The war in Ukraine is not only tragic, it is exhausting. Soon it will become as ‘ordinary’ as the occupation of the West Bank or insurgency in Afghanistan. It seems that the media and politicians revisit these ‘uninteresting’ conflicts only when something ‘extraordinary’ happens, otherwise being resigned to the apparently unchanging status-quo. It is evident that Ukraine alone cannot stop the hostilities since the war is not a mere local insurgency whereby rebels shop for arms and uniform in local stores, as Putin famously claimed during his initial invasion of Crimea. Without a simmering conflict in Ukraine Russia will lose its grip on its neighbour and the upper hand in dealings with the West, whilst ordinary Russians might notice serious internal problems. It is clear that the collective West cannot take Ukraine’s side militarily, regardless of the assurances enshrined in the 1994 Budapest memorandum. However, there is something that the West can do.
Without reforms Ukraine is doomed. It will not be able to sustain resistance as its economy will crumble before Russia’s despite futile hopes of otherwise – in any war of attrition the Russian bear has more fat to rely on during tough times. Furthermore, given the political culture in these two countries, the Ukrainian government is at higher risk of being overthrown by angry citizens than the one in the Kremlin. This situation would not be too dangerous in isolation but for the Russian neighbour: in a few days of political vacuum following the exodus of the Yanukovych government last year the annexation of Crimea and seizure of the Ukrainian fleet and property happened. It is unlikely that Russia would act differently if Ukrainians decide that the current government has not fulfilled their hopes and aspirations of a new state and is similarly despatched. The social unrest in Ukraine could eventually develop into chaos and create another Libya or Iraq, but here it shares a land border with four EU countries.
The level of approval of the incumbent President and government is shrinking, and without popular support reforms may be misunderstood and resisted. Conversely, without reforms this government, and by extension the country’s territorial integrity and the welfare and security of ordinary people, are (at best) at risk. The Ukrainian civil society has come a long way, but today the majority of most active Ukrainians are consumed by the war: they volunteer, they fight, they think of nothing but preserving the independence of their country, leaving the government almost unaccountable. Many exercise self-restraint in criticising the laissez-faire and ineffective government fearing that internal divisions will be used by Russia to coerce Kyiv. Some activists and NGOs still watch closely the power-holders, they draft reforms and stop corruption schemes which the new authorities do not avoid. Public outcry may even result in the dismissal of the Prosecutor General, President Poroshenko’s protégé, who has been at best very stoic about the well-substantiated accusations of corruption even within his own agency. He has been impotent about prosecuting at least those involved in large-scale corruption and the violation of human rights during the Yanukovych rule. However, given the situation, the government effectively exploits the war to delay reforms and fend off criticism. Nevertheless, the West has much stronger leverage over the Ukrainian authorities than does the Ukrainian public.
Therefore, the collective West must pressure Kyiv to finally undertake reforms – the blueprint of which has been diligently detailed in the parliamentary coalition agreement. But the parliament and government are already behind the agreed timetable. Western support, political and economic, should become contingent on the progress of reforming the failing Ukrainian state. The track record of the Ukrainian President and Prime Minister suggests that their priority is staying in power and engaging in a propaganda war (they even created an Orwellian ‘ministry of truth’) rather than reforming the country and ending the war. Whilst the war is fought with the help of popular crowdsourcing and volunteers, corrupt courts release the initially seized assets of Yanukovych’s cronies and the government mismanages public funds. It is just a matter of time when Ukraine will be found in violation of the ECHR by the Strasbourg court for sending ill-equipped and poorly trained soldiers into, effectively, a war zone.
Not only is Ukraine unlikely to win the war without radical reforms and the eradication of corruption, but a post-conflict reconciliation will be even less likely. The population in the Donbass was formerly quite ambivalent, some even antagonistic, towards the central authorities and the Ukrainian state in general. This despite their representatives ruling Ukraine for most of the time since the restoration of independence. After the occupation of Crimea and parts of the Donbass the enormous propaganda campaign through the Russian media only intensified there. Its main message, apart from accusing the Ukrainian authorities of genocide, is that Ukraine is an artificial and by now a failed state. Attempts to refute this Kremlin propaganda by its own propaganda are dangerous and ineffective, given that the Russian media are much more experienced in creating virtual realities – and their funding cannot be, and should not be, matched by Ukraine which is on the brink of bankruptcy. Notwithstanding the importance of information warfare, it would be more strategic to build a real new state, with transparent governance and economy, with social security and the observance of human rights. One important incentive for many Crimeans in supporting the annexation was the higher level of state pensions in Russia and its image of a strong state. Matching and exceeding such expectations may help to reintegrate people from the currently occupied territories. The existing corrupt, inhumane, and poor state is unlikely to gain legitimacy in their eyes. It will also lose legitimacy in the eyes of other Ukrainians who have survived the ordeal caused by the brutality of the previous regime and the war with Russia. Now is a good time for this nudge from the West – before it is too late.