Guest Contributor:

By Kirk Bennett

About two months after the Revolution of Dignity drove President Yanukovych out of office in February 2014, I received an e-mail from a fairly apolitical acquaintance in Kyiv. She assured me that, revolution notwithstanding, basically nothing had changed and the country was still being run by a bunch of crooks and scoundrels. I thought at the time that she was just being an understandably cynical Ukrainian, embittered by years of dashed hopes and expecting too much too soon in terms of reform or improvements in living conditions. It turned out she was being exceptionally perceptive, or possibly prescient.

The Ukrainian political crisis that broke in February had its denouement in April – and ended in a complete rout for the cause of reform. When the dust had settled, President Poroshenko had consolidated his grip on Ukraine by getting his protégé, Volodymyr Hroysman, named prime minister, while the key reform figures in the previous government had all lost their jobs. Poroshenko, who has betrayed no particular sense of urgency in rooting out corruption, can now continue placidly to slow-roll reform with no fear of any unwanted initiative or political sniping from a government headed by his close political ally. The only tricky thing will be gauging the precise amount of lip-service required to keep disgusted Western backers from giving up on Ukraine altogether.

The Ukrainian authorities have flouted Churchill’s dictum about never letting a good crisis go to waste. The events of early 2014 presented the best opportunity independent Ukraine has ever had to break the oligarchic hammerlock over the country. It’s now official – the opportunity has passed, and the oligarchs remain securely in the saddle. Poroshenko is not part of the solution, he’s part of the problem.

Sure, reform can be difficult, especially with the added distraction of a foreign invasion, and the appetite and capacity of the Ukrainian people for reform in 2014 was not unlimited. However, the deeply discouraging point is the fact that the Ukrainian authorities managed to take some tough, unpopular steps, such as reining in government spending and increasing gas prices, while leaving much simpler reforms unimplemented. Yes, it would have been fiendishly difficult to clean out the Augean Stables of the Ukrainian justice system. By the same token, it would have been insanely easy to put determined reformers in charge of the justice system, fire 15-20 of the most odious prosecutors and judges, and put them on trial for corruption and abuse of authority. It wouldn’t have solved all the problems, but it would have been an excellent start – both a powerful signal to corrupt Ukrainian officials, and a satisfying down-payment to a populace longing for their Revolution of Dignity to bear fruit.

Ukraine is living proof that democracy is perhaps a necessary, but certainly not a sufficient, condition for good governance. The country’s last three presidents have all been democratically elected, but none followed through with promised reforms. Yushchenko and Yanukovych left office in utter disgrace, while Poroshenko is well on his way to earning the opprobrium of his two predecessors. Indeed, when Ukraine has an overriding priority on breaking the grip of oligarchy, what was the sense of electing an oligarch as president? Was it a case of “it takes a thief to catch a thief?” And do Ukrainian political parties have to be oligarch-ridden, irresponsibly populist, or scarily nationalistic – or some combination of the three?

Since the formation of the Hroysman government, I have seen assessments blaming the failure of Ukrainian reform on a lack of Western attention and resources, and calling on Western governments and institutions to redouble their efforts in order finally to achieve a breakthrough. This analysis is nonsense. Westerners may well decide to continue funding Ukrainian reform, perhaps focusing on specific goals like macroeconomic stability, capacity-building or support for civil society. However, they should do so without any illusions about what can reasonably be accomplished under the present circumstances and the current Ukrainian authorities. If anyone imagines that some magical level of financial support will trigger a top-to-bottom transformation in Ukrainian governance, they are deluding themselves. Choices – good or bad – are Ukraine’s to make, and all the Western attention and resources in the world cannot compensate for the bad ones.

There are two reasons why the Ukrainian military represents a good candidate for continued, or even enhanced, Western support. Most obviously, the short-term defeat of Ukrainian reform is likely to generate dissatisfaction and instability, which could tempt Moscow to initiate further “spontaneous” separatist movements across the mythical land of Novorossiya. Nevertheless, Moscow faces an unhappy dilemma as it contemplates further steps in Ukraine. If the Ukrainians were simply enemies to be obliterated, the Kremlin’s way forward would be relatively clear and simple. However, Moscow sees Ukraine above all as a force multiplier, a potential contributor of added demographic and economic heft to the Russian World the Kremlin hopes to create – if only a sufficient number of Ukrainians could be coaxed into abandoning the Western-induced delusion that they constitute a nation separate and distinct from Russia. But therein lies the rub – Ukraine must not be so much ravished as wooed, and Russia is unlikely to engender fraternal feelings of Eastern Slavic solidarity by bombing and shelling Ukraine into the Stone Age. Quick and clean operations like the Crimea gambit are to be encouraged; messy, destructive moves like the Donbas fiasco, where the Russians met determined Ukrainian resistance, are likely to be counterproductive and will therefore probably be avoided. Thus, the existence of a capable Ukrainian military is the most important – indeed, perhaps the only – consideration that might forestall further Russian depredations.

Less obviously, the Ukrainian military plays an oddly positive role domestically. In most countries with a serious good-governance deficit, the army is an instrument of repression and an impediment to reform. It has not been so in Ukraine. The Ukrainian military maintained a constructive neutrality during the revolutions of 2004-05 and 2013-14, and the government’s inability to deploy the army against demonstrators was a key factor exposing the underlying weakness of the authorities. Neglected and hollowed out by successive governments, the Ukrainian military has grown in stature with the tide of wartime patriotism and has emerged, paradoxically, as the public institution that is perhaps most popular and least oligarchic.

During the Polish economic crisis of the late 1990s, there was a joke to the effect that there were two potential solutions to the predicament – one realistic, and one miraculous. The realistic scenario was that God would send his angels from heaven to save Poland. The miraculous option was that the Poles would resolve their problems themselves. With this anecdote in mind, I can only counsel Ukrainians to fix their gaze upon the heavens, whence might realistically come their salvation. Wonders might have been possible for Poles in the 1990s, but unfortunately there does not appear to be any such miracle taking shape for Ukrainians today.

published 13 May 2016: News Summaries