Skip to main content
ukraine_girlfriend002
Up Front

Trip Report: Mid-September Impressions from Kyiv

Overview

Ukraine clings to a shaky ceasefire, with uncertain prospects for a durable peace process ahead, leaving many in Kyiv unsure about what will happen next. While a marked sense of national identity has taken hold (thanks to Vladimir Putin), people express frustration that the government has done little on domestic reform. The Rada (parliament) elections are set for October 26. They hopefully will produce a coalition that can support an active government reform effort; the risk is that they will result in a divided, muddled body that will hinder Ukraine’s ability to meet the challenges before it.

While President Poroshenko seems committed to seeking a peaceful settlement, and virtually everyone agrees that Kyiv cannot resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine by military means, no one showed great optimism about securing a settlement. There is a general sentiment that the United States should do more to support Ukraine, including by providing arms, and a bitter sense that the Budapest memorandum on security assurances turned out to be an empty piece of paper.

A September 11-13 visit to Kyiv to attend the Yalta European Strategy (YES) conference and hold sidebar conversations produced a number of impressions regarding developments in Ukraine and the challenges confronting that country.

A Stronger National Identity

On a warm late summer’s day, Kyiv hardly seemed like the capital of a country that has fought a bitter conflict against separatists and their Russian allies. People, young and old, crowded the streets, and sidewalk cafes ran a brisk business. That makes a point that sometimes gets lost in the West: the conflict over the past five months has been confined to the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

One noticeable change in Kyiv was the explosion of blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, on fences, buildings and flagpoles. As one Ukrainian scholar put it, “Mr. Putin has fulfilled the dream of Ukrainian nationalists” by forging a strong sense of Ukrainian national identity, infused with a heavy dose of anti-Russian sentiment. Speaking on a YES panel, former Prime Minister Tymoshenko called Putin the “best integrator” of Ukrainian opinion in favor of joining the European Union and NATO.

A Ukrainian official privately commented that public sentiment was not just anti-Putin, but anti-Russian. Ukrainians bitterly noted that the Russian population did not oppose or speak out against what the Russian president had done. (That cannot be healthy for Ukraine-Russia relations in the long run.)

There was no consensus on the motives behind Russia’s actions. At one end of the spectrum, Prime Minister Yatseniuk told the YES conference that Mr. Putin’s goal was to recreate the Soviet Union. Others saw a more modest objective: Mr. Putin sought to have leverage over Kyiv, in particular, to affect Ukraine’s foreign policy choices.

A Ceasefire and What Next?

The week-old ceasefire appeared to be holding in many places, though reports of shooting came daily. Some felt that Mr. Poroshenko had no choice but to accept a ceasefire, given that regular Russian army units had invaded in August and dramatically turned the tide on the battlefield. One official thought that Mr. Putin also welcomed the ceasefire, as Russian dead numbered in triple digits, which presented the Russians a delicate question at home.

The ceasefire appears fragile. Mr. Poroshenko’s focus nevertheless is on getting a settlement process underway. He told the YES gathering that his special status law to be introduced in the Rada the week of September 15 would incorporate decentralization—transferring some power, budget authority and the right to give language an official status to regional and municipal governments—but would protect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Key issues of military and national policy would stay at the national level. The public will follow these questions closely. Some thought that a more nationalist electorate could be a factor that would limit the president’s freedom of maneuver, e.g., he had to avoid anything that looked like a “bad” deal for Ukraine.

A number of people expressed unease about the “Normandy format” (Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany) that Mr. Poroshenko has used with Mr. Putin, French President Hollande and German Chancellor Merkel. While Ukrainian confidence in Ms. Merkel has grown, several would prefer that the United States and European Union participate, as they had in the mid-April Geneva ministerial meeting.

With Mr. Poroshenko’s attention centered on stabilizing the situation in eastern Ukraine, Crimea has been deferred to the longer term. Ukrainian officials publicly pledged that they would regain Crimea. But Mr. Poroshenko said Kyiv would use an “economic, democratic competition” to win back the minds of the Crimean population.

Several people privately questioned whether Ukraine should consider letting Donetsk and Luhansk go, perhaps as the result of a second referendum, this time conducted under the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe auspices. That would be a longer-term question; neither Mr. Poroshenko nor any other serious politician could suggest the idea now. (If Mr. Putin’s goal is leverage over Kyiv, he presumably would not be satisfied with Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk if the remainder of Ukraine continues drawing closer to the European Union.)

