Kiev, Ukraine, December 22, 2015
Rumors have been circulating in Kiev for several weeks that the present pro-EU governing coalition is fracturing and a new government will soon take power. That is no surprise considering that the coalition was formed from the neo-Nazi Right Sector, the nationalist Svoboda Party, and an assortment of regional parties controlled by business interests that want closer ties to the E.U. Thus, the present government is less a coalition of political parties than a collection of self-interested politicians without a unifying ideology or program.
What will be more of a surprise, if the rumors are confirmed, is that the pro-E.U. coalition will likely be replaced by a government with strong pro-Russian sentiments – as government that will move to improve relationships with Russia and end the war in South-Eastern Ukraine, or Donbass, as the region is known in Ukraine. The war in Donbass had become universally unpopular, except for the most extreme right-wing elements, and a promise to end the war is likely to be meet with enthusiasm across Ukraine.
Ukraine has since independence been at war politically with itself. In the past, changes in the government have led to a purge of the opposition, and current rumors also predicts there will be a purge of pro-E.U. supporters inside and outside of the government in Kiev once a new government arrives. However, unlike past times, the stakes are much higher this time around because of present role played by the E.U. and the U.S. in the internal affairs of Ukraine.
Ukraine is in a constant state of turmoil unlike any time since the mid-1990s. The war has produced more than 2 million internal refugees, some of whom have migrated to Kiev and west to Lviv, if they had money. This has created tension in many areas where the refugees are seen as outsiders. Others have moved to Russia to live with family and friends. But for those left behind, the ongoing war in Donbass is a Kafkaesque nightmare of random shooting, checkpoints manned by drunken troops who extort money for transit, and a constant fear of renewed general fighting.
The war is highly visible throughout Ukraine, with soldiers and multiple sets of police roaming the streets of most major Ukrainian cities and regular fundraising events to “support the troops.” However, the unpopularity of the war can be measured in the resistance of potential conscripts – the government is attempting to draft men up to 50 years old – who hide from authorities, and in the unwillingness of Ukrainians to give money to the government to continue the war.
What is noticeable and offensive to most Ukrainians is the economic cost of the war. Frightened by rumors of the war, tourists have stayed away in droves. Major construction projects have come to a standstill as foreign investors hesitate to make further commitments in the face of uncertainty. Social services, which have not been good since independence, have almost ceased to function. Even the Ukrainian military is hurting as voluntary contributions from citizens have filled the huge gap left in government war funding. The popular view of the war can be found in a comment commonly heard everywhere that “the government doesn’t care about the Ukrainian people.”
A Nation, not a State
Putting the present events in Ukraine in perspective requires a reference to the long history of Ukraine. Ukraine is not so much a “failed state”, as a state that never was, at least in the modern sense of the term. Rather, Ukraine is better understood as a nation organized around a shared culture where family, tribe, and ethnicity define who you are, where you live, and how you think. Except when forced, Ukrainians do not move from their place of birth. Local histories are studied and act to define distinct local identities.
Ukraine as a nation has also been defined by the many times it has been invaded and divided by other nations. Sweden, Austria, Lithuania, Poland, the Ottoman Empire, the Mongols and Tartars, and tribes from what is now Iran have fought over Ukraine, leaving their fingerprints on Ukrainian culture and society. For example, Ukraine gave birth both to the Russian language and to modern Russia, with Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, serving as a shared symbol of Slavic triumph over invaders and the birthplace of modern Russian.
Ukraine also was and is one of the richest agricultural countries in the world, with 40% of the world’s “black soil” found along Ukraine’s northwestern border. Not surprisingly, this made farming a dominant cultural theme in Ukraine, which became organized around cities or Oblasts (counties and shires). In turn, Ukrainian cities became trading centers, which were formed and legitimated as governments under Magdeburg charters granted in the 17th and 18th Centuries. The agricultural character of its culture led to a long history of resisting industrial development in Ukraine, and many of the ethnic Russians that now live in Donbass were imported by British and French industrialists as laborers in the 19th Century to work in the new Ukrainian iron and coal mines.
