Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy opened his speech at the 58th Munich Security Conference a few days ago by noting, “Ukraine wants peace. Europe wants peace. The world says it doesn’t want to fight, and Russia says it doesn’t want to attack. Someone is lying.” It was pretty clear who he thinks isn’t telling the truth.
Given the events of the past few months, the only question right now is whether Vladimir Putin’s military maneuvers will be restricted to the territory that Russia seized and occupied in Eastern Ukraine in 2014 or whether they will extend beyond that territory. Although Ukrainians are preparing for the worst, even a limited Russian invasion could be a major setback for the future of liberal democracy in the country.
Over the past few months, Russia has amassed about 190,000 troops on the southern, eastern and northern Ukrainian borders. Although it claims it has withdrawn some of the troops after the completion of military “exercises,” satellite images show the opposite. Moreover, the military maneuvers are getting closer and closer to the border. Donbas, the region in the east that contains two pro-Moscow enclaves whose separatist ambitions Russia has backed since 2014, is being mass-evacuated, and all eligible male inhabitants (and even some minors) are being mobilized to fight on Russia’s behalf. For several days now, Russia has been heavily shelling Ukrainian territory along the demarcation line. Over the past few days, it has hit 39 different towns and villages. We are getting reports of shots being fired from Russia toward territories controlled by the Ukrainian army. All these actions are a naked attempt to bait the Ukrainian army into responding and thus creating a casus belli.
This is eerily similar to what Russia did in Georgia in 2008. Just when that country was making a bid to join NATO, Russia developed plans to invade, placed its forces, and then got its local proxies in the Georgian province of South Ossetia to needle the Georgians enough that it was forced to militarily respond. Russia then used that as an excuse to march in.
Even though this latest escalation is rather intense, it is nothing new for us. We have been at war with Russia since 2014—a hybrid war, but war nonetheless. Since then, we have been under constant threat of further invasion, all supposedly for the sake of “protecting” Russian-speaking people in Donbas. Putin recently officially recognized the two self-proclaimed People’s Republics (DPR and LPR) in Eastern Ukraine as independent entities. His invasion of Ukraine will no doubt be billed as an effort to protect Russian people in these newly minted republics from genocide. It does not matter that there is no genocide, and that Ukraine is neither planning nor carrying out any attacks against anyone.
The invasion also has very little to do with Ukraine itself. Putin likes playing the Ukraine card for a variety of reasons: distracting Russian voters from internal woes, reestablishing his control over the region or resolving diplomatic challenges with the West. Indeed, to back off from this latest tantrum, he has issued a list of demands ranging from unrealistic to outright outrageous. In addition to pressuring Ukraine into direct talks with representatives of DPR and LPR, Russia wants Ukraine to be banned from joining NATO. It also wants NATO to return its forces to where they were stationed in 1997 (effectively removing themselves from Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and the Balkan countries), to rule out further expansion and to cease all NATO drills in Eastern Europe, Caucasus countries or Central Asia unless it first obtains permission from Russia. Unsurprisingly, the response to all of the above was a resounding “No!”
Where Do We Go From Here?
There are a number of scenarios for how things could play out now. One of them is a massive air, sea and land assault aimed at installing a puppet government in Kyiv, which means that Ukraine would lose its sovereignty as well as its political and civil freedoms. It would revert to being Russia’s client and its resource appendage. This would be a dream come true for Putin, who never accepted Ukrainian statehood after it declared independence from Russia in 1991. But a full-blown invasion would invite severe economic sanctions, cancellation of Nord Stream-2 (a new natural gas pipeline whose contract has been handed to a wholly owned subsidiary of Gazprom, a state-owned Russian company) and further isolation for Russia.
A much more limited move in Donbas to expand the territories of DPR and LPR or seize a land bridge into Crimea seems more likely, and it involves a much lower risk of being slapped with the harshest possible collective response from the West. Putin could also maintain the buildup on our border, combining it with cyberattacks and information warfare (something Russia is very good at) and keeping Ukrainians anxious and guessing whether he will attack. But the trouble with that strategy is that is hard to maintain for long. Sooner or later, if an actual invasion does not follow, the threat will lose its effectiveness, and Putin will be exposed as a paper tiger.
While the Russian president is making up his mind, Ukrainians are learning to cope with this new reality. For the past couple months, we have had to live under the strain of uncertainty. Meanwhile, we are losing foreign investors, and major airlines such as KLM, Austrian Airlines and Air France are cancelling and suspending flights to Kyiv. Official estimates put our total economic losses at $2 to $3 billion a month.
