Ukraine Is Fighting Three Wars, All Of Which Are Getting Hotter

April 12, 2016
A Euromaidan activist hangs the flags of the European Union and Ukraine in Kiev on February 2, 2014.| AFP/ Sergei Supinsky

It’s been nearly 900 days since ordinary Ukrainians first took to the streets to demand that their government sign an Association Agreement with the European Union. It’s been nearly 800 days since Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution, a protest against corruption in the Ukrainian government, ended with then-president Viktor Yanukovych fleeing to Russia. It’s been more than 760 days since Russia’s “little green men” first fanned out across Crimea, taking Ukrainian servicemen, bases, and ships hostage until the illegal annexation of the peninsula soon thereafter, only to attempt the same thing in the Donbass months later.

Since the start of this conflict there have been three struggles, three literal or metaphorical wars, fought by the supporters of the Euromaidan. The first two are linked and sparked the revolution — the fight to get Ukraine into the European Union and the battle against corruption. These two struggles could be characterized as the desire to move toward the idealized “West,” where economic opportunity and modernity overcome nepotism, hereditary wealth, cronyism, and kleptocracy. These conflicts are the fight against anti-liberal forces that benefited most from the old status quo. These struggles started as a metaphorical war, protests, then changed into a defensive war as Yanukovych’s “Berkut” riot police attacked and killed over 100 people. Since then, they have returned to their metaphorical states. The third conflict is arguably the embodiment of this struggle on the literal battlefields where Russian soldiers and pro-Russian separatists wage a very-real war in the Donbass (and where Russian soldiers occupy Crimea, though this aspect of the conflict is indeed frozen, thanks to the intransigence of the Russian government and the dominance of the Russian military).

This week there is news on all three fronts.

On the corruption front, Ukraine has had a series of high-profile struggles in their reform efforts, but the government now claims to finally be back on the right track. Ukraine’s toxic and famously-corrupt prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, has been shown the door. His deputy, Vitaliy Kasko, who resigned in February in protest of Shokin’s corruption, has himself been implicated in corruption charges. Now Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, himself accused of dragging his feet in the reform efforts, has announced that he would resign on April 12. Volodymyr Groysman, considered by many to be the choice of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, is predicted by many to replace him.

Some argue that Yatsenyuk is corrupt and his removal will expedite the reform process. Others say he’s only the skapegoat and the reform effort has been hindered for a variety of reasons. Either way, Yatsenyuk’s removal, following the removal of Prosecutor General Shokin, should be a new test as well as a new opportunity for the Ukrainian government.

A lot is riding on Groysman, who has been chairman of Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, since November 2014. As RFE/RL reports, he is both well regarded and yet young and relatively untested:

Hroysman’s meteoric rise from mayoral upstart to speaker of a notoriously obstreperous parliament was fueled in part by perceptions that a relative outsider with little political baggage could unite rival lawmakers, but it also prompted questions about his inexperience and political indebtedness to Poroshenko.


Political analyst Anatoliy Oktysyuk told RFE/RL at the time that Hroysman’s selection was part of Poroshenko’s plan to “lessen the degree of conflict in parliament” with the support of a “loyal and reliable” parliamentary speaker.

Hroysman was seen by some as a young politician with a fresh approach to resolving differences among the parties and parliamentary factions within the fractious governing coalition.

Political analyst Vadym Karasyov, director of Kyiv’s Global Strategies Institute, warned that Hroysman was too young and that his political rise — a result of lobbying efforts by Poroshenko — had been too rapid.

Today, most political commentators in Kyiv see Hroysman’s appointment as the next Ukrainian prime minister as a move that would give Poroshenko more control over a reform process that had stalled amid corruption allegations and vicious coalition infighting under Yatsenyuk’s government.

The problem is that Groysman’s appointment is hardly a done-deal (see our live coverage of the developments here). There’s also no guarantee that Groysman can get the Rada to effectively combat corruption, and there’s no telling whether or not a new Prime Minister will assuage fears of the international community, the IMF, and foreign investors.

