Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The West Should Press for Democracy in Western Ukraine, Leave the East to Putin for Now

The West Should Press for Democracy in Western Ukraine, Leave the East to Putin for Now

Ukraine’s democratic transition has not gone as was hoped in 1991. The country has consistently waffled between a 4 and a 5 on Freedom House’s Nations in Transit scores, qualifying it as a transitional government or hybrid regime. It’s been 24 years since independence and the transition never really entered a higher gear, so it’s fair to call Ukraine a hybrid regime. Although the Orange Revolution seemed to promise a change in the country’s fortunes, political and cultural realities quickly derailed any democratic momentum.

Ukraine finds itself in a similar position today; the Ukrainian people have ousted their corrupt leaders again. The Euromaidan movement drastically altered the political landscape and led to the election of a pro-Western government in 2014 that is tackling corruption, reining in its out-of-control oligarchs, cutting entitlements, and ending gas subsidies. 

But the picture is not rosy. The country is broke. Ukraine lost Crimea to Russia, and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in eastern Ukraine are in open revolt against the Kyiv government. Twenty years of mismanagement and failed reforms have left the country’s average citizen 20 percent poorer than those in the former Soviet Union. But pro-Western sentiments are high and the government is closer to Europe than ever. What does this confused state of affairs mean for the Ukraine’s chances for transitioning to a durable democracy? How should the West support this transition?

From a democratization perspective, it makes the most sense to focus on western Ukraine, and leave, for now, the east, where pro-Russian feelings are culturally entrenched and resistance to Western involvement is highest, to the separatists. A frozen conflict could be the best of many bad outcomes, allowing Ukraine to focus on its reforms. Indeed, leaving Putin to worry about the separatists could actually work in Ukraine’s favor. If western Ukraine were to become a prosperous, consolidated, or even semi-consolidated, democracy with a foot in Europe, eastern Ukraine might eventually want to rejoin, and Ukraine would be strong enough, politically and economically, to become whole again.

Democratic consolidation is difficult in times of relative stability and nearly impossible in times of internal strife. It remains to be seen if the Ukrainian government can recapture the east, given Russia’s military support for the separatists, and strengthen its democratic institutions at the same time. Ukraine has wrestled with corruption for years. Although President Petro Poroshenko has made rooting out corruption one of his top priorities, changing a culture of corruption takes time and political capital, both of which are scarce in Ukraine, focused as they are on the war in the east and the dire economic situation. The Ukrainian government is pouring resources into a very difficult-to-win war with no clear end-game strategy, which could derail reform efforts. Furthermore, waiting for Russian President Vladimir Putin to relent could lead to disillusionment among Ukrainians, who hold a low opinion of their government and want an end to the conflict. By giving in to eastern Ukraine’s desire for greater autonomy, the Ukrainian government could concentrate all of its resources on reforming the state.

Some reforms aimed at combating corruption and dealing with the high public spending have already occurred, so the country seems to be taking the necessary steps. But Ukraine’s economy needs more outside support to survive. The European Union and the United States have to do more. The IMF’s $40 billion bailout isn’t enough. Supporting western Ukraine requires serious, lengthy, and coordinated economic support for Ukraine by the West, the members of which must cooperate better than in the past. Economic stabilization would establish a solid base for democracy that simply hasn’t existed up to this point in Ukraine. The key item, however, would be convincing the Ukrainians to accept losing parts of the east.

There are several critical problems with this strategy. A divided Ukraine is, in geopolitical terms, not ideal. If the West focuses on western Ukraine and ignores the east, Putin may get what he wants in the short-term, which is a frozen conflict that he can manipulate. Plus, Ukrainians would find it difficult to let the east go, though a plurality of Ukrainians do broadly support negotiating a settlement with the separatists and Russia.

Ultimately, however, pro-democracy forces among Ukrainians and in the West must realize that Putin’s goal is actually to create a failed state in Ukraine, and the best way to combat that is to ensure the successful democratization of the large parts of Ukraine not under his control. Until the separatist-controlled parts of Ukraine actually want to rejoin the country, which doesn’t look likely, in order to take advantage of the current pro-European and democratic sentiments, we may have to let Putin get what he wants in the short-term.


Simon Hoellerbauer is a research intern with the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions and a graduate of Kenyon College.