The American debate on Ukraine these days is dominated by the question of whether or not we should be arming the embattled republic. The usual hawks are saying we must send weaponry and trainers ASAP; the usual doves caution that doing so may lead to escalation. This is the wrong debate to be having; the West’s biggest problem with Russia isn’t a lack of weaponry in the Donbas. It’s the lack of a sound strategy for dealing with the threat that Putin poses not only to Ukraine but to the coherence of the European Union and to the broader allied project of building a liberal world order.
The West has been caught off guard by Putin because it underestimated the Russian capacity and will for mischief and overestimated its own strength and coherence. This is still to some degree a problem: We are still underestimating the damage that Russia can do to us. The EU is much more vulnerable than many people grasp. The euro project has divided Europe’s north from its south, and the still-evolving euro crisis has the potential both to paralyze European policymaking for years to come and to shake the foundations of the European order. Most NATO members are not fulfilling their obligations on military spending, and Germany’s political appetite for taking on expensive projects on behalf of foreign states is diminished, to say the least.
The West’s distractions and divisions created an opportunity for Russia, a weak and declining power with very poor longterm prospects, to catch the stronger West off guard and pose a significant challenge to the liberal order that the West wants to build. But Putin’s ugly and brutal invasion of a peaceful neighboring state isn’t just a problem for the West. It is also a historic opportunity. The future of Putin’s Russia is as much at stake here as the future of Ukraine, and Putin has quite unintentionally given the West a second chance to promote the construction of a genuinely democratic and prosperous Russia.
Despite its problems, the West is much richer, much bigger and enormously more powerful than Vlad the Invader and the ramshackle state he has built. Putin has rashly challenged us to a contest in which the odds are heavily against him. Our job isn’t to respond to his military probes in the Donbas as much as it is to grasp the nature of our advantages and to bring the immense advantages of the West into play in ways that demonstrate to Russia that the path Putin has chosen is a historical dead end. We didn’t beat the Soviet Union on the battlefield; we beat it by forcing the Soviets leadership to realize their utter inability to compete economically, technologically and ultimately militarily against the kind of open and dynamic society the western world built after World War Two. Putin, from a much weaker position and with a much less coherent set of ideas and institutions, has challenged us to another round of Tear Down That Wall. Dealing with his challenge will be a much less all-consuming and dangerous enterprise than dealing with the empire that Stalin built, but deal with it we must.
Our goal here is, especially by the standards of the Cold War, a simple and attainable one. If a united West can help Ukraine become a stable, prosperous and democratic country, then not only will Putin’s challenge to Ukraine ultimately fail, but he will be very hard put to hold onto power in Russia.
Helping Ukraine to follow Poland’s trajectory toward stable prosperity is not a trivial task, but it will not be as forbidding (or as expensive) as many fear. For different reasons, both the EU and the United States are in something of a funk. The morale and self confidence of the EU has been undermined by the euro catastrophe, and by the increasing difficulties of bringing the Balkans into the EU. Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania: these are not names that fill European politicians and officials with a sense of joy and accomplishment. And in the United States we have our own scars: words like Iraq and Afghanistan don’t fill Americans with a longing to go out and build democracies abroad.
Many people look at the situation in Ukraine and draw the despairing conclusion that even without Russian meddling there is not much the West can do to help. The 25 years since 1990 have been characterized by a continuing failure to build a competent state or strong economy. Anyway, say the pessimists, nation building by well-intentioned outsiders is a fool’s game. The oligarchs who have looted Ukraine since 1990 will divert any Western aid and investment to Ukraine to Switzerland and the other black holes of international finance where pinstriped bankers help kleptocrats and narco-traffickers hide their ill-gotten gains.
Pessimists look at nation-building in Ukraine and remember the old joke about how many psychiatrists it takes to change a light bulb. (Answer: Just one, but the light bulb has to want to change.)
Fair enough, but this time the light bulb wants to change. There is a new Ukraine. Millions of ordinary Ukrainians see in Putin’s brutality and lies the threat of a return to Soviet living, and they don’t want to go back. The refugees fleeing the Donbas and Crimea, and the daily news of attacks by fascist thugs and criminal gangs in the east have had a powerful and even transformative effect on Ukrainian society.
The new Ukraine has a kind of leadership that Ukraine has never had before. A new generation of well trained, well educated Ukrainians, many with experience in the West, are ready, willing and able to rebuild Ukraine. Ukrainians are willing to do the nation building themselves. What the West needs to do is to help Ukraine do what a critical mass of Ukrainians already really want to do for themselves: they want to take the Polish road rather than the Putinist one.
Good strategy is about using the resources you have to achieve your goals and about orchestrating your policies to achieve the largest possible gains with the lowest risks and costs. From this point of view, helping the New Ukraine beat back the Russian challenge offers the West some unique opportunities: We can not only frustrate and weaken our enemies (Putin and the fascists and mafiosos most closely linked to him have made it abundantly clear that they hate us and seek to do us ill) and help our Ukrainian friends: we can strengthen the West as a whole. We can help the EU overcome some of its internal problems, renew a common sense of purpose among the members of the Atlantic Alliance and advance our core values and interests worldwide.
