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Trying to 'Win' Ukraine Could Lead to Its Collapse


With the Ukraine crisis now entering its sixth month, policymakers ought to step back from the daily torrent of bad news and ask whether the West's current approach is yielding positive results.

The honest answer has to be: not really.

The tragic loss of life in Odessa on May 2 and the stepped-up fighting in and around separatist strongholds in eastern Ukraine appear to be setting in motion precisely the series of events that the West has sought to avoid: full-scale armed conflict between Moscow and Kiev and the prospect of Ukraine’s collapse as a unitary state.

Ever since the dramatic overthrow of the Viktor Yanukovich government in late February, U.S. and EU leaders have failed to come to terms with an unpleasant reality. As former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer put it, Vladimir Putin “cares a whole lot more about losing Ukraine than the West cares about keeping it.”

There are no excuses for the reckless policies Putin has pursued. His annexation of Crimea, and his unapologetic embrace of Russian chauvinism and ultra-nationalist themes are evocative of the worst aspects of European power politics during the first half of the twentieth century. It is deeply disconcerting to see far-right wing European politicians, from Marine Le Pen to Geert Wilders, touting Putin as their ideological soul-mate and comrade-in-arms in the fight against European elites and the soulless EU bureaucracy.

But even if events do not come to a head in coming days, a protracted crisis in Ukraine may, over time, simply exhaust Western capabilities to counter a Russian campaign to destabilize Ukraine or to keep its basket-case economy afloat. What we are looking at now is nothing less than a bigger, messier version of Georgia across a territory the size of France with the potential for a lot more bloodshed. 

Rather than developing a new approach to avoid catastrophe, Western leaders are doubling down. President Barack Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkel announced last week that the derailing of the May 25 presidential elections could be the basis for imposition of so-called sectoral sanctions on Russia. While they and other Western leaders continue to profess their desire to see a diplomatic solution to the crisis, high-level dialogue with the Kremlin amounts to little more than exchanging public statements. Nor are we aware of any serious back-channel diplomatic moves to resolve the crisis. The West has said elections or else, but Moscow shows no sign of acquiescing to a smooth internal political transition. Quite the contrary. 

Unfortunately, sanctions will not push Russian leaders to hand back control over Crimea to Kiev. The sanctions effort may be hurting the confidence and pocketbooks of Russia’s business elites, but there is no indication whatsoever that their pain and suffering matter very much for Putin or the very small cohort of advisers he relies upon. In a similar vein, U.S. moves to sanction top figures in the Russian establishment simply by dint of their longstanding personal ties to Putin, not their actual behavior, raises a basic question about whether the sanctions can be lifted if the conduct of the Russian state changes.

As Chancellor Merkel’s visit to Washington demonstrated, it is also getting harder to maintain the appearance and reality of a consistent U.S.-EU approach on sanctions, which is why sanctions are not deterring further Russian escalation. The two leaders agreed on the need to impose costs on Russia but not on what those costs should be. The EU has focused all of its sanctions to date on officials and politicians who were directly involved in the annexation of Crimea or Moscow’s broader campaign of destabilization against Ukraine. Some of our European partners are fretting about the possibility of being hit with legal challenges, a process that has already sapped some of the efficacy of sanctions regimes against Iran and al Qaeda. If and when such successful challenges are mounted, it could start to unravel the sanctions effort and, embarrassingly, hand Putin a victory. 

The military options are even more problematic. The United States has rightly focused on reassuring NATO members such as the Baltic nations and Poland that the Alliance exists to defend them, but this does little to alter the facts on the ground in Ukraine. Sending military aid might be a nice, feel-good gesture, but Ukraine’s military is no match for Russia’s, and the recent announcement by the government in Kiev that they will be bringing back military conscription is not a fix. For good reason, the White House and key EU governments have stated repeatedly that they are not going to go to war with Russia over Ukraine, a position that enjoys strong popular support.

So where does that leave us? Isolating Russia politically and economically was an important step in the immediate aftermath of the annexation of Crimea to make clear to Putin that his actions were unwarranted, illegal, and strongly opposed by the international community. But our paramount goal now has to be different—saving Ukraine as a country. If Kiev cannot hope to hold meaningful elections on May 25 or reassert control over key parts of the country, what can the West do? 

First and foremost, we need to find a way to get beyond the West versus Russia narrative. The sad truth is that neither side in this geopolitical tug of war is going to be able secure its goals all by itself or without serious bloodshed. Any attempt to “win” Ukraine will almost certainly lead to the country’s collapse and de facto partition.

What Ukraine really needs is an Afghan-style loya jirga, a grand assembly, ideally under the auspices of the United Nations or Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), with the full backing of all outside powers. Participation in the loya jirga by representatives of all political, regional, and economic stakeholders from inside Ukraine would have to be mandatory. For nearly 25 years, the leaders and people of Ukraine have failed to agree on fundamental aspects of their statehood, to come together as a single nation, or to build a prosperous economy. Power is over-centralized in the hands of the government in Kiev and needs to be devolved to the regional level. Socioeconomic conditions, health care, education standards, and pensions lag painfully behind most of Ukraine’s neighbors, including Russia.

Unfortunately, since independence in 1991, Ukraine’s elites have generally treated politics as a play thing for a heavily criminalized, corrupt oligarchic system. Each successive government has been worse and more dysfunctional than its predecessor. Even today, the promise of the Maidan movement is being harmed by the reassertion of entrenched old ways of doing business, the redistribution of property and rents, and the use of violence. It is Ukraine’s great tragedy that both of the two leading presidential contenders, Petro Poroshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, are the products and beneficiaries of this deeply rotten system.

We understand why the West originally saw the elections as an important milestone for putting the country back on track and establishing the legitimacy of a new government in the aftermath of a messy, chaotic revolution. Given that Russia has called for the elections to be canceled, it will be difficult for the United States and the EU to support postponing them. But holding elections as scheduled presupposes that the government that can provide a safe and secure environment for voters and a free and fair electoral process.

Ukraine needs a negotiated agreement among its leading parties on the terms of a power-sharing arrangement prior to holding both presidential and parliamentary elections (a date for the latter, curiously enough, is nowhere to be seen). International and regional institutions such as the UN and OSCE would bear responsibility for creating an environment in which these negotiations can take place in good faith and not at the barrel of a gun, and Russia would have to forswear sending its troops into Ukraine in order for such talks to have a chance. 

At this stage of the crisis, only by shifting the narrative to a conversation about what can be done to ensure Ukraine emerges as a viable country is there any real chance to avoid catastrophe.