovereign neighbor Ukraine. First with the vote of Crimea to secede, then a move by the Russian government to annex the peninsula to the Russian Federation, and finally Russian backing for separatist militants in eastern Ukraine, a bad trend has begun. To justify its annexation of Crimea and its rhetoric about “protecting the rights of Russian speakers” Moscow and its supporters have cited the case of Kosovo where, under the protection of occupying Western powers, the Albanian-majority province seceded (via a referendum) from Serbia. It is easy to see how this version of events suits the Kremlin’s Ukrainian playbook now that the tables have turned. Just as Russia was powerless then to protect its Serbian protégé, so the West is now hapless in reversing Russian actions in Ukraine without risking war with a nuclear power.

Russia’s argument ignores an important difference between the past and the present. In Ukraine the original February revolution was not about an ethnic majority repressing a minority. Nor was it a geopolitical competition between Europe and Russia as Moscow seems to think. At its core, Maidan was about fixing the broken Ukrainian political system so that Ukraine is no longer bankrupted by its oligarchs and politicians. Corruption is an issue which transcends the linguistic and ethnic divisions of Ukrainian society because, economically, Ukraine will continue to be a basket-case until it has an elected government held to account by credible institutions and a strong civil society.

It was the rottenness of Ukrainian institutions that allowed the Kremlin to manipulate Ukraine’s politics behind the scenes. The toppling of then-President Yanukovych gave it a fig leaf to intervene; but this in turn opens a door for the West. By helping Kiev to make a democratic Ukrainian state with a strong civil society, whose politics and economy contrasts favorably with life in any occupied Russian zone, the West will play to the soft power appeal of Europe over the local Russian military dominance. This utilizes the strengths of modern Europe, which knows how to organize a bailout but not how to plan a military campaign.

Any effort to transform Ukraine should start with three simple policies:

  1. Any financial relief should not go through the central government. The political system is corrupt and dominated by feudal-type oligarchs. Instead through beefing up civil society with independent networks of civil society organizations and NGOs, we should try to reach the grassroots in Ukraine’s most economically deprived areas. This will spread the aid geographically, outside of Kiev and into the impoverished west of Ukraine. By preventing money being diverted into flashy capital projects or corruption we will also weaken the powers of patronage held by the oligarchs.
  2. Reaffirm the territorial integrity of Ukraine, first by NATO members and then in the General Assembly of the United Nations. Although the UN vote would be mostly symbolic it would serve as a marker to Russia and discomfort those countries (China) that protest against Western interventions but have stood by as eastern Ukraine has slipped away.
  3. A strong effort should be made by Western countries to marginalize the Right Sector, Svoboda and other far-right groups. Official contacts with any Ukrainian ministry headed or staffed by members of these organizations should be suspended after the May elections produces a new government. The European Union was founded on values directly opposed to those of the far right, and the presence of it in Kiev is of huge propaganda value to Moscow. Our aim should be to minimize their presence in any future Ukrainian political process.

Helping Ukraine work as a functional sovereign state, with a modern standard of living, will not reverse its de facto partition by Russia. Ideologically however it will begin the process of moving it out of the present Russian regime’s orbit and towards Europe. Using Ukrainian territory as a base for a proxy battle between east and west is self-defeating. Furthermore neither Moscow nor NATO wants a real shooting war over Ukraine. The “winner” of this contest will therefore be the side which can fulfill the aspirations of Ukraine’s heterogeneous population the best.

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