Foreign Policy Blogs

East and West must come together in Ukraine

Poroshenko's new advisor -@PoroshenkoEng

Poroshenko’s new advisor – via @PoroshenkoEng

In a disturbing yet somewhat surreal turn of events, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko unveiled his latest weapon in the ongoing war with Russian separatists in the East: a Cabbage Patch Kids-style ragdoll. Poroshenko took to Twitter on December 5 to post a photo of the doll along with the accompanying message “It has become a tradition: I come to work, take the doll and think what I must do today to protect the country.” So far, it’s not going well.

But here’s what Poroshenko’s new advisor should tell the president.

The country is experiencing one of the worst downward spirals in its history, under the weight of the combined effects of economic decline, military conflict and political fragmentation. The economy is forecast to contract by 10 percent this year, the central bank’s currency reserves dipped below $10 billion (from an average of $22.7 billion over the last dozen years), and the ongoing war in the east bleeds Kyiv of some $5 million per day. The national currency, the hryvnia, has lost more than half of its value this year. Moreover, the conflict-torn provinces of Doentsk and Luhansk, the country’s traditional industrial powerhouses and responsible for 16 percent of Ukraine’s GDP, have seen their industrial output decline by 60 percent and 85 percent year on year, respectively. The rebels have also destroyed key infrastructure, by blowing up rail hubs, transport nodes, downing power lines or flooding mines.

In spite of a so-called cease fire signed back in September between the separatists and Kyiv, the death toll rose by a further 1,000 people since, hitting 4,300 casualties. More than one million people are internally displaced. But such figures pale in comparison to the mounting hardships the Ukrainians will suffer once winter sets in. The country is experiencing a chronic shortage of much-needed coal to fire up its heating plants – some 4 million tons just to make through the winter. Since 95 percent of its production capacity is located in the two separatist regions, the central government in Kyiv watches helplessly as the rebels export coal to Russia. Always the stoics, Ukrainians have adopted a resilient attitude, resorting to improvised stoves to compensate for the thermostats in Kyiv residential buildings set at 60°F this winter due to shortages. Hot water as well had been shut off most of the summer.

Reports emerging from the rebel-controlled East also paint a ghastly picture: warlords have been threatening Taliban-style measures against women, with a commander calling for them to be arrested if seen in cafes. “If you want to be true and faithful to your husband, stay home and do your stitching,” said Alexei Mozgovoi commander of the Wraith brigade, a separatist group.

Negotiated outcome

In this complicated and volatile context, the “shock treatment” demanded by the IMF delegation as a precondition for securing a $17 billion will most certainly backfire and seems to forget one cannot impose austerity measures a) in a recession and b) while fighting a war. Nevertheless, Ukraine is required to suspend natural gas and heating subsidies, which will lead to an increase in prices for consumers by 56 percent in 2014 and then between 20 percent and 40 percent annually from 2015 to 2017. Fund officials estimate that the consumers deemed at risk will be protected by an improved social safety net, which sadly Ukraine cannot afford. Indeed, as Bloomberg keenly noted, the IMF’s stringent demands are the wrong cure for Ukraine’s itch, since the fund came up with “an economic solution to a geopolitical problem.”

Politically, Ukraine is in the midst of a ferocious witch-hunt, carried out by the West and Moscow alike. One side calls the opponents Nazis, pointing to the Nazi crosses worn by the Azov battalion, while the other side legitimizes the current government’s purge against individuals linked to the ancien régime. Both present the conflict in a stark black and white narrative, which leaves little room for nuance. And both are equally wrong.

Russia’s violent reaction to the European Union’s perceived overreach, with tanks, misinformation and special forces, has been well documented. But moving beyond the overly simplistic view of a good versus evil struggle means shining a critical light into the West’s response. So far, the most incisive measure taken by Brussels and Washington has been imposing sanctions, which has targeted individuals and companies blamed for actively destabilizing Ukraine. But, upon further scrutiny, that list looks more like a whitewashing exercise of Western leaders meant to appease an angry national audience hungry for more than just “strongly worded statements.”

In a mad dash for results, the EU’s sanctions list was hastily put together and the justifications relied upon by the Brussels bureaucracy offer scant insights into the evidence or rationales used. Alongside notorious oligarchs and politicians that did play a major role in destabilizing Ukraine are politically neutral technocrats. For example, Oleksandr Klymenko, the country’s former Tax Minister credited with bringing the country’s notorious oligarchs into the fold by cracking down on their illegal profits, is lumped next to Igor Sergun, Russia’s spy chief, or Igor Sechin, one of Putin’s closest advisers.

Both politically and economically, the current policies put in place serve more to further disenfranchise the population. As Lev Golinkin argued in the New York Times, “The unpalatable reality is that a significant portion of eastern Ukrainians — the very people on the ground living and suffering through this conflict — distrust Kiev and the West and at least tacitly support Russia and the separatists.” Indeed, more 85 percent of the almost half a million people to have left Ukraine since April have went to Russia. This statistic alone should raise some tough questions in Western policy circles.

No matter what some might believe, Ukraine’s divides are by no means transitory consequences that will be dispelled once the civil war abets. No, the conflict’s effects are bound to be long lasting unless a coherent and unitary national strategy is not hashed out with the widest possible participation. Policy choices are never easy to make, but in Ukraine’s case it would simply be unfeasible for decision makers to ignore the strong pro-Russian minority in the country.

Therefore, escaping the zero sum logic espoused by the West and Russia alike should embolden Kyiv to make steps towards transforming the conflict away from Manichaeistic choices and focus instead on building a real democracy with ample representation for the full spectrum of the population.



James Nadeau

Originally from Maryland, James Nadeau is a European affairs advisor and foreign policy analyst currently based in Brussels, Belgium. His writings have been featured in The Kyiv Post, The Hill and RealClearWorld.