At present, Ukraine looks like a bankrupt company that cannot save itself with the efforts of its own top management or internal resources. It is obvious that the country needs help from outside that would steer it away from further degradation, an escalation of violence and worsened confrontation with possible catastrophic consequences for Ukraine itself and for its neighbors.
There are two possible ways out of this crisis. One of them is optimistic, and fully possible. The other is pessimistic and catastrophic for Ukraine, Russia, Europe, and the international community.
Let’s start with the good one.
Leaving aside Crimea, where the situation is already fully resolved, it is obvious that neither Europe, nor the United States, nor Russia, nor even Europe and the U.S. together can save the Ukrainian economy and state on their own from the deep crisis that has overtaken the country. In all likelihood, the only good way out is a trilateral solution because it is Russia, rather than Europe or the U.S. that holds the majority stake in the Ukrainian economy. First, the Russian market is the main venue for the sale of Ukrainian goods; thus closing it would completely kill the Ukrainian economy. Second, Ukraine is entirely dependent on Russian natural gas. Third, Ukraine owes Russia a staggering $16 billion debt.
The West, of course, wants to offer Ukraine some help. But first, we must keep in mind that help via the IMF is conditional upon certain steps that are likely to worsen the economy in the short term, and second, even if the IMF manages to scrape up $15-20 billion without Russian help, this money will still be insufficient to propel the country out of the deep economic and political crisis.
So what are the necessary conditions for a trilateral U.S.-Russia-Europe agreement and what sort of program can unite their interests? I proceed from the assumption that the U.S. and the EU have a lot of influence over the present-day authorities in Kiev and that if the EU, U.S. and Russia negotiated a plan to save Ukraine, Washington and Brussels will succeed in convincing Kiev to accept it. The conditions for a trilateral deal are sufficiently well articulated by the Russian Foreign Ministry in its address to the contact group for Ukraine. By my interpretation, they boil down to the following.
First, most likely, the scheduled May elections need to be postponed, possibly until the end of the year as was previously agreed in the February 21st agreement guaranteed by European foreign ministers, and even without Viktor Yanukovich’s return to Ukraine, there are still a number of problems that need to be worked out before the elections. Second, there needs to be a series of changes to the Ukrainian constitution to make it more compatible with the country’s realities and reduce the tension between the West and South-East parts of Ukraine. Two changes are particularly important—the acceptance of Russian as a second official language and the federalization of the country that would give more autonomy to its regions. It must by now be clear to all with an open mind that Ukraine is a deeply divided state with cleavages along ethnic, language, religious, and regional lines. Thus, for the preservation of the state’s territorial integrity, it is imperative that the regions composing it enjoyed broad autonomy and decided themselves what language to use, what books to read, and how to raise their children.
A third, and very important, is the alliance-neutral status of Ukraine which must be guaranteed, as it was already once done in the Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine of June 16, 1990.
And lastly, illegal paramilitary groups need to be disarmed and neutralized, and far-right nationalists from the Svoboda Party need to be removed from power structures. The Svoboda Party, by a 2012 resolution of the European Parliament was condemned as xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and racist. I would also add here “neo-fascist” in its leaders, symbols, and ideology.
Are these demands revolutionary, stunning, or unacceptable to the Europeans and the U.S.? I can answer this unequivocally in the negative. We have to note here that two similarly wise men, Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, published similar opinions on the Ukrainian crisis in the Financial Times and The Washington Post, which were almost identical to those of the Russian Foreign Ministry. Brzezinski went ahead and offered outright “Finlandization” of Ukraine, while Kissinger noted the special Russian interests in Ukraine and the advisability of neutral status for the country. Their articles clearly show that Russian proposals are fully realistic, at least according to serious people like Kissinger and Brzezinski.
Can the United States, Russia, and the European Union negotiate common policy and impose it on the present-day authorities in Kiev, explaining to them that only by accepting those conditions will they receive the much needed financial aid and secure their territorial integrity, naturally excluding Crimea? From a common sense point of view, the Kievan ruling class should be grasping for such an opportunity if, of course, they can soberly and objectively judge the situation in which their country is trapped. Of course, it is rather hard to talk about common sense and a sober mind of the current political elite in Ukraine, as it is currently acrimoniously split. In the current situation, it is difficult to expect well-thought out and responsible actions. If such an offer as outlined above were to be made to the current leaders in Kiev, it would be a litmus test for exactly how much influence the armed bands and nationalists supported by the West wield over the political process. We are after all constantly bombarded by messages in the Western media of how Russia exaggerates the role of those groups and of how they control nothing. I suspect that even if fairly sober and pragmatic individuals such as Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Yulia Tymoshenko would agree to such conditions of trilateral help, they would still be unable to enforce them because today, the armed groups behind the nationalists in Kiev appear much stronger than the liberal and pro-Western politicians.
Should a trilateral deal fail, there is the possibility of a catastrophic scenario for the country that would lead to serious consequences for Ukraine, Russia, the EU, and Russia’s relations with Europe. Consider this: elections are tumultuous events even for stable countries such as America, but for failed bankrupt states such as Ukraine, they are just one more aspect of conflict and polarization, particularly when armed groups play a role in the process undeterred by weak law enforcement and state institutions. If the presidential elections happen at the end of May, the newly elected government might be even more unstable. Ukraine nowadays has not a single politician who can act as a unifying figure for society and the country. The possible candidates for president have either discredited themselves since the Orange Revolution, such as Tymoshenko, who in her role as corrupt figure surpassed even her mentor, former prime minister Pavel Lazarenko. Tymoshenko herself managed to spend some time in prison while under investigation by the Kuchma administration, fought “mercilessly” against Yuschenko, then served time under Yanukovich as well after having enriched herself with, by some modest estimates, hundreds of millions of dollars from government coffers, and finally gained a reputation not for able governance, but for able fighting of political enemies and theft.
The next potential candidate, Petro Poroshenko, also gained notoriety for his success in fights among Maydan heroes after the Orange Revolution and left some very sad memories of his governance prowess to both Yushchenko and Yanukovich.
Vitali Klitschko is, of course, a great boxer, but even Victoria Nuland did not accept him as a serious politician in the sadly famous leaked phone conversation with ambassador Pyatt. In truth, Klitschko lacks any experience in handling complex economic and socio-political problems of the sort Ukraine is encountering.
The only potential leaders left are thus far nationalist ones such as Yarosh and Tyagnibok. However, they are by definition not unifying, but polarizing figures. Thus, no matter who wins from that stack of marked cards, the next Kiev government will be incredibly shaky. Especially should Russia decide to take steps that could aggravate the crisis of the Ukrainian state.
Russia could always refuse to recognize the May elections as legitimate regardless of their results. It could decide to worsen the Ukrainian economy by closing its market to Ukrainian goods. It could also call on the East and South to refuse to participate in the elections (just like Kiev called on the Crimeans to ignore the referendum) so as to avoid granting legitimacy to the new government in Kiev since the East and South’s interests are unlikely to be taken into account by May 25 by the current government in Kiev. In addition, there are louder and louder complaints in Kharkiv, Donetsk, Odessa, and other cities in the South and East that Kiev is deaf to their demands. Considering former experience, when presidents from the East and South came to power the way Leonid Kuchma, Leonid Kravchuk, and Viktor Yanukovich did, but the issues of language and federative status remained unsolved, it is highly unlikely that the current power occupants will solve them when there is zero chance that the interests of the Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine will be in any way represented in the impending electoral process. In the present-day state of nationalist hysteria and the participation of armed groups at both presidential and parliamentary elections, there is no point for the East and South to partake in the May elections.