Five years after the Maidan Revolution drove out an authoritarian president, Ukraine has made significant progress on domestic reform and agreed on the goal of becoming a normal European state. However, Ukraine has more to do, and it has to pursue further reforms while engaged in a low-intensity but nevertheless real war with Russia, which illegally seized Crimea and continues a simmering conflict in the eastern region of the Donbas.
Politics will dominate Ukraine in the coming nine months. Ukrainians vote for president on March 31, with an April 21 run-off certain to be needed, and Rada (parliament) elections will take place in the fall. Elections and the preceding campaign periods do not provide the best backdrop for reforms. Nor is it likely to be time for a breakthrough on resolving the conflict in the Donbas. Moscow dislikes incumbent President Petro Poroshenko and will wait to see how the presidential and Rada elections turn out before deciding whether to change its course.
Five Years After the Maidan
On November 21, 2013, the Ukrainian government announced that it would suspend plans to sign an association agreement with the European Union. Ukrainians poured into the streets in protest, in what became known as the Maidan Revolution. Three months later, security forces mounted attacks on protestors gathered on Maidan Square in central Kyiv. Some 100 died, most felled by special police snipers.
Late on February 20, 2014, the French, German, and Polish foreign ministers arrived to try to broker a settlement between embattled President Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition. They worked out overnight an agreement between Yanukovych and three opposition leaders. The latter likely could not have sold the agreement to the Maidan protestors, who held Yanukovych responsible for the previous days’ bloodshed. It did not matter; after signing the agreement, Yanukovych slipped away and fled Kyiv.
On February 22, the Rada turned a page in Ukraine’s history, electing an acting prime minister and acting president who promptly declared their goals of signing the association agreement and bringing the country closer to Europe. Russia responded by using military force to seize Crimea and then, on March 18, illegally annexing the peninsula. In April, fighting broke out in the Donbas, as Russian security forces led, funded and armed a “separatist” movement that was in reality another Russian attack on Ukraine.
The Ukrainians conducted a presidential election in May, which Poroshenko won by a wide margin, followed in October by election of a new Rada. Poroshenko and the Rada made some impressive reforms over the next two years, including reforming government finances, pension reform, an e-declaration system requiring that officials declare their wealth, an e-procurement system for government purchases, energy sector and price reform (thereby wiping out a huge subsidy cost for the government), and weaning the country off natural gas from Russia.
The pace of reform has slowed over the past two years. More remains to be done: judicial reform, strengthening the rule of law, and further measures to curb corruption. The Rada unfortunately has continued a ban on the free sale of agricultural land, which prevents the development of a mortgage market that could provide farmers capital to improve their productivity. Oligarchs continue to wield out-sized political influence.
The ongoing conflict in the Donbas has understandably drawn attention from reform. The fighting has flared up periodically, including in August 2014 and February 2015, when regular units of the Russian army entered Ukraine to take part. Despite a February 2015 settlement brokered by the German and French leaders in Minsk, the conflict has continued to simmer, now having claimed 12,000 lives—with no end in sight.
It’s an Election Year
New reforms will be hard to put into place in 2019, as political attention has shifted to elections. There is no shortage of candidates for the March 31 presidential ballot. The Central Electoral Commission has registered 44, though some may drop out. The three candidates with the strongest prospects: incumbent Poroshenko, former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko and comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Recent polls put Zelenskiy on top, with Poroshenko and Tymoshenko placing second and third.
Much can change in the five weeks remaining before the election. Poroshenko is running as a safe pair of hands for a country at war but suffers from a widespread view that Ukraine is headed in the wrong direction. Tymoshenko has advanced a populist platform that may appeal to voters but would prove a hard sell with international donors, and has high negatives in opinion polls (as does Poroshenko). Zelenskiy, who portrays the president of Ukraine in a television comedy show, seems a blank slate; he has yet to provide much in the way of detail as to what his presidency would mean for the country or who would comprise his team.
No one will secure the needed 50 percent-plus one vote to win outright on March 31. Ukrainians will return to the polls for a run-off between the top two vote-getters. The election may be messy, but it will certainly be contested, and no one can tell now with any certainty who will win. That differentiates Ukraine’s democracy from most others in the post-Soviet space.
After April, attention will turn to the Rada ballot, which will be held in the fall, perhaps in October. The winner in April will seek to build a strong parliamentary presence in the Rada election. Ukraine’s bifurcated executive system allows the president to appoint the foreign and defense ministers, as well as heads of other security agencies, but the prime minister—elected by the Rada—appoints the other ministers. Getting major policies approved thus requires close collaboration between the president and the prime minister and Rada.
Whoever ends up at Bankova (the location of Ukraine’s presidential offices), he or she can expect a big push from Ukraine’s civil society—and the country’s friends in the West—to get on with still needed reforms. Tough reforms involving difficult decisions typically are best done at the beginning of presidential and parliamentary terms.
