Is the Only Solution to the Crisis in Ukraine an Appalling One?

News Abroad

Cynthia V. Hooper is an Associate Professor of Soviet and Post-Soviet History at College of the Holy Cross and an affiliate at Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. She is currently completing a book entitled Terror From Within: Policing the Soviet Powerful, Under Stalin and Beyond. She blogs for HNN at Post-Soviet Futures.

Even were a mountain of cold hard cash at hand, today’s Ukraine would never make it, without middle ground being found among the country’s main superpower patrons. And quickly.

Ukraine’s national flag – top half blue, bottom half yellow – is meant to symbolize a richly colored azure sky over a golden wheat field, hearkening back to a past when the country was known as the “bread basket of Europe” and prized for its lushness and fertility. The decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, have left Ukraine mired in poverty. In 2012, its per capita GDP fell just below than that of Namibia and Iraq – to a level 3.2 times lower than that of Russia, and 3.6 times lower than that of Greece, then caught in an economic crisis so great that it rocked the E.U. Today the situation in Ukraine is even worse. Money is losing value at such a rate that the Hryvnia was recently acknowledged to be the world’s worst performing currency of 2014. The IMF, the U.S. and the European Union have variously pledged a total of $27 billion in aid, just to help Ukraine finance its debt, but even assuming the country’s next round of leaders proves to be far more honest than any of its predecessors, that amount will still not guarantee a bailout. Certainly the “shock therapy” austerity measures the IMF is set to require as a condition of its loans will not bode well for an average citizen’s standard of living, at least in the short term.

Ironically, if Russia ever did get a bit more on board with the four-way agreement to “deescalate” tensions announced April 17 in Geneva, withdrawing at least some of the 40,000 troops massed along its western border and pressuring pro-Russian militants inside Ukraine to disarm, President Vladimir Putin could end up undercutting the Kiev government more than if he had continued to stoke talk of invasion and flout his disregard for G-7 opinion. For over the past weeks, Ukraine has been something of a pawn in a larger power struggle, one in which Putin’s overt belligerence has almost automatically prompted uncritical, vehement Western shows of support for what is actually a very troubled regime. And even if Putin these days really does aspire, in his heart of hearts, to bring down Ukraine, or to permanently slice off a chunk of the country’s East – still a very, very big “if” – his most sensible-yet-still-Machivellian strategy would be to play nice and sit tight for just a little while. He could afford to chillax, practice some judo moves, maybe spend a few more quality hours drawing doodles at his Kremlin desk, all while perfecting a look of pained surprise (“who, me?”) for when Russia’s neighboring country continues to implode from within.

Any such calculated display of the Obama Administration’s mantra of “restraint” would come with little cost to Moscow. It would mean backing away only ever so slightly from a country struggling to prepare for May elections amid mounting economic chaos, in the aftermath of a humiliating territorial loss, with only tenuous grasp over a disorganized army riven by divided loyalties. Above all, this lame-duck government must additionally find a way to hang on to an array of cities and towns where, even before any extra goading from Russian-paid militants, many residents preferred the idea of union with Moscow to cooperation with Kiev. The “anti-terrorist operation” launched by the Ukrainian parliament on April 15 against eastern pro-Russian separatists was, at least initially, so ineffective that it generated a number of tragicomic headlines, with, for example, CNN reporting that “in Donetsk, six armored vehicles sent into the nearby city of Kramatorsk in the morning later showed up carrying Russian flags in Slaviansk.” (Russian officials subsequently claimed the soldiers had switched sides; Ukraine’s Defense Ministry reported that both tanks and troops had been seized by the outlaws.) Newer accounts, on Easter Sunday, of a deadly shootout between members of two rival militant national groups – one pro-Ukrainian and one pro-Russian – that each side is branding as the other’s provocation are more serious, and sobering. Such events only prove, yet again, that breaking down a bad regime à la February on the Maidan is often easier than building up a better one. They also illustrate just how fragile the foundations of liberal democracy in Ukraine currently are, and just how much the escalating tensions among the country’s triumvirate of rival superpower “patrons” has served to weaken what was an already rickety base.

Can’t Live With Them, Can’t Live Without Them

These tensions are all the more unfortunate considering that cold hard facts, however unpalatable, show that Ukraine cannot survive without Russia, and that the U.S. and E.U. would be crazy to encourage any new regime to try. This truth does not necessarily mean that Ukraine must, inevitably, live in Moscow’s shadow and construct itself only in the Kremlin’s image. But the country, today, is broken enough that it cannot continue to function without large-scale outside patronage, and given that situation, there is simply no way that Russia is not going to be at least one of its key superpower funder-protectors.

As, among other things, Ukraine’s single largest trading partner, Russia not only wields hefty economic muscle in the country but also, at least until recently, commanded a fair amount of respect. Even after the Russian annexation of Crimea, some 50% of the Ukrainian Navy opted to take the opportunity offered by Moscow to apply for Russian citizenship and serve in the Russian Black Sea Fleet, instead. The remainder carried their personal possessions off the Crimean bases in a sad procession of cardboard boxes and plastic bags – generating pictures that comedian Jon Stewart rather unsympathetically announced looked like posters “for the lamest war movie ever – Saving Potted Ficcus.”

