Not since the days following the collapse of the Soviet Union has the question of Ukraine, as an independent, sovereign state loomed so large. After more than two decades much of the world, Ukrainians included, accepted the idea that Ukraine was here to stay. Vladimir Putin as the embodiment of Russia, with the help of the inept Viktor Yanukovych and the success of the Ukrainian opposition, has turned the world upside down for Ukraine. A string of other corrupt and ineffective leaders and an ever-faltering economy in Ukraine have contributed to the current set of issues and events.
|People's Friendship Arch - Kiev|
With the threat of Russian invasion and annexation, the Ukrainian government and people face a set of challenges and obstacles that seem to be approaching like an unstoppable mudslide. In order to determine what they can do to protect and retain their independence and sovereignty, Ukrainians must first understand these challenges and then address them directly. Failure to understand these challenges and threats will further exacerbate the current situation.
Challenges and Threats
What are the challenges Ukraine faces? What is threatening its ability to retain independence and sovereignty?
Unstable economy and massive public debt. The inability of Ukraine to pick up and move forward on its own has made it dependent on outside sources for assistance. Without significant assistance, the Ukrainian government is unable to meet its obligations both at home and abroad. In order to keep both the government and economy afloat, Ukraine must turn to Russia or Europe for help. This reality remains even after the opposition’s successful overthrow of the previously elected government.
Untested government. The current government in Kiev is untested. New leaders are struggling to understand and address the current situation. Matters are made worse because a significant portion of citizens in the east do not consider the government legitimate.
Vladimir Putin, Russia, and History. Vladimir Putin is not comfortable with an independent, sovereign Ukraine that is firmly set in the European sphere. National interests and history push Russia to see Ukraine at best as a part of the greater Russian empire and at worst as a vassal state to be used as a buffer. Equally threatening to Russia, and particularly to the presidency of Vladimir Putin, are the threats of foreign military forces based out of Ukraine and liberal democratic ideals spreading from Ukraine into Russia. In actuality, the spread of an uncontrollable political ideology probably is perceived as the greater threat.
With the failure of Yanukovych to retain power and keep Ukraine out of the European sphere, Putin felt obliged to make good on insinuated and open threats that were delivered previously. The invasion of Georgia in 2008 was staged primarily as a message to the West and to Ukraine regarding the proper role of Russia in the region. In an effort to weaken Ukraine, increase Russian influence, and likely to annex all or much of Ukraine, Russia and Putin are using the following methods:
- Ethnic and national divisions. Manipulating ethnic divisions in the country, Russia is using propaganda effectively to further the split between ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, particularly in eastern Ukraine. The smooth annexation of Crimea has emboldened pro-Russian forces in areas where ethnic Russians are the clear majority. Russia is using the media to paint the new Ukrainian government as clearly illegitimate and as a threat to ethnic Russians. It is likely that Russia is issuing to passports to ethnic Russians in parts of Ukraine.
- Special forces and spy assets. In conjunction with their propaganda efforts it seems overwhelmingly likely that Russia as infiltrated the Ukrainian military and government with people loyal to Russia. Additionally, proof is building, and previous tactics suggest, that Russia has placed Special Forces directly into Ukraine to help build up the unrest and increase ethnic divisions.
- Energy and financial dependency. Russia is poised to use Ukraine’s dependence on Russian energy resources and its indebtedness to Russia as a weapon to weaken the Ukrainian government further. Higher energy prices or a lack of energy resources will be used in attempt to decrease the resolve of the Ukrainian people and to increase their dissatisfaction with the Ukrainian government. Any threat of disruption of supplies to Europe by Ukrainian nationals will be seen by Russia as a legitimate reason for Russian invasion.
- Threat of direct invasion. Russian forces remain massed on the Russia-Ukraine border. This threat impacts discussions and decisions among all stakeholders. It emboldens pro-Russian forces in Ukraine and impacts the willingness of the Ukrainian government to maintain law and order where their authority is challenged. In a set piece battle it is unlikely that the Ukrainian military would be able to hold off the Russians for very long.
- Russia’s threat perception. Russian leaders tend to view the encroachment of NATO and the EU as a military, economic, and political threats. The absence of buffer states and decreasing influence do not sit well with Putin and others. Ukraine’s shift westward and European interest in Ukraine is seen as an immediate and near threat. Allaying this perception will be difficult.
Increasing unrest and violence, much of it instigated by Russia and some of it now beyond their ability to stop or to control, potentially will be used by Russia as a reason for invasion. They will be able to claim, as they did in Georgia, that the government or local Ukrainian nationals threaten Russian citizens. Additionally, they can claim they are seeking only to establish peace and protect all parties, using arguments similar to those used by NATO to go bomb Serbia and to go into Kosovo and those used by the US to go into Iraq.
Reticence of the West. The EU and US are hesitant to provide meaningful military aid to Ukraine. Such hesitancy likely is due to the fear of escalating tensions and worsening relations with Russia and because of a lack of support among their domestic citizenry. European and American voters will not support direct or indirect military support or aid for Ukraine at this point. Sufficient financial aid from the West also will be slow in coming. There is little desire to pour money into an uncertain situation where government and business leaders have a poor record of using such funds. Money from the West likely will have a different set of strings attached to it than the money did from Russia, but it will come with a set of strings.