The cost isn’t zero, but, wisely done, the cost of an effective Ukraine strategy is reasonable in its own right—and a lot cheaper than coping with the kind of Russia and Europe that we would face if Putin gets what he wants. Here are some the main things to keep in mind:
First, as Dan Drezner writes in the Washington Post, one of Putin’s goals is to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe. We can and should make clear to him that this isn’t going to happen. In fact, we can go farther. The United States was losing interest in Europe before Putin’s attack. Whether we were pivoting to Asia, waging the terror wars in the Middle East, or daydreaming about a return to isolationist peace and quiet, Americans left, right and center were united in the belief that Europe’s problems were not a priority for the United States. Thanks to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Americans are taking another look at Europe and we are disturbed by what we see. Between the euro implosion, the Russian threat and the rise of murdering religious fanatics across the EU, it’s clear that Americans need to re-engage. Putin and his cronies need to understand that their own foolish actions have revived the transatlantic alliance and activism that stymied Moscow in the Cold War. Americans and Europeans, including valuable new allies like Poland and the Baltic states who understand the Russians very well, need to think about and work on Ukraine together. The stronger our alliance becomes, the more isolated Russia is, and the more of a failure Putin and his allies will know themselves to be.
And how should a reviving Atlantic Alliance help the New Ukraine emerge? While we should not rule out military aid from training to arms deliveries, that’s not where we should start. Military measures strain the western alliance and to some degree play into the kind of scenario Putin likes. Our mission is to hold the alliance together and take the battle to terrain where Putin is weak and the West is at its best. We don’t want to say or do anything that would suggest to Putin that he doesn’t have to worry about Ukrainian forces gaining new capacities and weapons, and there could well come a time when weapons deliveries could play a vital role in a coherent western strategy for Ukraine, but neither arms nor debates about arms belong at the center of Western policy right now.
The first big part of the strategy of helping the New Ukraine flourish is financial aid. Some of this is already happening; between the IMF and some European and American loan guarantees and aid packages, up go $40 billion has been pledged to Kiev over the next four years. This is a good start, and is evidence that western institutions are more robust than many of our enemies want to believe. More, Ukraine’s new government and a civil society movement that knows it will have to fight hard and sacrifice are embracing proposed IMF reforms rather than fighting them. But there is much more to do, and much of this can be done by using international and European institutions creatively—and in ways that help crisis hit European economies that are suffering not only because of the euro crisis but also because of the Russia sanctions. One approach would be to create a mutually beneficial system of credits that Ukraine could use to purchase needed goods from Eurozone countries—stimulating their economies and creating jobs where Europe badly needs help, but also helping Ukraine get a leg up. Again, this unifies the West rather than divides it. The snake-bitten economies of southern Europe are desperate for some economic stimulus—and Ukraine is desperate for access to western goods and services. Put France, Italy and Spain in a position to benefit from Western aid to Ukraine, and give companies across Europe and North America the chance to replace business lost to Russia sanctions, and the politics of aiding Ukraine begin to get easier. Crafted intelligently, relatively modest American contributions could help open up a very substantial channel of effective aid while promoting EU cooperation and easing tensions among some of our most important and valued allies.
Meanwhile, as part of an effort to strengthen our alliances and the European Union, the United States should be engaging with Italy, France, Portugal and Spain to think about ways we can offer some constructive help to these old friends and partners now trapped in a difficult situation. Stepping up to the plate for your friends when they really need you is the kind of thing a responsible and forward looking country ought to do, and some of our best friends in the world badly need us right now. Could we offer temporary work visas for qualified college grads in countries where talented young people can’t get work? Can we find ways to sweeten the proposed EU-US free trade agreement in ways that would help these countries rebuild? A cohesive, confident and outward looking Europe is extremely important to the United States; even as we address the Russian challenge we need to be strengthening and renewing the transatlantic relationships that have made the Atlantic community an unparalleled force for prosperity and peace in the post World War Two world.
Putin has invaded Ukraine in the hopes of weakening Europe and the Atlantic Community; the best riposte is for the West to work collaboratively to strengthen them.
The next big element of the strategy has to do with making the Ukrainian state effective. Putin hates and fears the idea of a strong and well functioning Ukrainian state; ironically, it is his own folly that has created the best opportunity in 100 years for Ukrainians to build the kind of state that can safeguard their independence. There is already a critical mass of New Ukrainians, people who are ready, willing and able to break with the past. These veterans of Maidan and more than a year of intense domestic political struggle and foreign war do not want to see another opportunity lost. These are people who hate the old, corrupt way of doing things, people who are willing to do what it takes to move towards a more Western way of life, people who want to see their country do what its most successful neighbors have done. Our core mission in Ukraine is to ally with these people and give them the tools to make their country work.
