Ukraine’s leaders think their country is too important to fail. They’re wrong.
Russia is at war with Ukraine — there is no concealing this basic fact. Yet despite the seriousness of the threat from the East, Moscow isn’t the worst enemy the Ukrainians face. Given the self-inflicted corruption that has infected every facet of business and government, the country’s worst enemy may be its own leaders.
Ukraine’s corruption was inherited from the dying Soviet Union and has persisted for two and a half decades. It has made the country into a brutal kleptocracy that hands power and wealth to a tiny and unassailable elite, impeding the development of a normal economy. It has warped society, ruining everything from the health care and education systems to law enforcement and the judiciary.
This is a system where the drunken son of an oligarch can walk free if he happens to run over an ordinary citizen with his car.
All of this helps to explain why so many Ukrainian activists have been demanding the adoption of Western-style legal norms. The rule of law, after all, is the only antidote to a system based on lawlessness. And in the 2013 Euromaidan revolution, many Ukrainians paid with their own lives for daring to stand up and demand this change.
Since the revolution, however, the new government in Kiev has remained impervious to their demands. Crucially, it has also chosen to ignore heartfelt appeals from its closest foreign friends. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has spent the past year begging the government to send a signal by sending at least one corrupt oligarch to jail. Just one. But even his pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Kiev’s inattention to the concerns of a largely sympathetic international community is an extremely troubling development that could cost Ukraine support from abroad when it needs it the most.
Despite complaints in some quarters that the U.S. has done too little to help Kiev in its fight against Russian proxies, the fact remains that Washington has played a vital role in sustaining international diplomatic, financial, and military aid to Ukraine while keeping up the pressure on its European allies to maintain economic sanctions on Moscow.
Unfortunately, Ukraine’s leaders appear to have made a dangerous miscalculation by assuming that the West regards their country as its proxy in a confrontation with an aggressively resurgent Russia. For this reason, they assume they can count on support in Western capitals no matter what happens. A former senior minister, in government until April, described the official mindset as follows: “They believe that Ukraine is too important for America and the European Union to allow it to fail. I think that’s completely delusional. I think Ukraine has this year in which to show real results. The U.S. and other friends of Ukraine are losing patience.”
The ex-minister is right. Worries about “Ukraine fatigue” are circulating among many of the country’s Western supporters. After a visit to Kiev in April, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer noted in a blog post: “One sometimes gets a feeling that Ukraine’s elite have an inflated sense of the country’s geopolitical importance between the West and Russia — that they believe that their country is too important to fail and that, regardless of what Ukraine’s leadership does, the West will stick with Kiev out of fear that it might otherwise turn to Moscow. That could be a mistake.”
Brian Mefford, a political and business consultant who has lived in Kiev for the past 17 years, said that Ukraine will soon face an uphill battle trying to convince a new U.S. president that it is serious about reform. “There are three key things that Kiev can do to ensure that ‘Ukraine fatigue’ does not set in,” he told me.
“One: fight corruption. Two: fight corruption. Three: fight corruption.”
But so far, the problem just keeps getting worse — and it goes all the way to the top. This month, one of Ukraine’s most respected anti-corruption journalists, Sergii Leshchenko, himself a member of parliament from President Poroshenko’s party, wrote a devastating piece accusing Poroshenko of creating a “clan” of cronies and oligarchs around himself in the same way as his corrupt predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych. Leshchenko and other prominent reform-minded politicians are forming a new party to challenge the administration.
It won’t be easy. Lawmaker Arkady Kornatsky, also a member of the president’s party, told me that his experience in government has revealed to him the extent of the corrupt system. “All the parties in parliament, including the one of which I’m a member, were created and funded by oligarchs, and they are protecting each others’ interests,” he told me. “I want to believe that the president himself is honest but I don’t see him seriously fighting corruption. Mr. Biden is naive if he thinks an oligarch will put his kind into jail. This government will stall on reforms unless the U.S. leans on it.”
Kornatsky claims to have evidence that the Ukrainian government is stealing much of the money being provided by western countries and the IMF. He believes disenchantment with continued corruption will lead to protests and even local separatist movements.
The Ukrainian presidential administration did not answer queries about why reforms are moving so slowly.
Kateryna Smagly of the Kennan Institute in Kiev notes that the country’s leaders may well be justified in moving cautiously when it’s a matter of implementing far-reaching structural reforms. “Market reforms required huge cuts in unnecessary state-funded jobs. For instance, some 10 to 20,000 people now working in unvisited Soviet-era museums all over Ukraine would be thrown out of work. What would they all do, set up stalls in marketplaces?”
She also points out that the process by which many of the country’s assets were privatized back in the 1990s might not stand up to legal scrutiny — meaning that reviewing the rights to ownership could cause immense chaos. “Every businessman made his first capital illegally,” she notes. “
But if, like Robespierre, you cut off every head, who will carry on, who will provide jobs? And without proper, careful legislation, Ukraine could be accused of selective justice.”
Fair enough. And yet, clearly, something needs to change. The soldiers still fighting a grinding war with Russian-sponsored separatists in the East are losing patience. On trips to the front lines one hears warnings that the battle-hardened veterans will not tolerate corruption forever, and could try to overthrow the government either by launching a new wave of mass protests or an armed coup. Needless to say, this could bring catastrophic consequences.
Unless the government and president can unequivocally demonstrate substantive reforms in practice (not least by putting obvious criminals behind bars), they will stand guilty of squandering a precious chance to build a dignified, democratic, and prosperous future for their country — despite the sacrifices of life and blood made by thousands of its finest people. If they think that sort of betrayal comes with no consequences, they are truly delusional.
And the next time they turn to the West for help, they might find that they are truly on their own.
By Askold Krushelnycky