Two Races Against Time: Kiev must implement painful reforms fast, Moscow weigh the cost of continued aggression

By Elizabeth Pond
December 2, 2014
IP-Journal, German Council on Foreign Relations

Elizabeth Pond Blog
REUTERS/Antonio Bronic

Is there going to be a winter respite in Russia’s undeclared war on eastern Ukraine? If so, the newly elected government in Kiev must lose no time laying out the foundations for ending the incestuous system of corrupt political, economic, and criminal power in Ukraine. Moscow, meanwhile, can play a waiting game in the hope that Western opinion will eventually acquiesce to its land grab and incursions.

At this point the best Western guess seems to be that Russian President Vladimir Putin probably will not order a new larger-scale invasion of Ukraine by elite Russian troops in the next two months. If so, the stage is now set for parallel races against time by the Ukrainian and Russian adversaries.

In Kiev, the pro-European parties that won a two-thirds constitutional majority of parliamentary seats a month ago must implement painful reforms fast – and eschew fratricide – if they are not to squander the country’s last chance to escape Ukraine’s post-Soviet kleptocracy, economic meltdown, and further dismemberment by Russia.

In Moscow, Putin must weigh the costs and benefits of declaring victory and stabilizing his conquests to date or following his 2014 pattern of escalating militarily whenever he gets partially stymied in his undeclared war on Ukraine. The former course might conceivably let Moscow reset civil relations with Europe, rejoin the global economy it is now being squeezed out of, and get some easing of Western travel and financial sanctions imposed on Russians involved in seizing Crimea and two provincial capitals in eastern Ukraine. The latter course could subject Moscow to expanding damage from those sanctions on the Russian economy, the personal wealth of the president’s inner circle, and perhaps even domestic unease over the taboo loss of life of Russian soldiers in a war that Putin insists Russia is not waging.

Putin is banking, however, on rescue by a countervailing race against time in the West – the popular tendency to forget Russia’s stunning military aggression in Ukraine as long as there are no reminders of it in major new battles or catastrophes like the shooting down in July of a Malaysian civilian flight MH17 over separatist territory. “Putin thinks time is on his side,” comments a German official involved in shaping policy toward Russia. Already some Americans, out of a realist respect for the lopsided correlation of forces between the Russian Goliath and the Ukrainian David, and some Germans, out of realism, their post-World War II “culture of restraint,” and concern for German exports and jobs, are calling for an end to sanctions and Western acquiescence in Russian incursions or even formal recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Western and Ukrainian hope for a winter respite is no more than a guess, of course. Putin prides himself on being unpredictable and is keeping all his options open. No Western analyst is sure that Russian troops won’t again invade Ukraine directly as they did at the end of August, when they routed the Ukrainian army in the east virtually overnight and thwarted the impending defeat of pro-Russian proxies there. Yet recent weeks of steady transport of Russian heavy weapons and military personnel over the open Russian-Ukrainian border – by now Ukrainian government estimates put the number of Russian troops in unmarked uniforms in eastern Ukraine at 10,000 – have at least not spread the geography of the localized fighting in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Mariupol that has persisted since the uneasy September 5 truce was signed.

The relative de-escalation of fighting in the Donetsk-Luhansk (Donbas) area in the three months of that imperfect truce might be attributed to the Russian army’s conscription cycle, the weather, the suicidal determination of the Ukrainians to resist further loss of their territory to the Russian juggernaut, and warnings by independent Russians that occupying Ukrainian territory would require far more troops than seizing it, especially if Ukrainians revived their tradition of stubborn guerrilla warfare of the 1940s.

To be sure, these considerations – along with Moscow’s current charm offensive to win a cuddlier image in the public policy debate that has now opened in Germany – do not constitute any robust deterrence to deeper Russian incursion into eastern Ukraine. Russia enjoys escalation dominance by virtue of geographical proximity, possession of ultimate nuclear weapons, and Putin’s will, along with the West’s public refusal to start World War III to defend a state that is not a NATO member. Yet the considerations do at least raise inhibitions that could delay the offensive that Moscow hardliners are advocating to build a land route along the Azov Sea coast to the annexed Crimean peninsula, seize Ukraine’s Black Sea port of Odessa, and even take over Kharkiv in the north.

