The glass in Ukraine: Half full, half spilt

The hard work begins in Ukraine both for the West and the new Kiev administration.

The Ukrainian people's victory notwithstanding, doubt clouds the future of the Kiev government, write the authors [Reuters]

How quickly the Ukraine narrative has changed. Only days removed from the optimism following the de facto abdication of ex-President Viktor Yanukovich, the Crimean peninsula appears to be in the throes of a Russian military intervention. It began with some armed men, reportedly private security contractors, seizing Crimean airports, but soon escalated to include armored convoys, military helicopters, tanks and thousands of troops.

Recent developments in the Crimea will tempt many in Washington and Brussels to segregate Kiev’s political frailty from the Russian intervention. But the two events are, unfortunately, inexorably linked.

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Miscalculated politics

In spite of the increasingly evident Russian threat, Ukraine’s future will continue to depend on the new Kiev administration’s ability to make pragmatic, difficult choices. However, the new powers in Kiev carry a legacy of a turbulent, even fratricidal, brand of politics. If Ukraine is to survive, this will have to change.

At the moment, the Crimean peninsula already appears under the control of Russian forces. Moscow appears to view Yanukovich’s ouster as a license for intervention.

It is safe to say that the extent of Moscow’s actions within Ukrainian territory rely on miscalculations from Kiev to provide a scaffolding of justification, however flimsy, for creeping annexation.This makes the importance of developing a pragmatic, representative government in Kiev all the more important.

At this point, its almost easy to forget this all began with Yanukovich’s ill-timed decision to abandon a long-planned Association Agreement with the EU. The long-fragmented, Western-leaning opposition found its unifying issue and raged against what – to many – appeared to be Yanukovich’s dutiful subservience to Kremlin pressure. But this was not the whole story.

Yanukovich has never been a pure Kremlin proxy so much as a recognisably post-Soviet creature that Moscow could generally comprehend, even if only grudgingly accept. Though no economist, it was even clear to Yanukovich that the EU agreement – and an inevitable Russian response – would at least for the short term imperil Ukraine’s already battered economy (and jeopardise his opportunities for graft).

Reactions in the West to a well-timed $15 billion Russian bailout was to dismiss it as geopolitical bribery, even though material incentives are a normal part of the process of Western integration. Nonetheless, the West had neither a compelling economic package nor a coherent long-term perspective on offer.

Platitudes may be safer at a time like this, but this is only a recipe for further setbacks. Now is when the hard work begins.

In the end, it was not Western soft power, but fed up Ukrainians, that toppled Yanukovich. No thanks to Western brokerage, the Ukrainians’ inspiring victory had to be accomplished through coercion. This necessarily put the new government at powerful odds with Moscow, which has apparently felt compelled to act.

The Ukrainian people’s victory notwithstanding, doubt clouds the future of the Kiev government, and indeed the country more generally, that go beyond the immediate crisis in the east. For example, the release of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, cruelly imprisoned after a deeply suspect judicial process, is at once a positive development and a likely harbinger of a bruising political process to come.

Though she remains a potent symbol of pro-European aspirations, the actual Tymoshenko may be better understood as an opportunistic political operator with no small responsibility for Ukraine’s last decade of hyper-partisan polarisation. It’s worth a reminder that Tymoshenko’s last round as prime minister can be hardly considered “pro-West”.

Yet overall, Tymoshenko is only one dimension of Kiev’s deep internal divisions. The liberal Maidan Square activists do not necessarily have the same agenda as the oligarchs that defected from Yanukovich’s toppled Party of Regions (PoR).

Sharp divisions

Harder-line nationalists compose a smaller but significant number within the victorious opposition, whose members reportedly made up a disproportionate number of the fighters that manned opposition barricades and stormed regime strongholds. These constituencies were able to agree on Yanukovich’s ouster, but it remains an open question whether or not they can cooperate on the more delicate business of a representative government and build national unity during this time of crisis.

Another complicating factor is that while Yanukovich may have left protesters with little choice but armed resistance, protests – not sound institutions and the rule of law – have been entrenched as the prevailing levers of political change.

This lesson is almost certainly not being lost on PoR or their patrons in Moscow. Indeed, a justification for Russian operations in the Crimea appear to be premised on the likely unconstitutionality of the new Kiev government’s accession. It’s a cynical ploy, but a distinction that Moscow is always eager to seize upon.

This is not a gulf that will be easily bridged. With the new parliament once again demoting the status of the Russian language and reported efforts underway to ban PoR, already-sharp internal divisions have been exacerbated rather than healed. It is upon these differences – Orange-Blue, Ukrainian-Russian, agrarian-industrial – that Moscow has capitalised and leveraged for its perceived interests.

Right to representation

Crimea’s rapid transition from Ukrainian republic to separatist enclave is a case in point. While the old regime was corrupt and authoritarian, PoR voters still have a right to representation. The new government will have to take this reality into account. Just as the far-right Svoboda and Right Sector movements have claim to representation, so too do the pro-Russia constituencies in the east.

There is no obvious omnibus solution to the national political crisis, but the new government can at least begin by preserving eastern cultural rights and offering their leaders unity positions in Kiev.

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Even outside of its Crimea operation, Moscow already had a potent array of options for leverage. Even without military force, Russia’s trade and energy advantage has been an effective fulcrum for manipulating successive Ukrainian governments.

The Western offer – like the EU Association Agreement – was a major upgrade in relative terms, but was ultimately little more than symbolic without an accompanying aid package and/or a bold integration perspective, given Ukraine’s free-falling economy.

Now that Russian military intervention is an actual reality, it is doubly important for the West to provide serious, concrete support to Kiev that go beyond statements of concern. Even the US’ $1 bn loan guarantee, timely though it was, is already too little, too late.

These are serious challenges blocking Ukraine’s hopeful path to stability – never mind democracy. They are not insurmountable, but it remains as likely as not that Ukraine’s next chapter will resemble the lost years of 2004-2010 – minus a few eastern territories. If the country is to remain united, powerful passions in Kiev, however righteous, must be tempered in favour of pragmatism.

The concerns of the toppled regime’s supporters should be addressed lest disenfranchisement gestate into irreversible, militant separatism. And the West should be prepared to offer genuine aid and integration packages. Platitudes may be safer at a time like this, but this is only a recipe for further setbacks. Now is when the hard work begins.

Michael Hikari Cecire is a Eurasia Analyst and an Associate Scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Lincoln Mitchell is a consultant on politics and business in the former Soviet Union. He is the author of The Color Revolutions (Penn Press, 2012).