Ukraine imports 63% of its natural gas from Russia and owes the Russian behemoth Gazprom $1.7 billion dollars in unpaid bills; if that weren’t bad enough, on April 1, the company announced it would be raising prices for Ukrainian consumers by 44%. Furthermore, Russia holds a chunk of Ukraine’s debt, and could, based on a 2013 lending agreement, according to Forbes, “legally force Kiev to default” if the country’s debt ever exceeds 60% of its GDP – with projections looking, this year, to be “perilously close.” Thus Russia has the tools to wreak havoc on the Ukrainian economy – or, otherwise, to force the West to pay astronomical amounts to prop that economy up. And, mind you, the country whose economy we would be so supporting has a record of official malfeasance such that in 2012, Ernst &Young rated it the third most corrupt nation in the world. (And, no, Russia did not occupy either of the top two places on that list.)

But Ukraine also needs more than just Russia: its most immediate problem today lies in the fact that it is torn between East and West, with so little middle ground. According to the United Nations, Russia furnishes 32% of Ukrainian imports; the 28-member E.U. provides 31. Same story with exports: Russia consumes 26%, the E.U., 25. This split between two unfortunately rival camps is of long standing. In the final round of Presidential elections in both 2004 and 2010, for example, results confirmed a very close race. The pro-Western candidate triumphed over the pro-Eastern one, 52 to 44 percent, in 2004 (after 17 days of popular protests over initial results, later acknowledged as fraudulent, that had the pro-Eastern candidate winning). In 2010, that same pro-Eastern candidate won for real, albeit by a very thin margin – 48.95 to 45.47 percent. In both cases, however, a breakdown of the vote by region illustrates an extreme geographic polarization that has, over the last decade, in no way healed.

In 2004, support in the westernmost regions of Ukraine rose as high as 96% for the candidate embraced at the time as most pro-Europe (although it bears mentioning that by little more than a year later, his popularity had tanked even among his most ardent former supporters, as he was accused of making corrupt deals with Russia behind closed doors.). Meanwhile, in the east, support for Viktor Yanukovych (who lost the 2004 election, only to emerge victorious in 2010) reached as high as 93.5% in industrial Donetsk, a center of coal and steel production. Donetsk is, of course, also the region where, in this current crisis of 2014, protestors (rumored, with great justification, to be led by semi-incognito members of Russian Special Forces) have seized state buildings across a chunk of territory, proclaiming an independent “People’s Republic,” roaming the streets in ski masks, and at least in the town of Slovyansk, taking over a telecommunications tower and shutting down both internet service and Ukrainian TV. Branded “terrorists” by the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev (though not before a fistfight over the issue broke out between delegates from pro-Eastern and pro-Western parties on the voting floor), the Donetsk demonstrators are so far refusing to accept the Geneva agreement, which calls for all illegal militia groups like themselves to immediately disarm.

Interestingly enough, the polarization of Ukraine is economic as well – and it is not the most prosperous part of the country that prefers ties to the E.U. over those to Russia. The richest region in Ukraine is also Donetsk, which in December 2013 sported an average monthly salary of 4117 UAH, more than 150% higher than salaries in the three poorest western regions. (The only place in the country better off was the capital city of Kiev, where salaries averaged 5618 Ukrainian Hryvnia [UAH].)

Prosperity, or at least economic opportunity, is what many in impoverished Western Ukraine now most associate with a European alliance. Already, popular expectations are at levels that no new cabinet, post-May elections, will be able to fulfill. Such a situation is all the more perilous, considering that the Kiev government, even as it fights radical pro-Russian patriotic sentiment in the East, is still struggling to rein in militant pro-Ukrainian groups in the West. Radical nationalist parties like Svoboda (“Freedom”) and Pravyi Sektor (“Right Sector”) are still on the move, and as historians Tarik Amar, Omer Bartov and Per Anders argue “building influence and symbolical capital at this very moment,” through clever exploitation of “both the successful Maidan revolution and Russia’s threat to [Ukraine’s] sovereignty.”

