Paul Pillar

Ukraine Buffeted from East and West

A visit to Kiev reveals a Ukrainian national identity that has come a long way for a corner of Eurasia that once was known as Little Russia.  Ukraine was a large part of the USSR and a major contributor to its economy and military strength, but now, conflict with Russia is a defining characteristic of Ukrainian national consciousness.  Parliamentarians of various partisan affiliations, as well as other politically engaged people in the capital both inside and outside government, share a sense of unfair treatment at the hands of Russia.  This involves not only the happenings in recent years in Crimea and in the rebellious Donbass region in eastern Ukraine but also an overall Russian presumption that Ukrainians should accept—consistent with old attitudes underlying the “Little Russia” label—being part of Moscow’s sphere of influence.

Ukrainians exhibit much pride in what their nation has accomplished in the 25 years since independence, and in the three years since the “Revolution of Dignity” that toppled former president Viktor Yanukovych.  The paving stones that had been torn up in the blood-stained Maidan square during the latter uprising have been put back in place, but with the addition of memorials to those who died there.  The memories of Maidan are still recent, and their impact on Ukrainian thoughts and emotions profound.

The pride in how far Ukraine has come is tempered by honest recognition of how far it still has to go.  Corruption gets much attention and is the subject of multiple official efforts, institutionalized in new governmental bureaus, to fight it.  It is not only bribery and payoffs, however, but also the larger perverse subjugation of the public good to private benefit that is still a leading explanation for the shortcomings of public policies and the inability to address more effectively many economic and social problems.  As great as is the need to build a robust post-Soviet private sector, the need to build an effective public sector is just as great.  Governmental salaries are ludicrously small—contributing to the corruption problem—and political and administrative leadership has depended on the patriotism of individuals who have made a bunch of money elsewhere and feel an obligation to provide a couple of years of their talents for the common good.  These people include former expatriates and other foreigners with kinship ties to Ukraine—such as the physician from Detroit who currently is acting as minister of health.

President Petro Poroshenko is one of those independently wealthy patriots.  He is a forceful and articulate champion of his nation’s interests, including in upholding those interests when they face an uncooperative Russia.  But as would be the case with any other political leader, he is vulnerable to the discontent that stems from an economy that has contracted amid the turmoil and external conflict of recent years.

The western institutions that have been a kind of promised land for a future Ukraine—the European Union and NATO—continue to function as an alluring point of reference.  The association agreement with the EU, which was the immediate issue leading to Yanukovych’s ouster, is already provisionally in effect.  Poroshenko has talked about a possible referendum on NATO membership, and other Ukrainian officials talk about efforts to conform to NATO standards and expectations.  But the interests as well as the politics of Western countries will keep membership in both Western institutions out of reach.  The official position of the EU can continue to be that other nations (even Turkey) are in the membership line ahead of Ukraine, and this means it will be easy to kick that can down the road indefinitely.  As for NATO, valid concerns about the implications of having already extended membership to the Baltic republics have led to a broader realization that it would be a mistake to extend NATO even farther eastward.

The Minsk accords, which laid out a political as well as military roadmap for resolving the not-so-frozen conflict in Donbass, are the subject of conflicting sentiment in Ukraine.  Many Ukrainians are disillusioned by the repeated failures of a cease-fire to take hold.  But Poroshenko regards the Minsk formula as incorporating his own peace plan and as the only peace game in town.

Any lasting resolution of this conflict will entail bargains and negotiations going well beyond Ukraine’s own interests.  The players will include not only Russia and the Western Europeans but also the United States—which is the chief reason that there is at least as much head-scratching and anxiety in Ukraine about the direction of the Trump presidency as there is in many other countries.  Despite the mercurial nature of the new U.S. president, if the U.S. administration were for its own good reasons to adopt, say, a policy in Syria more in parallel with that of Russia, this could be part of a formula that leads Vladimir Putin to pull back from his malicious mischief in Donbass.

Image: A Ukrainian soldier participates in Rapid Trident 2011 in Yavoriv, Ukraine. Flickr/Creative Commons/U.S. Army Europe