international analysis and commentary

Ukraine’s ambiguous future: success story or failed state?

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The Ukraine crisis has already substantially changed not only Ukraine and some of its neighbors, but the European security system, and possibly the international system as a whole. But apart from the external reasons, triggers and implications, the crisis has definite domestic roots. Without understanding these and finding sustainable solutions, the crisis will not be settled in general.

After concluding the Minsk II agreements on February 12 there is still a chance for Ukraine to remain de facto a united state (with the Crimea issue to be treated as a separate question). The main crucial issues to be tackled immediately are the implementation of real reform and a breathing period or truce (started de facto by the latest agreements in Minsk) to be prolonged as long as possible. Unfortunately, until now the new governments (as their predecessors) have not demonstrated much progress since March 2014 either in reforming or in good governing. Therefore respective dissatisfaction grows both from inside and outside. People in Ukraine do not want to and cannot wait any longer for sustainable reform. And friends of Ukraine all over the world do not want to experience yet another failure as was the case with Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko.

On the other hand, it’s very crucial to understand the need for compromise if Ukraine is to be united, and afterwards to act consistently with this goal – i.e. to start a genuine process of reconciliation. One of the most discussed issues in this regard is whether there can be some common political, cultural and economic ground for the entire population of Ukraine within internationally recognized borders? The answer lies paradoxically in the past, namely the last 23 years, when despite differences between many regions (a normal phenomenon for a large European country) Ukrainians succeeded in solving all their difficulties and even quarrels peacefully and among themselves. But immediately after a sharp intrusion from the outside, this sophisticated balance has been ruined. Therefore a solution is possible, but only under some conditions, mainly: provide needed political will, supported by wide consensus in the country, and minimize external influence. But we should take into account that not a small part of today’s Ukrainian political elite is de facto ready to sacrifice unity for the sake of the “right” political line and has been, to some extent, successful in pursuing this line until now. At the same time no influential external actors (especially Russia) have demonstrated, until now, a real will to stop their interference in Ukrainian internal affairs.

Parallel to such political comprehensive processes are immediate challenges to be tackled urgently. As in the past, the major problem is not conceiving reform, rather its implementation. The reason for such failure is two-fold in nature: institutional and staff capacity to implement reforms is lacking on one hand, and there is conscious resistance at many levels on the other, because it would mean the end of previous practices (mostly inefficiency and corruption) and probable criminal responsibility for actors involved. Moreover, the new governmental team to some extent turned out to be much more sophisticated in playing “old games” with their Western counterparts, which irritated them under Leonid Kuchma, Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych. Therefore today Kiev’s substantial dysfunction is the main challenge for Ukraine’s success and the most powerful Kremlin ally in the crisis inside and beyond Ukraine. 

External actors who sincerely try to provide assistance to Ukraine should be more realistic and professional in their “Ukrainian policy” (starting from thorough analysis and evaluation of “staff” quality). In the past, they made two recurring mistakes. First, while overestimating their own capacity to influence or even “squeeze” Russia, Western countries underestimated Russian readiness to “fire back”, taking into full consideration possible huge losses or even catastrophic scenarios for itself. Second, the capacity of the new Ukrainian government to pursue the needed reform efforts is quite limited, despite all proper statements and respective public relations actions. Taken together, both factors now represent a toxic mix which forced the West on the eve of the Minsk II agreements to hurriedly look for a truce, because of the real danger that Ukraine otherwise would collapse within a short period.

One other important point that has not yet been taken seriously into account: Ukraine and Ukrainians need clear messages and commitments from the West, thus providing a response to their crucial questions. These questions mostly refer to the real perspective for Ukraine to be integrated into Western structures. Even negative, but sincere and justified, answers to some of them will be understood and accepted. Otherwise Ukrainians could take the same turn Turkey made a few years ago towards the EU and West in general to some extent, i.e. the West needs to cope with the threat of such disappointment which is starting to grow inside Ukraine.

Apart from general accusations by Russia and the West against each other, both parties considered the countries in-between as their “own sphere”, each de facto trying to shift the balance in its favor. And there were several attempts to start such a conversation, but they failed. Nowadays, if we would like to changethe “zero sum game” logic (presuming either the collapse of Russia or the dissolution of the previous Western order), then realistic and sometimes tough talk is unavoidable. And volens nolens it should start from “Ukrainian case”.

The many contradictions and misperceptions between the West and Russia will certainly not disappear at once. But it is possible to pave the way for a sustainable deal, in which parties agree on limits, red lines, terms and conditions as was the case during the Cold War. If a positive attitude by implementing such a deal prevails, then it could be defined as a “Cold Peace” scenario. If a negative one prevails instead – then we will be back to a “Cold War” scenario. But the most dangerous or disastrous option would be “neither peace, nor war”, because of its ambiguity and unpredictability. Obviously the crossroad, when parties will de facto choose one of these options, will take place this year.