European strings. Closer association with Europe comes with its own set of challenges. Money from Europe, as mentioned above, will come with a set of requirements for austerity measures that will be hard for the citizens to swallow. Additionally industry and manufacturing enterprises in Ukraine, specifically the eastern part, will struggle to compete with similar enterprises in Europe.
Fair and open elections. Ukraine will struggle to conduct national and local elections that are considered fair and open by all competing parties. Some of the parties, on both sides of the major issues, will work to control the outcome of any election. Russia will do its best to export its form of “managed democracy” into different areas of Ukraine.
Zero Sum Game. Too many significant stakeholders are playing a zero sum game that allows no room for compromise. These include many ethnic Russians, right wing Ukrainians, and Russian provocateurs. Without significant compromise by all parties, the situation is untenable without the use of force on a large scale.
Threat of civil and partisan warfare. All of these factors lead to the threat, before or after invasion or annexation by Russia, of prolonged and bloody partisan warfare. Such violence would tear Ukraine apart and destroy any hope of an independent Ukraine based on its current geographic and ethnic lines.
Options and Opportunities
In the face of these challenges and threats, what can Ukraine do to maintain and defend its independence? Below is a list of options and opportunities:
Give up the East. Ukraine could simply divulge itself of the eastern provinces. Allow a straight up and down referendum to allow the local citizens to vote on whether or not they wish to remain a part of Ukraine. This would put them ahead of Russia and throw them off their game, forcing them to accept the results immediately instead of at a time and way of their choosing. Ukraine would have to draw a firm geographic line that could not be crossed by Russia and hope that Russia honored that line.
This option, however, comes with significant costs. Loss of these provinces would leave a significant number of ethnic Ukrainians in areas no longer controlled by Ukraine. It likely would result in a mass exodus and refugee problem that would be difficult for the economically strapped western Ukraine to absorb. It may lead to increased civil strife between ethnic Russians and Ukrainians in the east and it may embolden ethnic Russians elsewhere. Ukraine would also lose the economic contributions of East’s industrial base, ripping out the foundation of an already struggling economy.
Clear communications. The Ukrainian government must find its voice. It must communicate its intentions clearly and loudly to its own citizens of all ethnicities, to Russia, and to the West. Messaging should be focused on the inclusiveness of the body politic of all ethnicities and competing political goals. Clear goals should be set to establish the rule of law, fair and open elections, and a sound economic plan. The benefits of such plans must be communicated to each segment of society. An open invitation to participate should be issued to all.
Commitment to rule of law and democracy. Ukraine can’t simply indicate an intention to rule of law and democracy. It must outline a plan for bringing about real changes and begin to implement those changes. A halfway approach such as has happened in the past is insufficient. Corrupt politicians and business leaders need to be brought down. Every effort must be made to allow all citizens to vote in free and open elections. Institutional attempts to control outcomes cannot be allowed.
Commitment to economic reform and necessary austerity measures. The economic stagnation of the past must be turned around. A solid plan that addresses government corruption, energy dependence and other issues must be formulated. Personal wishes of wealthy oligarchs cannot be allowed to supersede national needs for reform.
Dependence on Russian energy resources must be addressed. Other alternatives are extremely limited. The best must be made of the current situation until other sources become available and affordable.
Accept Russia openly as a neighbor and partner. Russia has true strategic interests in maintaining relations and influence in Ukraine. Unfortunately, Vladimir Putin has resorted to physical force and intimidation to gain influence and control when other methods don’t work to their satisfaction. Ukraine must show that both countries can work together on areas of mutual interest. Ukraine must also show that they will not present a physical threat to Russia. Based on historical ties between Russia and Ukraine, Ukrainian ties to Europe could benefit Russia’s economy if handled correctly.
Clear communications. Again, communication is key. If Ukraine endeavors to tackle their challenges and threats using the concepts listed above, they must communicate their plans, progress, and setbacks clearly to its own citizens, to Russia, and to the West. Russia must know that Ukraine will work with them for common goals. The West, the EU in particular, must know that Ukraine will establish rule of law and free and open elections in order to justify billions of dollars/euros in aid.
Today it seems that Russia is intent on annexing all or some of Ukraine. It remains unclear if the current government in Ukraine can stop them if they press forward. Perhaps upcoming elections will bring a balanced result that will placate Russia for now. Any results that will placate Russia, however, are likely to be seen as illegitimate by many Ukrainians. Clean and clear options are not open and available to Ukraine. Complex and costly ones are what remain. Without a firm commitment to change Ukraine likely will fall back, all or in part, into the sphere of Russian control and influence. Once again, as it was after the end of World War II, such a scenario would bring with it partisan warfare and unspeakable acts of violence.
Ukraine cannot rely on the West to save it. It must step up itself and make significant changes as best as it can in trying circumstances.
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