Whither Now, Ukraine?

Michael Weiss’s overview of the situation in Ukraine today touches on several salient topics—corruption, nationalism, the economy, Russia—and is worth a full read. Here, he addresses the law the Ukrainian parliament passed this week granting a measure of autonomy to the country’s eastern regions:

There are already signs that Ukraine and Russia will interpret it differently. The Russian Foreign Ministry, for instance, said in a statement that the law grants the “development in certain regional districts of cross-border cooperation designed to deepen good-neighborly relations with the Russian Federation’s administrative and territorial units,” which is a pretty way of describing a breakaway autonomous zone removed in all but name from the central authority in Kiev. … For their part, the Ukrainians who elected Poroshenko largely on his campaign promise to ensure the territorial integrity of their country fear that this deal is another kind of sellout: the de facto ceding of the Donbass to Russia, or the perpetuation of an occupation in all but name. This is why protests objecting to the special status law have recently erupted outside the Rada.

“The mood at the ministry, specifically with the new foreign minister and his team, is to get it over with,” a Ukrainian diplomat told me, referring to a then-nascent cease-fire agreement. “There is one fear that we will have a new Transnistria. The other is that [the war] goes on indefinitely. The first is more awful.”

Alexander Motyl, however, argues that a frozen conflict “will actually be to Ukraine’s benefit”:

The [Donbas] enclave, which is where much of the region’s population and industry were concentrated, is in ruins. Hundreds of thousands of middle-class professionals have fled and will not return. Industry is shrinking. Infrastructure has collapsed. All these negative tendencies will accelerate, as Putin’s terrorist proxies, remnants of the (formerly ruling) Party of Regions and the Communist Party, the Kremlin, the Donbas oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, and the Russian Orthodox Church duke it out over influence. In a word, the Donbas enclave is finished, and, as deindustrialization continues, depopulation will proceed apace. Whoever inherits the mess caused by Putin and his proxies will have a ball and chain on his leg. Fortunately for Ukraine, it doesn’t—and in all likelihood will not anytime soon—control the enclave. Rightly or wrongly, justly or unjustly, legally or illegally, the burden of control, and the burden of governance, will fall on Putin. Bully for him. The day is not far off when the economic disaster that is the Crimea and the Donbas will burden Putin, and he will be hard-pressed to claim that his imperialism has served Russia well.

Chrystia Freedland warns against complacency now that the conflict has been, as it were, settled. After all, she writes, we still don’t know what Putin’s endgame is:

[W]e need to be careful not to confuse what we want with what we have. If Poroshenko’s wager pays out, we will be tempted to forget about Ukraine, as we forgot about Georgia after the hot summer of 2008. That would be a mistake. Putin won’t forget. And even if this compromise holds, his actions have shattered the European security order. With the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine, Putin has unilaterally declared himself to be above the rules of the post-1991 international system. He hasn’t yet told us what new rules he considers himself bound by. The post-Soviet peace is over: Whatever happens next week, next month or next year in the Donbass—the densely populated area of eastern Ukraine that Putin is seeking to dominate—this fundamental question will remain open.

Adrian Karatnycky argues that Mitt Romney was right in the 2012 presidential debate when he called Russia our greatest geopolitical threat:

A Russian occupation of large parts of Ukraine would clearly threaten the stability and security of our NATO allies on Ukraine’s western border. Further, Ukraine is home to three gigantic nuclear power plant complexes, which could become dangerous battlegrounds with unpredictable consequences for nuclear safety. War could disrupt or destroy Ukraine’s energy pipeline network, which is the central mechanism through which more than half of Russia’s exports of gas and oil to Europe travels. Successful Russian expansion into Ukraine would increase the chances of further adventurism in energy-rich Kazakhstan, where an elderly President will soon physically fade from power. And Russia would be emboldened to exert even stronger influence over the policies of energy-rich Turkmenistan. Would these developments not be as significant in impact as the fate of Saudi, Iraqi, and Qatari oil and gas reserves?

And what of recent, aggressive Russian canards about the alleged mistreatment of ethnic Russians in the Baltic NATO states? Would an aggressive and expansionist Russia not be more be willing to launch new efforts to threaten those states, engaging our Article 5 NATO treaty obligations to directly enter into military operations?

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko certainly encouraged that kind of thinking in his address to the US Congress this morning:

To roaring applause and whooping cheers, the Ukrainian candy mogul-turned politician likened Ukraine’s struggle against Moscow to a global battle for the preservation of the post-World War II international order. “Democracies must support each other,” he said. “Otherwise they will be eliminated, one by one.” … Poroshenko, clearly afraid that the Russian aid has already decisively turned the tide, implored politicians to stand up to Russia.

“Blankets and night-vision goggles are important. But one cannot win a war with blankets!” Poroshenko said, raising his voice for emphasis. “I understand that American citizens and taxpayers want peace, not war … However, there are moments in history, whose importance cannot be measured solely in percentages of GDP growth.”