Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Ukraine: In the Balance Again

Steven E. Meyer


By Steven E. Meyer

February 28, 2014

Last weekend, Ukraine pulled back from almost certain disintegration and possible civil war. The current crisis is far from over and could deepen further, impacting not only Ukraine itself, but the future of relations between a resurgent Russia and a defensive West, both of which are heavily involved there. 

After weeks of violent demonstrations that spread from Kiev to other cities, the deposed president Viktor Yanukovych has fled; his government has collapsed and opposition politicians have stepped in to prepare for new elections in May. But Ukraine remains a fractured, dysfunctional state whose future is very much in doubt. The economy is in shambles, the government’s treasury is virtually empty, corruption is rampant, and security forces are in disarray.

This is the second time in a decade that Ukraine has gone through such a wrenching upheaval.  In 2004, a tainted election triggered the so-called Orange Revolution that led to the collapse of the government and to new elections. Despite expectations for a bright future, the years between 2004 and 2014 saw little progress and this deadly political cycle may not be over. 

Much of the responsibility for the problems rests with Ukraine’s own inability to deal with its issues—corruption, an industrial plant that has had difficulty shedding its socialist moorings, and a political class that has been unable to establish and execute viable programs. Moreover, significant differences between the eastern and western parts of the country also foster instability. There is considerably more support for a strong association with the European Union in western Ukraine where most of the demonstrations have taken place. The east, a bastion of Ukraine’s industrial economy and coal production, has more strongly backed the deal with Russia and opposed the demonstrations.   

The seemingly contradictory pulls of Russia and the EU are a major factor in undermining Ukraine’s stability and viability. Ukraine and Russia have had a long, intimate relationship, and Russia considers Ukraine to be central to its current foreign policy. The recent turn of events has dealt a major defeat to Russia, but Moscow is unlikely to give up easily. Late last year, Moscow successfully persuaded the pro-Russian President Yanukovych to jettison a large trade agreement with the EU in favor of an economic package with Russia. Russia had guaranteed Ukraine $15 billion in aid, it is a major buyer of Ukrainian state bonds, it supplies Ukraine with nearly all of its natural gas at reduced prices, and it applies political pressure in Kiev. Additionally, Russian officials see Ukrainian participation as critical to the success of the Russian-sponsored Eurasian Customs Union (ECU). For the already pro-Russian Yanukovych, the economic and political advantages of cooperating with Moscow seemed natural, beneficial, and much safer than new ties to the West.

Ever since Ukraine became independent in 1991, the West has courted Kiev too, but in considerably more tentative ways than Moscow’s overtures. The West has not uniformly accepted Ukraine’s membership in the EU and NATO, and the aid packages have been slow in coming. But Western attitudes have changed with this most recent crisis, and the EU and the United States now are scrambling to put an aid package together. The details are unclear, but it undoubtedly will have to be in the billions of dollars, and Ukraine will require financial support for many years to come. The big question will be how willing donor countries will be to contribute in the years ahead. In one hopeful sign that suggests greater international cooperation, Russian officials have admitted that it will take several donors to bail Ukraine out of trouble.

Some American politicians argue that Moscow is trying to reconstitute the Soviet Union. But this is not about the Soviet Union and the accompanying Cold War because it has none of the military, ideological, or political characteristics of the Cold War. In the international context, the Ukrainian issue is much more about Russia trying to reestablish itself as a major power after its disillusion, loss, and humiliation in the post-Soviet era and the Western inability to get past the Cold War mentality. To move forward, the task for government on both sides is to set aside differences and focus on providing the necessary money to help sustain the quarter of the Ukrainian population living below the poverty line, and to find a way for Russia and the EU to have a positive and profitable role in building Ukraine.

- Steven E. Meyer is a Fellow of the Center for Public Justice.

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”