On August 24, 1991, Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union following a referendum that received 90 percent support. Twenty-five years later, the country is still struggling to escape the shadow of its neighbor. Russia now controls Crimea and is increasing its military presence there. Moscow supports separatist forces in a conflict that has already cost 10,000 lives. In recent weeks, 40,000 Russian troops have staged along the border with Ukraine. The ultimate purpose of Russia’s escalation is not yet evident, but it is clear that Vladimir Putin refuses to accept a thriving pro-Western democracy in Ukraine. As Kyiv works to overcome these threats and enact reforms, the United States must enhance its support to this beleaguered partner.
Tensions between Russia and Ukraine dramatically escalated in August when two Russian soldiers were reportedly killed in Crimea. Although Russia’s claims have not been independently verified, President Putin has accused Ukraine of committing “terrorist acts” and mobilized tens of thousands of its troops. In response, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has ordered his military forces to high alert.
Russia appears to be sending a message to both Ukrainians and the international community. Bruno Lété of the German Marshall Fund told the Wall Street Journal that this build-up is aimed at undermining Poroshenko’s position and that of other pro-Western politicians in Kyiv. “By putting all these military means on Ukraine’s border, Putin wants to show the Ukraine people that Poroshenko is not able to defend them,” Lété said. Hannah Thoburn of the Hudson Institute warns that Russia may also be attempting to undermine Western support for Ukraine by portraying it as the troublemaker, perhaps in an effort to undermine the post-2014 sanctions against Moscow.
It is also possible that Putin is preparing to escalate his conflict with Ukraine. As Steve Nix and Katie LaRoque of the International Republican Institute recall, Russia used similar tactics — a massive troop build-up under the cover of a military exercise — before it invaded and dismembered Georgia in August 2008. The size of the military build-up led the Institute for the Study of War to warn two weeks ago that “the likelihood of open war is increasing rapidly.”
All of this comes at a time when Ukraine’s economy has begun to rebound after a precipitous decline. Analysts Mykhailo Kukhar and Alexei Sobchenko report that Ukraine has begun reducing unemployment for the first time in 18 months. Former US Ambassadors to Ukraine John Herbst, Steven Pifer, and William Taylor write that Kyiv has already done much to help liberalize the economy — for instance, using markets to determine the price of natural gas. Doing so has eliminated a major source of corruption and reduced Ukraine’s budget deficit. The government has also established a transparent system for government procurement and begun major reforms of the banking system.
However, Ukraine has much work remaining to combat entrenched corruption and a sclerotic post-Soviet economy. As Basil Kalymon of the University of Western Ontario notes, Ukraine still has many state-owned enterprises, an over-burdened national pension fund, and promises free healthcare for all its citizens. Adopting market-based reforms in these sectors would do much to jumpstart Ukraine’s economy and remove corruption in areas that affect daily life. However, these measures are enormously difficult to undertake under the best of circumstances. They will be even more difficult to advance while the country is under a growing military threat.
The United States should recognize that diplomatic efforts to reduce the threat against Ukraine have failed. Because Russia has refused to meet a single condition of the Minsk agreement, writes David Kramer of the McCain Institute, “It is time to scrap it and make clear to Russia, through a declaration from Western nations, that sanctions will remain in place — and will be increased over time — unless Russia meets several key conditions.” These include withdrawing its forces from Ukrainian territory and restoring control over the border to Kyiv. The United States should go further and finally provide the anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry necessary to enable Ukraine to better defend itself against Russia’s military. Until Kyiv can impose costs on Moscow for its continuing aggression, Ukraine will remain at Putin’s mercy.
There is, however, considerable reason for optimism regarding Ukraine’s future. As Adrian Karatnycky of the Atlantic Council notes, Russia’s aggression “has largely consolidated the Ukrainian nation, bringing together Russian- and Ukrainian-speakers around a new spirit of patriotism and national pride. This has meant that politics is no longer operating on an east-west or Ukrainian-Russian-speaking axis, but around fundamental political principles, thus opening the door to more programmatically oriented political discourse.” Furthermore, as Ambassadors Herbst, Pifer, and Taylor note, Kyiv is now led by “the most reform-minded government and parliament in Ukraine’s history.” The United States must help Ukraine continue on its reforms, recognizing that “success matters not only for Ukrainians, but also for the kind of stable and secure Europe that has been a U.S. policy goal since the end of the Cold War.”
Twenty-five years after Ukraine declared independence, the country is still threatened by Moscow’s designs. In 1991, the Ukrainian people clearly declared that they wanted to chart their own destiny — a message that was delivered again two years ago with the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych and the election of a new reform-minded government. The United States should help Ukraine fulfill the promise of the past quarter-century and enable the country to choose its own role in the international community.
—Evan Moore is a senior policy analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative. This article was reprinted with permission from the Foreign Policy Initiative.