The innumerable pathways of history to successes or failures are richly paved with a plethora of knowledgeable, yet in many cases erroneous 20/20 hindsights by contemporary as well as future generations. A case in point is the stormy and acrimonious history of the novel state of Ukraine. Suffice it to say that the word “ukraina” had been used for almost a millennium to designate the outer territories of various states and empires but not a sovereign state. Throughout the 16th, the 17th, and the 18th centuries, most of today’s Ukraine was the regional name of the then existing border regions within the Polish Kingdom. From the end of the 18th century on, the word “ukraina” was replaced in the Russian Empire with its official designation as “Little Russia.”
World War I found the people who lived in the territory of today’s Ukraine in the crossfire between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Imperial Russia. Following the October Revolution in St. Petersburg, this territory was mired in a protracted civil war. Attempts at establishing a separate Ukrainian state failed both in Kiev as well as in Lvov. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles divided this territory among Poland, the Kingdom of Romania, the newly established state of Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union.
During World War II, the joint invasion of Poland by Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union expanded the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic’s territory westward. From 1945, and until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine remained an integral part of the Soviet Union. The subsequent Act of Declaration of Independence of Ukraine on August 24, 1991, established the independent Ukrainian state.
History matters. Calling the intervening three decades politically, economically, financially, culturally, socially, and ethically/morally tumultuous might be an understatement. Politically, a collection of lightweight political figures who used the presidential office to cement shameless corruption and indulged in personal enrichment, created a criminal state rather than a democratic republic promised in the constitution.
Economically, very few new enterprises of any national or international value were created. Profits were siphoned out of Ukraine faster than they were created. Financially, the value of the hryvnia was oscillating between total irrelevance and bare tolerance.
Socially and culturally, Ukraine is a veritable patchwork of about hundred thirty nationalities with their unique and separate languages and cultures. At least twenty two percent of the population is composed of ethnic minorities. Largest among them are the Russians, comprising at least seventeen percent of the population. Concentrating mostly in the southern and eastern parts of the state, they have built a fairly homogeneous and contagious ethnic enclave within the state. In addition, Romanians, Belorussians, Crimean Tatars, Bulgarians, Polish, Armenians, and Hungarians rounded up the rich collections of larger ethnic groups inside Ukraine. The much hailed Euromaidan protests and the so-called February Revolution only deepened the historically existing divisions between the western and the eastern parts of Ukraine. Moreover, divisions among the smaller ethnic groups also have been exacerbated by the extreme fascist elements of the Ukrainian population. In particular, the Hungarian minority in the north-western corner of the state, with its unique language, have felt discriminated against and complained regularly about being oppressed by the majority ethnic Ukrainians.
Instead of mitigating and ultimately solving these problems, first the interim Yatsenyuk and then the elected Poroshenko governments failed to act upon the ethnic grievances of these minorities. By relying heavily on the Svoboda party, widely viewed as an ultra-nationalist, and even fascist political movement, which has espoused the late Bandera’s racist policies, and by turbo-charging corruption, both administrations failed miserably by forging Ukrainian national identity and state-wide prosperity.
As a result, Ukraine lost Crimea to Russia. Moreover, the separatist war in the south-eastern region of Ukraine has brought untold sufferings and the loss of human lives to the people since 2014. As a by-product, the all encompassing poison of corruption has enabled terrorists of many persuasions to use the territory of Ukraine to plot armed attacks against the whole of Europe and beyond.
Last spring, amid this total chaos, national elections were held. The reigning President Petro Poroshenko was soundly defeated and a popular actor Volodymyr Zelensky was elected President with an overwhelming majority in the Parliament (Rada), in Kiev. The new President’s mandate has included the total rejection of his predecessor’s policies, the ruthless elimination of corruption, the establishment of an honest and transparent government, and last but not least the restoration of peace and Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
On the last item, President Zelensky promised the voters during his campaign that if elected he would end the undeclared war with Russia. Once elected, first he began to push for the revival of the moribund Minsk Agreement of 2015. Predictably though, the irreconcilable interpretations of the agreement led both Russia and Ukraine into a complete political cul-de-sac. Next, President Zelensky moved to breathe new life into the equally moribund so-called Normandy Format of peace talks comprising the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany.
In order to bring about such a summit, President Zelensky pulled back the Ukrainian military from frontline positions in eastern Ukraine. Moreover, he committed his administration to implementing the so-called Steinmeier Formula, which designed a roadmap for elections in the separatist controlled territories of the Donbas region. These one-sided concessions sparked large-scale protest across the country. The subsequent summit that took place on December 9, 2019, in Paris, merely yielded three small commitments, including the exchange of prisoners, but no real tangible results. Since this summit, nothing of importance affecting the status quo has really transpired between Ukraine and Russia respecting the Donbas and Luhansk regions.
Beyond attempting to solve the civil war in the south-eastern region, President Zelensky has accomplished precious little domestically. Ukraine is still ripe for corruption. The economy has not been reformed and instead of developing, it has been regressing steadily. As a consequence, Ukrainians are leaving for Central and Western Europe in the hundreds of thousands. For all practical purposes, Ukraine is bankrupt. The IMF loan package is stuck in the Parliament, the Rada, the casualty of political and false patriotic squabbling among various interest groups. Even if the Rada would approve all the changes required by the IMF, the loan amount would only suffice to pay off some of Ukraine’s onerous mountain of debts.
Presently, Ukraine appears to be beyond redemption. The country’s political, economic and ethnic fragmentation is real and in the absence of a unifying national identity it seems to be unbridgeable. Ukraine’s breakup appears to be very likely. Whether such a breakup would occur peacefully or through a bloody civil war is still open to question.
Bringing Ukraine closer to the European Union and to NATO, or even elevating it to full membership in both organizations, are desirable objectives. However, such developments would surely raise strong resistance from the Kremlin. Realistically, excluding Russia from decisions concerning Ukraine’s future international orientation would only expedite its dissolution. Russia’s reaction to the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych in early 2014, and the subsequent political developments, should be an unambiguous warning for the United States of America as well as the European Union. Clearly, the international nonpartisanship of Kiev is of extreme importance to the Kremlin. Crossing this “red line” would certainly trigger another indirect, or even direct, military intervention by Russia.Ultimately, Ukraine’s problems must be solved by its citizens. The United States of America and the European Union could help Ukraine. Yet, the best solution would be if Washington and Brussels would join forces with Moscow in establishing a truly democratic, prosperous, and non aligned Ukraine between the western and the eastern parts of the European continent.