Five years ago, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine morphed from economic and political threats into outright military aggression. It had all started in late summer 2013 as Russian President Vladimir Putin had begun to put all screws possible on the country to force it off its Western path, and pressure it into the Eurasian Economic Union, which was his own project. Russia’s aggression escalated until a fragile cease-fire was achieved in the late summer of 2014.
It was aggression on a scale Europe that hadn’t seen since the 1940s. Having truncated Georgia in 2008, Putin repeated the performance with the annexation of Crimea and the project to divide the rest of Ukraine.
But the threat to the country was even more severe. A decade of mismanagement, in combination with the massive corruption of the Yanukovych regime, has left the country in a state of near-bankruptcy. Russia’s aggression put Ukraine’s very survival at stake.
Ukraine didn’t fracture under the pressure. Instead, the country united through presidential and parliamentary elections that demonstrated a resolve to not only resist aggression but also to root out corruption and mismanagement.
Now, Ukraine is now facing presidential and parliamentary elections that will chart its course for the next five years.
Crimea is under increasingly firm Russian military control, and the corrupt and semi-criminalized Russian-supported state-lets in parts of Donbas are still there. Sustained diplomatic efforts to reach a settlement have gone nowhere. More than 1 million Ukrainians have been displaced, and around 13,000 have lost their lives in the conflict.
Sustained economic reforms have taken the country back to firm growth. But the losses from the conflict and crisis years haven’t yet been fully recovered.
Deficits have to a large extent been eliminated, the thoroughly corrupt gas sector has been fundamentally reformed, the banking sector has been restored to health, and the far-reaching agreement with the European Union that Putin was ready to go to such extreme lengths to stop is ratified and in force. According to a speech by Poroshenko, around 45 percent of Ukraine’s trade is with the E.U., and only around 7 percent is with Russia. Add to that fundamental reforms in the health sectors and in the pension system and a far-reaching decentralization, and the record is impressive.
But huge problems remain. Corruption is widely perceived as still being rampant, although it has reduced some. And the gap in living standards has led to a wave of migration of talent. For instance in Poland, around 1 million Ukrainians are now supporting the growth of the Polish economy.
There is little doubt that there is widespread dissatisfaction with the economic and social situation as the country now enters its election season. And we can rest assured that the Kremlin, which effectively lost the confrontation in 2014, will do whatever it can to influence the elections and their aftermath in its favor. If meddling in the U.S presidential election was a priority, this is very much more so the case in Ukraine.
The basic Kremlin message is that Ukraine is a hopeless case of mismanagement and incompetence, and that only Moscow can govern the wider Slavic world. It throws around accusations of “coups” and “fascists” in the hope that they at some time will stick.
At the moment, there is no way of knowing whether sitting President Poroshenko, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, or TV presenter and comedian Volodymyr Zelensky will emerge victorious in the final round on April 21. This is a genuine open democratic election. It’s not Russia.
But there is no reason to believe that any of the few candidates questioning the pro-Western orientation of the country will get out of single-digit territory in terms of votes. The basic foreign policy course is almost certain to remain the same.
The question of continued economic reform is somewhat more open. Tymoshenko in particular, has been following the siren song of populism with a series of promises that would derail the economic reform trajectory and potentially bring major problems back. And the composition of the parliament to be elected in October will be important. It will take until at least the end of the year until a new government can be formed and continue to reform the country.
Ukraine is a significant European country with an impressive economic potential if it continues on its reform trajectory. The information technology sector is growing quickly, and the country sits on some of the most fertile soil in the world.
But Ukraine will require continued attention and help from the rest of Europe in its reform efforts. Firm U.S. and E.U. policies must withstand Russian attempts to destabilize the efforts.
The sooner that happens, the better for all, not least for Russia. But a firm Western policy of support for Ukraine should be a priority.
Michael McFaul: Ukraine’s democracy is approaching ‘make or break’ — and the West is missing in action