I wrote in a recent posting for this blog that Europe’s troubles and Russia’s turbulence herald an “unhappy new year” for Viktor Yanukovych and the Regionnaires. Let’s up the ante and ask what the European Union’s meltdown and Russia’s breakdown might mean for Ukraine. Both possibilities may still strike us as unlikely, but, in contrast to the conventional wisdom that ruled over the last decade, they’re no longer unimaginable. Indeed, one can easily imagine the EU’s transformation into a loose economic association without political aspirations or a tight political-economic entity under German leadership. And one can just as easily imagine Russia’s experiencing popular uprisings, coups d’etat, and regional secessionist movements that would make it a weak, brittle, and possibly even failed state.

Recall why both the EU and Russia are important for Ukraine. Economically, they’re Ukraine’s largest trading partners, the most significant sources of foreign direct investment, and the most important destinations for Ukrainian migrant labor. Russia is also Ukraine’s prime supplier of energy. Geopolitically, Russia—with its military, atomic weapons, natural resources, and population—is a superpower compared to Ukraine, while the EU, with its incestuous relationship with a confused NATO, represents only a minor balancing opportunity for Ukraine. Normatively, Russia’s authoritarianism is a source of emulation for Ukrainian authoritarians, while EU democracy is a source of inspiration for Ukrainian democrats. Culturally, Russia exerts a far greater pull on Ukraine—via proximity, open borders, population, and media hegemony—than the more distant and more aloof EU.

A simultaneous economic decline in both the EU and Russia will knock the wind out of Ukraine’s economy. Trade, investment, and migrant remittances will fall, while Ukraine’s unemployment rate will rise and GDP will crash. Worse, energy flows could be disrupted, while natural gas is likely to become even more expensive. In sum, Ukraine’s economy could experience another 1990s-style depression, and social tensions, possibly even mass revolts, are certain. With their backs to the wall, Ukraine’s elites may finally have to choose between packing their bags or reforming the country. They won’t be able to count on Russia or the EU to save them and they won’t have Russia or the EU to blame for their own incompetence and venality. When forced to sink or swim, Ukraine might finally begin swimming. Or not.

In contrast to an economic breakdown, a geopolitical breakdown could on balance actually enhance Ukraine’s security. Europe isn’t much of a geopolitical player anyway, and a decline of its military capacities won’t make much of a difference. Russia’s transformation into a weak, weaker, or even failed state, on the other hand, will be a significant boon to Ukraine’s geopolitical status. Indeed, all of Russia’s non-Russian neighbors will breathe more easily with the decline of a superpower with a predilection for neo-imperial rhetoric. The potential downside is that a Russian breakdown could result in civil war, secessionist struggles, mass refugees, loose nukes, and hyper-nationalist rhetoric that will, willy-nilly, affect Ukraine’s, as well as Eurasia’s, security. Facing direct threats to their sovereignty, Russia’s non-Russian neighbors will beef up their militaries and police apparatuses, strengthen border controls, and emphasize their identities as separate states and nations. Under conditions such as these, Ukraine’s army may finally be transformed into a genuine military. Ukraine’s integrity as a state will also be boosted: no one will want to secede, as there will be no place to secede to.

State building under conditions of outside threats is rarely good for democracy, but, in Ukraine’s case, the outcome isn’t so clear. After all, the main source of authoritarian legitimation in Ukraine is Russian authoritarianism. If the latter fails, then the prospects for the former correspondingly grow weaker. Of course, if the EU fails, then that source of democratic legitimacy will also grow weaker. On balance, therefore, the condition of Ukraine’s (as it is) barely sentient democracy may not be greatly affected by these scenarios.

Finally, Russia’s breakdown will greatly weaken its immense cultural pull on Ukraine, while Europe’s breakdown will have far less impact on Europe’s far weaker cultural attractiveness. For better or for worse, that means Ukraine will likely begin to develop an identity and culture that will be its own—not Russian, but, quite possibly, also not European.

In sum, if both Europe and Russia break down, Ukraine will confront an economic catastrophe, a geopolitical boon, a series of massive security challenges, a normative boost, and a cultural shot in the arm. One of Ukraine’s most intelligent analysts, Borys Kushniruk, has argued that, “in expecting Russia’s destabilization, we should be aware that it will bring nothing good to Ukraine or the world.” In point of fact, Russia’s, and the EU’s, destabilization will bring a mixed bag of goods to Ukraine and the world.

Ukraine’s challenge will be to take advantage of enormous economic and security threats as well as of significant geopolitical, normative, and cultural opportunities to move its economy into high gear, enhance the effectiveness of the state and the identity of its nation, and retain at least its current parlous commitment to democratic procedure. In principle, Ukraine’s notoriously fractious and incompetent elites should understand that it’s better to hang together than to hang separately, but, then again, who knows? If they get their act together, Ukraine could finally prosper and, as a stable prosperous state, could even exert a positive influence on a destabilized Russia. If they don’t get their act together—well, then all bets are off, and Ukraine will likely join Russia as a failed or failing state.

Alexander J. Motyl

Ukrayinska Dumka


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