Moscow will Wait and See
Suggestions in fall 2017 that a U.N. peacekeeping force could provide political cover for withdrawal of Russian and Russia proxy forces from the Donbas came to naught. The Russian government almost certainly will wait to see the results of Ukraine’s elections before considering whether it needs to change its current policy of maintaining a simmering conflict in the Donbas as a means to pressure Kyiv.
Senior Russian officials have made clear that they want Poroshenko to be a one-term president.
Senior Russian officials have made clear that they want Poroshenko to be a one-term president. Beyond that, Moscow has not endorsed anyone—a smart move, because a Russian endorsement would be the kiss of death for any Ukrainian candidate. Moscow also will wait to see what results the Rada elections produce and may employ covert ways to influence the vote.
The Kremlin seems to hope that, following the elections, the Ukrainian president and Rada will prove more amenable. That’s wishful thinking. One unintended result of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and occupation of part of the Donbas is that the areas with the most Russia-friendly Ukrainian voters will not be taking part in the 2019 elections. Moreover, the Russian leadership does not appreciate how its aggression over the past five years has alienated Ukrainians. Overcoming that anger will take years, if not decades, and it will only begin once there is peace.
Indeed, the policies of President Putin, who wants to keep Ukraine in Russia’s orbit, have done as much as anything to push Ukraine away from Moscow and toward the West. The Rada voted 334-17 in early February to enshrine in the constitution entry into NATO and the European Union as Ukraine’s strategic goals. Such a vote would have been impossible before 2014.
Moscow’s pursuit of its current approach until after the fall Rada elections will sadly mean continued skirmishing along the line of contact in the Donbas and a rising body count. That does not appear to bother the Kremlin.
Some in Kyiv worry about a major Russian offensive, as hawks in Moscow go on television to call for use of military force to resolve what they refer to as “the Ukrainian problem.” Such an offensive, however, is unlikely. It would require regular units of the Russian army, whose involvement could not be hidden. Casualties would play badly with the Russian public, while the West would answer with more punishing sanctions on an already stagnant economy. And to what end? Moscow shows no interest in annexing the Donbas. Would it want to occupy more territory and face the prospect that a hostile population would take up arms and guerilla tactics?
Putin has no need to go big…when his salami tactics are working.
Putin has no need to go big, with its attendant risks, when his salami tactics are working. The November Russian attack on Ukrainian ships exercising innocent passage in the Kerch Strait drew no significant response from the United States or Europe. Russia is now that much closer to asserting unilateral control over the Sea of Azov.
The more interesting question will come at the end of 2019 or beginning of 2020. When Putin recognizes that the Ukrainian president will not—and, given public attitudes, could not—take a more Russia-friendly approach, and if the sanctions continue to bite, will he decide it is time to seek an exit route from the Donbas? If so, a U.N. peacekeeping force with a robust mandate and an accompanying interim international administration could provide the vehicle for Russian withdrawal and the transition to restored Ukrainian sovereignty.
That would still leave Crimea, whose disputed status will burden the Ukraine-Russia agenda for a long time to come. At least, however, the killing in the Donbas would stop, and the population there could get on with restoring normalcy and rebuilding their lives. But that all depends on the Kremlin deciding to withdraw, a decision that would require that Putin come to terms with the loss of Ukraine or, at least, choose other tactics to try to pull it back under Moscow’s influence.
For 2019, the West should patiently pursue its policy of supporting Ukraine. U.S., European and international financial institution officials should be ready to engage the Ukrainian president in the spring and the new Rada and prime minister in the fall on the country’s future reform course. Those discussions could be delicate, particularly if populist ideas win in the elections. Western donors will have to resist backsliding on what Ukraine has achieved and press for completing the critical mass of reforms that would allow the economy to grow at a substantial and sustained rate. Given their assistance funds and low-interest credits, the donors will have leverage.
One important key for Ukraine’s economic future lies in reforms that will draw in more investment. While the economy achieved 3 percent growth last year, it should be achieving growth levels of 5 to 6 percent. The finance minister said recently that, at its current rate of growth, Ukraine will need 50 years to catch up with neighboring Poland. That has to change for Ukraine to succeed.
As for Russia, the United States and Europe should sustain—and intensify—visa and economic sanctions while making clear that a genuine settlement in the Donbas would lead to a lifting of sanctions (excepting those related to Crimea). A settlement would also remove what now constitutes the biggest obstacle to moving relations between the West and Russia toward a more normal place.
German Chancellor Merkel will have to exercise her formidable political skills to hold the European Union on course, just as Congress will have to ensure that President Trump does not go soft. A tough Western approach offers the greatest chance of affecting the cost-benefit calculation in the Kremlin and of getting Moscow to adopt a different policy.
So, 2019 is unlikely to be a breakthrough year for Ukraine. However, if it plays out right, and if Kyiv receives continued support from the West, the stage could—not would, but could—be set for important change in 2020.