Nevertheless, we are quite resilient. Most of us know where the nearest bomb shelter is and what needs to be put into a go-bag. We are researching escape routes for our families, getting ready to join territorial defense forces and volunteer battalions, learning how to shoot and to provide first aid; most shooting ranges and first-aid classes are completely booked. Our military lingo has also grown impressively; it had to, for us to understand what weapons, defense systems and ammunition are headed our way from our enemy as well as our allies.
The generosity of our allies is one reason why direct confrontation with the Ukrainian army will prove costly for the Russians. The British have sent us short-range anti-tank missiles. The Baltic states are providing us with Javelins and Stingers, effective against tanks and aircraft respectively. And 90 tons of anti-armor missiles, ammunition and other equipment has arrived from the U.S.
Yes, there still are countries that refuse to let go of the naive idea of appeasing Putin. However, we have received an unprecedented level of support to offset some of our economic losses. The European Union has announced an emergency macro-financial assistance program of 1.2 billion euros. In addition, France has pledged development funding worth 1.2 billion euros, and the U.S. is offering sovereign credit guarantees of up to $1 billion.
Russia Is Not the Only Challenge
At the same time, backing from these and other foreign countries and entities at a time of a major crisis, however necessary, may or may not turn out to be a blessing for Ukraine. That’s because the country is still struggling to shed its Soviet legacy and build strong liberal democratic institutions along with a functioning market economy. Just like other transitioning countries, it has faced massive political corruption at many levels of government.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine tried to privatize some of the state-owned enterprises kept afloat by budget transfers. However, because the process was not transparent and was undertaken hastily, powerful interests took control of key sectors such as energy and mineral resources. This discredited the privatization initiative so badly that it has only recently restarted. In the meantime, representatives of the said powerful interests became involved in politics and bought media properties, becoming infamous oligarchs. They got the parliament to pass favorable laws by buying the votes they needed and remained in power by controlling the narrative on TV.
Meanwhile, the country’s courts and law enforcement were reduced to serving the interests of the best-connected. As a result, oligarchs received favorable rulings, while cases that were damaging to them were delayed or buried. Many developing countries have a court system that leaves much to be desired. But in Ukraine this is an especially big problem: It has robbed us of a working rule of law that equitably enforces contracts, holds powerful players accountable and delivers justice to ordinary citizens. All of that, combined with the fact that Ukraine is among the least economically free countries in the world, has also turned it into one of Europe’s poorest.
Since 2014, domestic civil society groups and international reformers such as the International Monetary Fund and the European Union have been striving, with varying degrees of success, to change the situation in Ukraine by crafting reforms to make politicians and political institutions more transparent and courts more accountable. Government entities have been required to release all information about public procurements and auctions of state-controlled assets to make it possible for watchdog groups to identify corruption. Politicians, especially in high office, are also required to publicly reveal all their own and their family members’ personal assets to ensure that their lifestyles are not more lavish than their salaries warrant. Independent entities like the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (SAPO), the High Anti-Corruption Court and the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine have been established to enforce these measures.
The IMF is due to give Ukraine a $2.2 billion installment of macroeconomic stability aid this spring, provided it names a new head to SAPO (a position that has been vacant for two years) and adopted amendments to the anti-corruption legislation that strengthened SAPO’s independence. Ukraine is also supposed to complete a review and certify the integrity of the members of the High Council of Justice, a judicial watchdog.
But even if Russia opts only for limited military action in Ukraine, IMF and other international bodies may back off from requiring these conditions to avoid destabilizing the country even more at a difficult time. Under that scenario, it will be mostly up to Ukraine’s political leaders to maintain their resolve to implement such reforms. But it is hard for those who need reformation to be the reformers themselves. Yet if they don’t rise to the challenge, the additional emergency financial assistance that many Western countries have poured into the country might only end up feeding Ukrainian corruption. In that case, Ukraine will remain merely a buffer state between Russia and Europe with wobbly legs, instead of becoming a thriving and prosperous country in its own right.
After three decades of independence, Ukraine is only now beginning to deal with its internal demons. Its struggle shows that trying to build working liberal institutions is never an easy thing. But that task is infinitely more difficult when a country has for its neighbor a meddlesome and imperial power ruled by a strongman who feels threatened by liberal democracy.
This piece also appears on The UnPopulist, a Substack newsletter by Shikha Dalmia, a visiting fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. The UnPopulist is devoted to defending liberal and open societies from the threat of rising populist authoritarianism. Go here to subscribe.