Thus, if the last comparable rotation of Russian recruits in May is any guide, Moscow will want to hold off any offensive until new draftees have been broken in. Last spring the Russian army massed up to 80,000 troops on high alert on the Ukrainian borders in the guise of maneuvers for more than a month. Apart from infiltrating a fairly small unit of commandos under Russian Col. Igor Strelkov in the (unrequited) hope of igniting a general uprising among locals in eastern Ukraine, however, Moscow refrained from a direct invasion at the time. It was only when the Ukrainian army and allied volunteer militias regained lost territory last summer and pushed Strelkov’s team and local acolytes back into two enclaves that Putin declared his red line by sending in Russian paratroopers to crush the Ukrainians and save his proxies from surrender.

Mission Impossible?

It would be hard even in peacetime to reform the dysfunctional post-Soviet kleptocratic disorder of a nation that ranks 142 (below Russia’s 136) on a list of 175 countries on Transparency International’s chart of perceived corruption. It would seem to be a mission impossible under the ever-growing threat of Russian guns in the two-month breather that may or may not now be available for creative destruction of existing parasitic power networks and radical institution building.

As Ukraine’s newly elected government takes office this week, President Petro Poroshenko describes the challenge as an existential one of “to be or not to be.” Poroshenko pledges, as he stressed in an interview with German television , that the coalition government of five pro-European parties will carry out root-and-branch military, political, judicial, and economic reforms to achieve democratic transparency and fairness and qualify Ukraine to apply for European Union membership by 2020. “If necessary, we’ll sleep with a revolver under our pillow,” he added.

The one factor that gives Poroshenko’s promise a glimmer of hope is the shock that Putin’s land grabs administered both to the West and to Ukrainians in the undeclared war that has by now claimed more than 4,300 deaths, wounded almost 10,000, and made 1.2 million Ukrainian citizens homeless, according to the latest United Nations data. The initial disbelief that their older East Slav brothers could actually shoot down younger Ukrainian brothers on Ukrainian territory has shifted in less than a year to anger, a determination to resist armed takeover despite the dismal military odds, and extraordinary private initiatives to support the poorly equipped Ukrainian army and militias with everything from kasha and socks to home-made body armor.

“Ukraine and the Ukrainians were never before as unified as they are now,” Poroshenko told German TV broadcaster ARD over the weekend. “More than 68 percent of citizens today call for Ukraine to become a member of the European Union.” The fallen “died for our right to be Europeans.”

But will that new-found solidarity suffice to prevent a repetition of the scramble for personal riches that alienated the public from Ukrainian politics in the early years of post-Soviet independence in the 1990s? Will it immunize today’s politicians against the bitter internal power struggles that doomed the would-be liberal reformers of 2004 in the second attempt to escape Ukraine’s Soviet past? And could it achieve this transformation before the Russian military machine has torn out another segment of Ukraine?

The answer to these questions lies only in part with the shock that Putin’s violation of international law and Russian-signed treaties has given a European Union that has prided itself on having created seven decades of post-World War II reconciliation and peace on a historically bloody continent. This shock convinced the European paymaster of Germany to reject Russia’s forcible change of borders and to spend “whatever it takes” to preserve Ukrainians’ “right to be Europeans.”

Yet in the end German and EU readiness to help Kiev depends on the ability of the Ukrainian government and society to lay out, fast, the foundations for ending the incestuous system of corrupt political, economic, and criminal power and build robust institutions that can resist its restoration. Outsiders can advise Ukrainians, but only the Ukrainians themselves can supply the determination to achieve this goal, and to achieve it at warp speed.

Elizabeth Pond, a Berlin-based journalist and author, first covered Ukraine in the 1960s. She is also a non-resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, and her specialty is tracking the dynamics of transformations.

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