The gravitational pull of the Soviet Union


While Russia is redrawing the European map, Ukraine needs to move forward: A hybrid war cannot be ended with a hybrid peace and an economic crisis cannot be overcome with hybrid reforms. Changes have to be fast and radical.

The gravitational pull of the Soviet Union, typified by Russia’s ambition to create a Eurasian Economic Union, still is the most powerful force in the region – and it is redrawing the map. Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and now Crimea and Donbass are the victims of this post-imperial attraction.

How many more of the smaller countries will be pulled in by Moscow? The answer depends on whether the West is ready to reconsider its approach to Russia’s neighbours, that is, whether it will continue to view them as part of Moscow’s legitimate sphere of interest. Putin’s fear of NATO forces on Russia’s borders may not serve as a pretext for not letting independent countries chose their own friends – may they be the European Union or NATO.

Ukraine, however, needs to win a war on two fronts, first, militarily in the east against Russia, and, second, it needs to wage a campaign against the old system with its corrupt institutions. In this, perhaps the most important battle is that for the minds of its citizens. Both fights are attempts to break with the Soviet past, to overcome its pull. The walls have fallen – but who is to say that they cannot be erected anew?

The annexation of Crimea affects over 250,000 people

There is an essential interdependency between the two battles. With the war in Donbass going on it is very difficult to implement reforms. Without reforms, however, it will be impossible to win the war. Putin’s aim is not just to control two regions of Ukraine but to have the European idea fail. In the long term, the recovery of the two territories by Ukraine will depend on the people’s wish to live a better life in a free and democratic European country.

Because of the economic crisis and the worsening humanitarian situation it is becoming increasingly difficult to implement reforms in Ukraine. From the vantage point of peaceful Kyiv it is difficult to grasp the scale of the challenge Ukraine is facing today. For example, through Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, Ukraine lost a territory more than half the size of Estonia.

Crimean Tatars are living in fear and facing religious, economic, political, and social repression. This affects over 250,000 people – half the population of Luxembourg. Once again they lost their motherland, and it is reported that many of them have been kidnapped and tortured.

Two regions of Ukraine, Luganska and Donetska oblast, are under the control of pro-Russian separatists. To imagine the magnitude – this is a territory bigger than Lower Saxony. One million people have fled these areas trying to save themselves and their families. One million –this is one third of the population of Lithuania.

A Marshall plan for Ukraine

Nevertheless, Ukraine needs to move forward. A hybrid war cannot be ended with a hybrid peace and an economic crisis cannot be overcome with hybrid reforms. Changes have to be fast, comprehensive, and radical.

Recently, the IMF assessed Ukraine’s total budget deficit at 10.1 percent of GDP, including the large Naftogaz deficit of 4.3 percent. The public debt has skyrocketed from 41 percent of GDP at the end of 2013 to 60 percent or more at the end of 2014. Ukraine has entered a depreciation-inflation cycle and, as the exchange rate drops, banks are collapsing.

However, last week there were good news from the IMF – it will support Ukraine with 40 billion dollars that will be granted for four years within the framework of the Extended Fund Facility. Together with strict demands for painful reform this package has the potential of becoming a Marshall plan for Ukraine.

The role of the international community is crucial – and not just for financial support. Money should not be a proxy for real leadership. Ukraine’s fight against Russian aggression is a battle for Western values – a conflict about the development of the whole region and the future of the European idea. Ultimately, it is about the future of Russia too.

It is not impossible to overcome the gravitational pull of the Soviet Union. What is needed is a powerful engine and a brave pilot.