Blood and Iron Beats Empty Speeches Every Time

Both during the days of fighting on Independence Square and then afterwards, in the formation of an interim regime, pro-reform champions of liberal democracy in Ukraine (with “liberal” in this case meaning grounded in principles of toleration, legality, individual liberty, and reason) have had to make common cause with right-wing nationalists. These nationalists, meanwhile, express frequent frustration with the niceties of democratic process, applaud shows of “strength through action” and promote the value of patriotism through an emotion-driven rhetoric of negative integration, based on drawing hard lines between groups of supposed “insiders” and outsiders” and turning the former against the latter. Such a collaboration, even when grounded in expediency, calls to mind the fatal compromises made by the founders of Germany’s Weimar Republic – the new, fragile, reform-minded regime that emerged from the ashes of World War One in 1918. There, a fledgling democratic government that promoted what at the time were viewed as some of the most progressive principles in the world was forced to almost immediately compromise those same principles when its leaders called on proto-fascist militias for support in a struggle against a common enemy – in that case, not Russian troops per se, but domestic Communists inspired by the Soviet Union. Thus the very same people who championed women’s suffrage, an end to any form of discrimination against Jews, and civil liberties felt compelled to make common cause with right-wing paramilitary organizations bitterly and intractably opposed to those ideals and determined, eventually, to overturn them.

The current Kiev government, to its credit, while including a number of members of the extremist Freedom Party in leadership positions, has still done what it can, not only to refute wildly exaggerated Russian claims of “Nazi bandits in the streets” across Ukraine, but also to clamp down on the forms of vigilante activity that do exist. Yet repeated attempts to persuade, for instance, Right Sector paramilitary groups to disarm have largely failed. Far more effective was the mysterious March 24 killing, by police, of Right Sector leader Oleksandr Muzychko, in what police called a shootout that occurred while Muzychko was resisting arrest, but what his deputies described as a planned assassination carried out while the leader’s hands were tied. (In response, Right Sector members stormed the parliament building and broke windows with bats on the evening of March 27, in a black-masked and booted demonstration that evoked uncomfortable associations with Nazi torch marches of the 1930s.) Most recently, Russia’s foreign ministry blames Right Sector activists for the violent clash on Easter Sunday, charges party leadership denies.

Unfortunately, even apart from the extremes of pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian militancy, the country’s political “mainstream,” such as it is, seems to have developed something of a post-Soviet political culture that condones a style of democratic politics often favoring violent actions over tangled debate and institutional discipline. A YouTube search for “Ukraine parliament fight” generates an array of video clips from across the past four years. “Another day, another brawl,” begins one report headlined “Fistfights the Norm in Ukraine’s Parliament.” In 2012, well before the current crisis, deputy Oleg Nadosha, a member of the more “centrist” Party of Regions claimed that slugfests on the Rada floor demonstrated “democracy in action” – representing a type of active disagreement that could never take place in a dictatorship like the Soviet Union or North Korea. Nadosha concluded that a brawl might be unproductive but it “is the last resort of delivering your point when vocal methods don’t work.”

In 1862, the master of Realpolitik, Otto von Bismarck, famously warned liberals who opposed his demand for extra funds for the Prussian military that their day of all talk, no muscle was done. “Not by speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided,” he proclaimed, “but through blood and iron.” (He would go on to disregard the parliamentary veto entirely, raise the necessary funding by executive decree, and wage three successive wars to unify Germany.) The almost impossible challenge facing Ukraine’s leaders today is to turn that famous saying of Bismarck’s on its head and convince people that the day’s “great questions” actually can be settled satisfactorily by “majority decisions” rather than extra-legal shows of strength. But the problem is that many of these leaders do not seem to believe in this idea themselves, and prefer to make their points more effectively by resorting to a little blood-and-iron of their own.

Incidents of would-be intimidation are legion, as for example a moment on March 18, when a group of men belonging to the Freedom Party, including at least three members of parliament, physically assaulted the head of Ukraine’s state-run television agency, demanding he resign due to his ostensibly pro-Russian coverage. Even more disturbing is the fact that participants felt proud enough of the attack to film it and post it online. Presidential candidate Julia Tymoshchenko, supposedly a more moderate voice, generated furor across Germany (though less attention in the U.S.) when she admitted to the authenticity of a phone conversation she held that same day which was later leaked online. In it, she can be heard to say that Ukrainians must take up arms against Russians “so that not even a patch of scorched earth will be left where Russia stands.” (Putin dismissed her threat in a question-and-answer session last week with gracious condescension, blaming her female frailties rather than Russian’s annexation of Crimea for her anger. “Tymoshenko, and I personally know her very well, even if she encourages shooting of Russians using nuclear weapons, I think this is most likely because of an emotional breakdown.”)

So can any kind of Ukrainian liberal democratic “center” be saved (if there ever was one in existence to begin with)? Or will the country devolve into a “democracy” of fistfights and shootouts and worse, fueled by larger superpower struggle? Ultimately, lots and lots of money might help restore stability. What kept the Weimar Republic alive in the early 1920s was, above all, 800 million gold marks – a U.S. loan to stabilize the German economy, combined with a significant reduction in annual war indemnity payments via the Dawes Plan. (Conversely, the single greatest factor in the collapse of the Weimar Republic was the world-wide Great Depression that began in 1929, which catapulted the Nazi Party from 2.6% of the popular vote in 1928 to 37.3% in 1932.) But even with a mountain of cold hard cash at hand, today’s Ukraine will never make it, without some more middle ground being found among the country’s main superpower patrons. And quickly.

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