It is time for Ukraine to start helping itself

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Notwithstanding the ceasefire agreed in Minsk, unless Western policymakers take into account just how fragile the situation inside Ukraine really is, the promise of last year's Maidan revolution may be snuffed out.


Balazs Jarabik
13 February 2015

Notwithstanding the ceasefire agreed in Minsk, unless Western policymakers take into account just how fragile the situation inside Ukraine really is, the promise of last year's Maidan revolution may be snuffed out, potentially in a matter of months. As terrible as it sounds, Kyiv’s endless dysfunction is the Kremlin’s most powerful ally in the current crisis – a point that is glossed over in Western policy debates on Ukraine. 

The hope of Western foreign policy hawks is that the Putin regime will fall before Ukraine has a chance to descend into utter political and economic chaos. But as George Soros pointed out in Munich, Ukraine is already on the verge of collapse.

What I encountered in Kyiv a few days ago was hard to believe, especially for someone who has spent a significant time of his life there. Depression and fear are inescapable. Mistrust of Ukraine’s government is mounting. While no one misses the disgraced former President Viktor Yanukovych or wants to submit to the will of Putin's Russia, the risk of yet more domestic political turmoil grows by the day. 

Ukraine certainly needs more help from the West – a lot more. Russia`s reckless behaviour requires a firm and uncompromising response. Any sane person who has seen the terrible footage of the wrecked Donetsk airport or the recent deadly shelling of the peaceful port city of Mariupol will sympathise with the Ukrainians' anger and desire for revenge.

But we need to look beyond the ceasefire – no matter if it holds or not – and address Ukraine's deep-seated structural problems. If anything, it is this internal dysfunction that poses the greatest threat to Ukraine's survival.  

Consider the following: 

The army inherited from Soviet times is a mess of corruption and ineffectiveness. The top officer corps is (still) incompetent, and widely blamed for a string of setbacks on the battlefield. The generals are under political pressure from Kyiv to deliver largely symbolic victories  – in this way, the town of Debaltsevo has become a new Donetsk airport. And much of the fighting is handled by volunteer battalions who are (still) not properly integrated into the regular army. Turning this ad hoc apparatus into an effective, modern fighting force is a long-term project that NATO countries will need to confront.

If countries like the US and Poland decide to send weapons, they must demonstrate that they can think two or three moves ahead

If countries like the United States and Poland do, at any time, decide to send weapons, they must demonstrate that they can think two or three moves ahead. What are the risks of further escalation by Moscow? Who will train the Ukrainians to operate these weapons effectively? Won’t sending Western weapons to Ukraine be taken as final proof of what the Kremlin propaganda machine has been saying from the very beginning of the crisis: Ukraine is the frontline in a Western war against Russia? Will this strengthen Russian determination instead of it acting as a deterrent?

Such an assessment requires the West to be more candid about the scale of the rot inside Ukraine and the threat it poses to the cause of finally transforming the country. Old ways of doing business – endemic corruption on a massive scale and state capture by oligarchs and their proxies – are the rule, not the exception. Almost exactly one year after the mass killings on the Maidan, not a single senior figure has been jailed for corruption. Even the shooting of innocent protesters by snipers and riot police in the heart of Kyiv has yet to be properly investigated. Huge numbers of Ukrainian men are balking at signing up for military service, even in the country`s West where nationalist sentiment runs deep. Most don’t see the war in Donbas as theirs. Despite a surge in national pride, draft dodging has become a serious headache for the government, which has pursued travel restrictions, both foreign and inter-regional-travel for draft-age men. A law recently passed by the parliament makes it a criminal offence to avoid military service.

To its great credit, the Ukrainian army has been doing remarkably well compared to just a few months ago. But the main issue is still the appalling mismanagement at all levels of state institutions. The ruling elite still seems completely unable or unwilling to communicate clearly with citizens in the way they deserve to be treated after the desperate days on the Maidan; that is, with honesty and dignity. Instead, the government flits from one unfulfilled promise to another, whether it comes to recapturing the Donbas or reforming ruined institutions fast or moving against corruption. 

The main issue is still the appalling mismanagement at all levels of state institutions.

Instead of providing citizens with basic information about its plans and efforts to cope with enormous challenges on the military, economic and social fronts inside the country, the Ukrainian government is retreating into propaganda. But combating the 'information war' waged by Russia, with the same weaponry, is at best a distraction. At worst, it is about creating a virtual world where blame for the government's failings can be sloughed off – or shifted to the people of Ukraine themselves for being insufficiently ‘patriotic’. 

The Kyiv I encountered last week is overwhelmed with expectations that the worse is yet to come. The worry is not just about the war in the east, but mostly the effects of an economy in free-fall. Military aid might give a shot in the arm to the Ukrainian army, and so prolong the war, but it will be another distraction for the West from tackling the country’s urgent socio-economic problems, which pose an existential threat to the survival of the government led by President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk.

To be fair, not everything is bad. A sense of civic volunteerism is getting ever stronger where it is needed. Over 20,000 citizens of Kyiv have signed up to take part in newly-formed street police patrols. But the West can’t arm civil society. Instead, building on incremental successes like these to stimulate reforms is the right way for the West to assist effectively. But Ukraine must start helping itself first, instead of using Russian aggression – and now Western inaction – as an excuse for all of its domestic shortcomings.

A shorter version of this article is published by Eurasia Outlook at carnegie.ru.

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