More Expected from the United States

There was a general feeling that the United States, as a signatory to the Budapest memorandum, which gave Ukraine security assurances in return for giving up its nuclear weapons, should do more to assist Ukraine. In his YES talk, former President Kuchma (who signed the memorandum for Ukraine) said that Ukraine had been “cheated.” Mr. Yatseniuk referred to the “notorious” Budapest memorandum.

The question of U.S. arms transfers arose in several private conversations. Virtually all Ukrainian interlocutors who addressed the topic felt that Washington owed that to Ukraine. Asked about the risk of Russian escalation in response, they noted that Ukraine would run that risk. Mr. Putin had already escalated the conflict significantly. Several expressed confidence that, if it had to, Ukraine could successfully resist Russia; Mr. Putin “might be able to get into Kyiv in two weeks, but he would not be able to get out.”

European Union and NATO

The European Union and Ukraine-EU association agreement enjoy broad support in Kyiv. The surprise announcement that implementation of part of the free trade agreement would be postponed until December 2015 caught almost everyone by surprise. Mr. Yatseniuk explained it as advantageous to Ukrainian companies, as the European Union would lower its tariffs shortly after ratification (scheduled for a vote in both the Rada and European Parliament on September 16), while Ukraine could maintain tariffs on EU imports for another 15 months.

Public support for NATO is rising in Ukraine, and several YES panelists addressed NATO membership. Ms. Tymoshenko said Ukraine should have made NATO membership a part of the Budapest memorandum. Mr. Yatseniuk noted that, with Russia’s invasion, NATO offered the only vehicle for defending Ukraine, though he understood that the Alliance was not ready for Ukraine to apply—an understanding that others privately acknowledged.

Where’s the Reform?

Businessmen and civil society leaders at YES panels and in private conversations expressed great frustration with the lack of progress on economic reform and anti-corruption efforts. The government on its own could abolish a number of unneeded regulatory bodies that only created red tape and corruption opportunities, but it had not, just as there had been no major corruption prosecutions.

Mr. Poroshenko acknowledged the point, saying he would try to accelerate reform efforts. Mr. Yatseniuk agreed that the government had not yet advanced major anti-corruption reform but stoutly defended the government’s record.

Mr. Yatseniuk painted an (overly?) optimistic picture of Ukraine’s energy situation as winter loomed. He said Ukraine had 17 billion cubic meters in storage (the country recently has burnt about 50 billion cubic meters per year) and had begun importing coal from as far away as South Africa to make up for lost coal production in Donetsk.

The Rada Elections and What Comes After

Rada elections are scheduled for October 26. Mr. Poroshenko told his audience that Ukraine could prevail only if united but would stay united even with the Rada elections. Perhaps, but there is some reason for concern that the elections could produce a divided or muddled parliament. Mr. Poroshenko and Mr. Yatseniuk failed to agree on running together in a single party, though the prime minister said he was ready to sign a coalition agreement even before the elections.

There are a number of wild cards. According to opinion polls, Oleh Lyashko’s Radical Party will have little trouble clearing the five-percent threshold for the party list vote. It is not clear how Donetsk and Luhansk will be handled in the elections; one former official expressed concern that Mr. Putin could use elections there to form “his” bloc in the Rada. Another official pointed out that leaders of the volunteer battalions could trade on their hero images and reputations for straight talk to do well in individual constituency votes.

Ukraine needs a strong, stable Rada coalition following the October elections that will work with a president and prime minister who are on the same page to implement key reforms and anti-corruption measures, as well as to manage the conflict in eastern Ukraine and a settlement process. If Mr. Poroshenko and the prime minister are not in sync, or if a divided Rada falls back into the petty political in-fighting and non-transparent dealings that characterized so many Radas before it, Kyiv will have a difficult time addressing the many challenges confronting it. And it will have a much harder time securing stronger support from the United States and Europe if the West feels that it has seen the movie before … and already knows the unhappy ending.

Note: The YES conference is sponsored by the Victor Pinchuk Fund, which is a Brookings donor.

More

Get daily updates from Brookings