But if believers in the promise of the Euromaidan Revolution are frustrated by their own government, they must be furious with the Netherlands right now. Last week, Dutch voters rejected Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the European Union. The referendum was non-binding, and had turnout just high enough to be official, but Ukraine lost by a fairly large margin. Obviously, the referendum was a symbolic blow to Ukraine since EU association (and ultimately membership) was the clearest single demand of the protesters in Maidan. In the long-run, however, many think that even though the vote may pressure some Dutch officials, the Netherlands is unlikely to hold the entire EU hostage on the issue of whether Ukraine should be associated with the EU, and full EU membership for Ukraine is a far-off goal.

The vote likely had less to do with Ukraine than with Euroskepticism, funded and supported in many cases by the Russian government. The Interpreter’s Pierre Vaux wrote in The Daily Beast that the Russian state media and groups linked to the Kremlin, including Nigel Farage, of the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP), put a lot of money behind the “no” campaign in the Netherlands. Vaux writes:

Farage’s language on the issue suggests that Europe’s relationship with Ukraine was just as much his target as the EU itself. At a rally on Monday night, Farage claimed that a no-vote would be a “hammer blow” against an “expansionist EU plot.

Such words would not seem out of place on Russian state television and indeed, Farage has been gifted hours upon hours of air time on RT over the years.
The unfortunate fact is that Nigel Farage has held views that chime strikingly with those of the Kremlin when it comes to foreign policy since long before a Dutch referendum could give his Brexit ambitions a boost.

Farage backs the Russian position on not only Ukraine, but also Syria, calling for the West to back the barbarous Assad dictatorship and completely eliding any opposition groups between the regime and ISIS.

Vaux is not alone in his analysis. The Moscow Times wrote that the “Russian Bear Looms Over Dutch Referendum,” and Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum wrote “The Dutch just showed the world how Russia influences Western European elections.”

Ukraine’s real problem is that there are indications that the EU is ready to lift sanctions on Russia in the not-so-distant future, possibly this year. Dutch officials, facing pressure back home, may push for more normalized relations with Russia, and they may find plenty of allies — other newly-elected Euroskeptic, far-right, and pro-Putin governments — that are interested in dropping sanctions and allowing Moscow to keep its spoils in eastern Ukraine.

This brings us to Ukraine’s third war, it’s real war. Almost each and every day there is a new record number of ceasefire violations. Yesterday alone the Ukrainian government reported 76 ceasefire violations, with fighting reported up and down the entire Donetsk front. Daniel Baer, the US ambassador to the OSCE, has stated that “Russia and its proxies” are the instigators of the violence. The OSCE, charged with monitoring the “ceasefire,” has also been increasingly alarmed by the amount of heavy weapons used in the fighting.

In other words, the Dutch are turning their backs on Ukraine just when Ukraine needs the support the most, and they could bring the rest of the EU with them in due time. Furthermore, it’s unclear whether the IMF will continue its support for Ukraine. In February, IMF director Christine Lagarde expressed doubts in the Ukrainian government:

I am concerned about Ukraine’s slow progress in improving governance and fighting corruption, and reducing the influence of vested interests in policymaking.

Without a substantial new effort to invigorate governance reforms and fight corruption, it is hard to see how the IMF-supported program can continue and be successful. Ukraine risks a return to the pattern of failed economic policies that has plagued its recent history. It is vital that Ukraine’s leadership acts now to put the country back on a promising path of reform.

Today Bloomberg reports that the IMF will likely restart its disbursements to Ukraine this summer. The timing would be important, since today the IMF downgraded Ukraine’s economic outlook for 2016. But it’s hardly guaranteed that the IMF will come through.

Still, it’s not all doom and gloom for Ukraine. Nearly 800 days ago it was unclear whether the transitional government could hold the country together. Those doubts grew as the Russian military first seized Crimea then invaded the Donbass. For all of Ukraine’s problems, its government does not appear to be on the brink of collapse, and its military has stood up to the Russian bear. With each passing day the military grows stronger, as does the Ukrainian economy which will grow this year and next, just at a slightly slower rate than many had hoped.

Ukraine has come a long way while fighting these three metaphorical and literal wars, and it has done so with less outside support than its leaders have asked for. One has to wonder, though, with international support and attention waning, and with the war in the east heating up, whether Ukraine will be able to win these three wars, or simply fight them to a standstill.