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Russia and the West are both being played by Ukraine's political elites

Ukrainian political elites have repeatedly tried to fob off their failures onto Moscow and the West, while extorting maximal support from both. The West must make any cash handouts conditional on meeting protesters' demands for democratic reforms.

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Vitali Klitschko, former heavyweight boxing champion and Ukrainian leader of UDAR party (right), former Ukrainian foreign minister Petro Poroshenko (center), and French philosopher and writer Bernard Henri-Levy arrive for a meeting with French president Francois Hollande at the Elysee Palace in Paris March 7.

Christophe Ena/AP

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Ukraine is teetering on the brink of disaster, once again drawing the West and Russia into diplomatic conflict. But as pundits and policymakers debate the appropriate Western response to the showdown in Crimea – and raise the specter of a renewed cold war – they would do well to recognize the responsibility of the Ukrainian elite for the present East-West showdown.

Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian politicians have played the West and Moscow against each other to extort maximal support from both sides. Consequently, a stable Ukraine is unlikely to emerge from the recent protests unless domestic political development takes precedence over geopolitical brinkmanship. Indeed, it would be a serious mistake to allow saber rattling to drown out the message of Ukraine’s EuroMaidan protesters whose public demonstrations sparked a revolution and set off the current turmoil between the West and Moscow.

Ukrainian politicians have repeatedly attempted to fob off their own failures onto Moscow and the West. The trade union skirmish that ignited the EuroMaidan protests was simply the latest example. Because neither Moscow nor the West could afford to “lose Ukraine,” Ukrainian elites have played each side against the other while extracting rents from both since the early 1990s.

Unfortunately, virtually none of the goodies made their way to the people or the state. The pockets of the elite are well lined – as ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s Mezhyhirya estate extravagantly demonstrated – but Ukraine’s economy is on the brink of default.

While the courage of Ukrainian citizens and activists is laudatory, many of Ukraine’s opposition leaders were also deeply complicit in the creation of its corrupt and shaky political system. Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk, businessman and former Foreign Minister Petro Poroshenko, and, most of all, previously jailed opposition leader and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko seek to absolve themselves from any responsibility by placing the blame for Ukraine’s problems on Mr. Yanukovych. However, Yanukovych was only one of many corrupt politicians who contributed to more than two decades of divisive, venal, and contentious politics that led to the tragic violence in Kiev last month.

In addition to the problem of an almost entirely inbred political class, Ukraine’s problems are exacerbated by decades as the focal point of East-West geopolitical rivalries. But make no mistake: This position is one Ukraine has repeatedly sought out. While not premeditated, the present showdown is the logical outcome of Kiev’s precarious balancing act.

Washington and Brussels have become so carried away with a neo-cold-warrior mentality that competition with Moscow is now the predominant policy consideration. Western capitals are practically tripping over themselves to outbid the Kremlin with generous offers of economic aid: The European Union has offered a $15 billion aid package, with the United States dangling an additional $1 billion in loan guarantees and technical support. While much of the aid is contingent on Ukraine’s new leadership concluding a deal with the International Monetary Fund, a large portion of the funds could reach Ukraine in the coming weeks. Thus, while the long-term economic reforms required for IMF funds are a good start, technical support and minor institutional reforms will be insufficient to reshape Ukrainian political culture. 

If the West is serious about fostering a stable Ukraine, it should use this opportunity to not only “win” Ukraine, but to inaugurate a new political elite that is pro-EU and capable of running the country without the repeated assistance of Russia or the EU and the US. 

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While Ukrainian politics remain in flux, the West has an important chance to push for much-needed reforms. But the window of opportunity is closing quickly. In a policy attributed to Ms. Tymoshenko, the nascent Ukrainian government is already installing wealthy oligarchs to take key positions as governors in the eastern provinces of the state. Installing wealthy businessmen with ties to corrupt past regimes is only likely to perpetuate the cycle of ineffectual Ukrainian politics.

In the short term, rebuilding Ukraine may entail some cooperation between the West and Russia. Russian state natural gas conglomerate Gazprom has substantial leverage over the Ukrainian and European economies, and while Moscow’s actions are deplorable, many on-the-ground observers report that Russian control of the Crimea is likely irreversible. If the Ukrainian government is unwilling to let the region go, the West should seek a compromise with Russia and push for a federal system that will allow for greater regional autonomy for Crimea – and continued presence of the Russian Black Sea fleet – while still upholding Ukrainian sovereignty.

Ultimately, no sum of money will be sufficient to firmly anchor Ukraine in either the Eastern or the Western camp. Moreover, to hand out cash without demanding political reforms would perpetuate the dynamics that brought the country to the brink, while also breeding greater internecine resentments among Ukrainians.

Instead, the West must play the long game in Ukraine by listening to the EuroMaidan protesters’ demands for more transparent and effective democratic institutions. Enabling the country to regain its political and economic footing, with Brussels and Washington conspicuously leveraging carrots rather than sticks to set Ukraine on a course of true democratization, is the best way to welcome a stable Ukraine into the West.

Emily Holland is a visiting fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations in Berlin and a doctoral candidate in the political science department at Columbia University. Rebecca R. Friedman is a visiting scholar at Columbia University and doctoral student in the government department at Georgetown University.

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