They need our help. The Ukrainian state today looks a lot like some of the other bureaucratic disasters left on the beach by the receding tide of communism. The bureaucracies, the police force, the law courts, the schools, hospitals and universities are still filled with people trained and socialized under the old system. 25 years of oligarchical corruption and misrule on top of 90 years of sometimes savage Soviet governance have left Ukraine cursed by one of Europe’s least capable and most sprawling states.
The New Ukrainians want this to change, and there are lots of people in the old institutions who would be willing and even eager to join them. The old system made corruption mandatory: police, teachers, bureaucrats and even judges were paid so little that corruption was for many the only way to survive. The value of a government job wasn’t the salary you got for it; it was the power it gave you to extort bribes from the public. The oligarchs liked things that way; a state without morals or morale was easy for shady rich people to control.
This is where some of the money will have to be spent, and while the current IMF program is part of the answer, more still needs to be done. The conventional austerity and reform agendas that the IMF and its partners often propose may not work in Ukraine. Salaries for government employees (which includes health and education professionals as well as the civil service and law enforcement) have to go up to realistic levels. (They will still be low by western standards, but will allow government employees to live decently on their pay.) In some cases, government bureaucracies will need to shrink, and some people behaved so badly under the old system that they will have to be fired. For our part, though, we need to remember that threatening tens of thousands of people with losing their jobs is not the smartest policy for a government facing both foreign invasion and civil war. That is especially true when many of them, as in the case of local police forces, are both organized and armed. Putin hopes that a coalition of the unwilling inside Ukraine will support his disruption in the east because they fear reform. The West can knock that weapon from his hands at a very reasonable cost by providing Ukraine with the temporary budget support it will need to smooth the path of transition.
The West has another, priceless asset we can offer the New Ukraine. Poland, the Czech Republic, the Baltic states and a number of other successfully transitioning countries have a lot of experience cleaning up the ugly mess that communism leaves behind. European and American support can ensure that the New Ukraine gets the benefits of the experience of neighboring countries who are extremely interested in helping Ukraine establish itself as a strong and truly independent state. The context of general state-building and reform is the context in which military training and aid should be seen. Ukraine’s armed forces suffer from many of the same problems as the civilian bureaucracies; reform, redesign and retraining can make a big difference here.
Next up in this strategy is investment assistance and promotion: prosperity is the silver bullet that beat communism in the Cold War and it can defeat Putin now. What will really help Ukraine will be a surge of foreign investment. Putin knows this, and he is trying to block that by creating military uncertainty in the east. This is not without an effect, but Europe and the US can work together to offset this with, for example, programs that insure foreign investors against political risks associated with Russian action.
Ukraine is anything but bereft of attractive investment opportunities. Take the Ukrainian energy system. Ukraine’s primarily Soviet-era energy infrastructure is outmoded, and a huge amount of gas is wasted through leaks and other inefficiencies. Privatization of the energy monopoly in Ukraine would go a long way, helping to keep corrupt hands off of Naftogaz’s money, opening up a key channel for private foreign investment, and also incentivizing the new stakeholders to pay to update the crumbling, leaking infrastructure that costs the Ukrainian economy as a whole so much. Fixing Ukraine’s own energy system will reduce the country’s dependence on Russia, strengthen the economy, and reduce Russia’s leverage over Europe as a whole. If western governments work with Ukraine and Naftogaz, a framework can be created that allows private foreign investment to make a massive difference in Ukraine’s situation.
From a military point of view, Putin has made some gains in Ukraine. He has conquered Crimea and Russia won’t abandon that beautiful and strategically significant peninsula very easily. He has also occupied some of Ukraine’s most heavily industrialized territory in the Donbas, and despite all of its bravery and sacrifice, Ukraine’s army has no realistic prospect of driving Putin out. But Putin is wrong to think that his victory is assured. Joe Stalin occupied East Germany, and his successors (aided by the young Putin) tried to turn East Germany into a reliable ally and prop of Soviet power. The trouble, of course, was that compared to West Germany, East Germany was an ugly, poor police state and could only hold its people by literally building a wall across the frontier and shooting anybody who tried to escape.
Now Putin has inadvertently trapped himself into a similar contest farther east. Our job is to make sure that West Ukraine becomes a beacon of freedom and prosperity. If we succeed, and we will if we make a serious effort, it won’t just be Putin’s hold over the Crimea and the Donbas that will be challenged. What works in Ukraine can work in Russia, and the Russian people and elites know that. Working with our Ukrainian friends and European partners to build a free and fair Ukraine is how we can learn to someday work with Russian friends and allies to build a genuinely New Russia.
Putin has challenged us to a contest to see whether the ideas and values of the West work better in the old Slavic heartlands of the Soviet Union than the mix of mafioso thuggery and nationalist hysteria emanating from the Kremlin these days. This is a challenge we should welcome; by taking him up on it, we will advance our values, enhance our security, strengthen our alliances and build a better world.