In the broad sense, this long history deprived Ukraine of the cultural foundations necessary to forming modern states and modern economies. Even a casual observer can see that in Ukraine there is little understanding of modern organization and management, and almost no recognition of the important role of the specialist. As with other underdeveloped third-world countries, Ukrainians have been relegated to a supporting role in their own economic affairs, contributing to the centuries old pattern of foreign management and exploitation of Ukraine.
Education is one of the most important building blocks for a modern state. But, while Ukraine claims a 98% literacy rate, its educational system is quaintly traditional, authoritarian, and corrupt. There is no general agreement about what a quality education should include, and after the end of Soviet Ukraine, there was little national leadership to explore and guide education in Ukraine, with education policy and practice left up to local political and economic elites, with corruption openly plaguing its universities. Currently, university professors who are poorly paid and disconnected from the larger academic world, openly sell grades, and innovation and critical thinking are discouraged except for elite students in elite universities. This leaves Ukrainian students who want a modern education to either leave Ukraine, or reconcile themselves to years of marginal employment and poverty living in Ukraine.
Everyone in Ukraine engages in some form of corruption, which is the bane of a functioning modern society. The corruption is pervasive and includes the wide-spread avoidance of taxes and regulation, bribing public officials, and scamming foreigners and each other. This is possible because a culture of corruption has formed where few believe they have any interest in government. Everyone complains about this corruption, but few look inward to see how corruption has become a Ukrainian norm. Rather, there is a child-like innocence to Ukrainian culture that acts to insulate Ukrainians from the dark and disturbing reality that Ukraine lacks basic legitimacy as a modern state and society.
The Present as Prologue
Ukraine is potentially a rich and powerful nation. But it has been potentially rich and powerful for hundreds of years without realizing its potential. It has consistently failed to protect its own national borders, except when acquiring powerful allies, and its wealth has always been controlled by non-Ukrainians. Despite all the complaining, Ukrainians seem content with following rather than leading.
Periodically, there is talk of the natural east-west divisions in Ukraine and how these might be formalized in a partition of the country. Yet, there is great pride among Ukrainians in the notion of Ukraine as an indivisible nation. If one thinks about Ukraine as a nation without borders, rather than a formal state, it is possible that Ukraine can drift on uncertain historical tides with its ambiguities left in place and without disturbing anyone.
How the future of Ukraine evolves depends on Russia, which has demonstrated it has a veto power over the internal politics of Ukraine. There is no reason to believe that Russia has any interest in a wider war in Donbass. It secured its national security interests by assuming direct control over Crimea, and while Ukrainian politics can be annoying to Russia Ukraine by itself poses little threat. Also, while Russia would like to see Ukraine rejoin the CIS, Russia also benefits from Ukraine’s ongoing relationships with Germany, Austria, and Poland. Thus, barring a major shift in world politics, the future for Ukraine looks much like the present.
The one caveat in Ukrainian’s future is the role of the U.S. The U.S. now has some 300 military advisers in Western Ukraine, economic advisers in the Ukrainian government, and wide-spread corporate investments in Ukraine. There is little doubt the U.S. wants to continue to challenge and provoke Russia everywhere, including Ukraine. But the U.S. has no experience with the history of the region, and while there are groups in Ukraine, such as Right Sector, who are willing to collaborate with the U.S., they also are difficult for the U.S. to control.
It would be very dangerous for the U.S. and the world to disturb the political equilibrium in Ukraine, as the history of the region is written in blood and war. Everyone in Europe has an interest in maintaining this equilibrium, which is why E.U. politicians have limited their role in internal Ukrainian politics. Unfortunately, the U.S. isn’t much of a team player in international affairs, and its recent history of careless interventions are a cautionary tale. In the case of Ukraine, the U.S. should understand that the risks in provocation far outweigh any rewards in bloodying the Russian nose, and follow the European example of long-term engagement.
Darrell Whitman is a member of GlobalFaultlines Editorial Board