Why you should care
Ukrainians face a tough choice with presidential elections this year, and the West should be doing a lot more to avert war.
Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark.
This year, Ukrainians have much to fear, much to be proud of and much to think about. The ongoing war with Russia and its proxies in the Donbas, a rapidly changing country and economy, and presidential and parliamentary elections will force Ukrainians to decide whether they want to build on or reject the progress of the last five years.
Top of mind is the armed conflict in the southeast, where there have been more than 10,000 civilian and military casualties. Persistent shelling by separatists, the presence of some 80,000 Russian troops and 500 tanks on Ukraine’s border, and almost daily conflict-related deaths remind Ukrainians that a Russian invasion was and is a possibility. So, are they paranoid? Not from where they sit.
Is Invasion Inevitable?
Some Ukrainians have been expecting a Russian invasion since independence in 1991. Others have done so only since 2004, when Ukrainians launched the Orange Revolution that kept Putin’s man in Kiev, Viktor Yanukovych, from becoming president. And most have expected Russian interference since 2014, when protests led to the ousting of then-president Yanukovych. Putin responded with an undeclared war that led to Ukraine’s loss of Crimea and eastern Donbas — along with thousands of deaths.
Most Ukrainians agree that, whatever their beliefs about the reasons for Russian aggression, the only thing Ukraine can do to ward off an invasion is to become militarily and economically strong and thereby make all-out war too risky and expensive for any rational Russian leader.
Ukraine Has Come a Long Way
The country has changed more in the last four years than in the previous two decades. It has fought Russia to a standstill in the Donbas by building up its own army and military-industrial complex without significant overseas assistance.
Ukraine has moved decisively and, in all likelihood, irreversibly toward integration with the West. In particular, Kiev enjoys good relations with the United States, Canada, the European Union, NATO, the United Kingdom, Germany, Turkey, Israel and China. Its trade with Russia has fallen dramatically, while its trade with the rest of the world has boomed. Foreign direct investment is growing, especially with Chinese, American and European capital. Ukraine’s gas importer, Naftohaz, has been thoroughly reformed, and Ukraine’s dependence on direct imports of Russian gas has dropped significantly.
Ukraine’s economy has been growing at 3.5 percent for the past few years, and its agriculture and technology sectors are thriving. Investments in alternative energies are on the rise, even as Ukraine has identified several huge gas fields that could make it an energy exporter. Massive amounts of money have been dedicated to repairing and expanding infrastructure, from roads to railroads to ports to airports, and the banking system has been cleaned up. Local governance has been energized thanks to reforms that gave power back to districts and provinces. Meanwhile, local civic activism continues, often producing visible results, and a much-needed reform is restructuring Ukraine’s dilapidated health care system.
The higher education system has been given greater autonomy, and the Ukrainian language and culture are experiencing a renaissance. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been granted autonomy by the Patriarch of Constantinople, thereby solidifying the country’s move away from Russia, and several exarchs of the Ukrainian church still associated with the Moscow Patriarch have jumped ship to join the Ukrainian church.
Significant measures have been adopted to curb corruption, and many business experts report that it’s become easier to operate in Ukraine, as evidenced by growing Western investment, and its standing in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index has improved.
Elections Could Change Trajectory
Despite these impressive changes, most Ukrainians insist that “nothing has changed” and that the country is moving in the “wrong direction.” Such pessimism reflects a widespread impatience fueled by exaggerated expectations in the aftermath of the Euromaidan Revolution of 2014. In fact, everything has changed, and for the better, but Ukrainians want to live like the Swiss — today, not tomorrow. Naturally, that will take time and require the adoption of painful reforms, but Ukrainians are already struggling to make ends meet, thanks to gas price increases cutting their growing wages. At the same time, oligarchs appear to have suffered very little, corruption remains a problem, and the politicians responsible for the massive thefts of the Yanukovych era have either fled or remained unpunished. Ukrainians view their 1 percent as living in Switzerland while they continue to toil at home.
Upheaval Can Be Tempting
Unsurprisingly, populist appeals are not without resonance and could affect the outcome of the elections. Petro Poroshenko should win the presidential ballot in March but probably won’t, as he is held responsible by pessimists for the perceived lack of progress. Yulia Tymoshenko, the fiery former prime minister and co-architect of the Orange Revolution who was a political prisoner under the Yanukovych regime, is leading the populist charge, essentially promising to reverse the reforms and institute social justice. She leads in all the polls and is the odds-on favorite to win. Second in the polls is the actor Volodymyr Zelensky, who’s rocketed to fame thanks to the support of Poroshenko’s oligarch rival, Igor Kolomoyskyi, and the television exposure he’s received from playing an average Joe who becomes Ukraine’s reformist president.
Poroshenko’s re-election would mean a continuation of today’s policies — and more progress tomorrow. Small wonder that Putin is doing everything possible to stop him from being re-elected. Tymoshenko, meanwhile, promises to stay the course on Ukrainian-Russian relations while reversing course economically. Pessimists argue that given her mercurial nature and past close relations with Russia, she could strike a bad deal with Putin and actually embark on populist measures that would hurt the economy. Optimists suggest that given the constraints of the war and the fact that Ukraine really has no alternative to working with the IMF, Tymoshenko would quickly adopt the mainstream policies of Poroshenko. As for Zelensky, no one knows what an utterly untried non-politician could mean at a time of war with Russia and rapid systemic change. He could surprise everyone or he could lead Ukraine to disaster.
Parliamentary elections will follow in October, and the current projection is for at least six or seven parties to divide the seats. If that happens, the Rada could become immobilized, leaving the country with a deadlocked parliament that could invite a strong leader like Tymoshenko to try to aggrandize power and strengthen the presidency.
What the West Should Do
This year could prove decisive for Ukraine. If war doesn’t come, reforms continue to be consolidated and enacted, and if a reasonable president and parliament emerge, all will be well and Ukraine’s march west will continue. But if Putin starts a “quick little war,” all bets are off. Ukrainians would fight fiercely, and the outcome would be uncertain, but the best-case scenario would be a return to a stalemate after thousands have died after a possible Russian occupation and guerrilla warfare by Ukrainian partisans. The worst case? Russia collapses owing to backlash at home, Putin is overthrown, and a mass conflict breaks out in Russia.
Thanks to Putin, Ukraine has become a vital geostrategic interest to Europe and North America. Preventing a full-scale Russian invasion has to be the first priority, not only to prevent deaths and because the numbers of refugees streaming into Europe would be enormous, but also because such a misadventure could likely result in Russia’s collapse. Helping Ukraine resist — by providing it with arms and imposing the severest of sanctions on Russia — if and when a war hits, is the second priority.
A third world war cannot be left to Putin and his minions. The only way to make war impossible is for Ukraine and the West to do everything possible to ensure it is impossible.