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Ukraine's Grim Slide

Walter Russell Mead

Ukraine’s government was on the verge of collapse earlier today after two smaller parties quit the governing coalition in disgust following Tuesday’s failed vote to oust the unpopular Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk from office. Both Ukrainian reformers and journalists denounced Tuesday’s flubbed no-confidence vote as a crooked ploy by oligarchs to keep their grip on the levers of power. The departure of 26 MPs of the pro-Western Samopomisch (Self-Reliance) party today, joining the 19 MPs from Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivschyna (Fatherland) party that quit yesterday, left the remaining coalition of Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front and President Petro Poroshenko’s bloc without a majority.

Yatsenyuk, however, appears to have pulled a rabbit out of his hat, luring the Radical Party, which had quit last year, back into the coalition and thus staving off early elections.

Anticipating these events yesterday, Anders Aslund warned that this arrangement could prove unstable:

Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk might be able to lure the Radical Party back and gain support from three smaller oligarchic parties outside the coalition, but doing so would confirm that they instigated the coup and undermine their reputation among voters. The natural consequence would be that the government falls apart prompting early parliamentary elections, for which Fatherland and Self-Reliance are campaigning.

We shall in due time see just who prevails, but things certainly don’t look good for Ukraine’s “Revolution of Dignity.” The crisis demonstrates just how weak and fractious Ukraine’s government really is, and just how much the political class remains under the control of shadowy oligarchs who would rather keep looting the carcass of Ukraine than help the country build a future.

Of course, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin understands the balance of forces in Ukraine very well; he intimately understands these oligarchs and their greed, and he also knows which politicians are for sale and how the country’s inability to make effective reforms can help him secure his core goals.

Putin has an easier task than the West in Ukraine: He just needs for the country to fail. The West has by far the harder task. It has to demonstrate that a path of reform and modernization can create a prosperous and free society in a predominantly Orthodox country that Russians think of as part of their cultural sphere. If the Western plan works, Putin’s regime will face more threats at home; if Ukrainians can build a better future under democracy, many Russians will reason, why are we stuck with a flailing dictator? But if Ukraine fails, Putin’s political position at home will be reinforced: If it doesn’t work there, many Russians will believe, it won’t work for us.

Unfortunately, the West ultimately can’t help those who can’t or won’t help themselves. But that doesn’t get European and U.S. leaders off the hook completely. The lift in Ukraine was always going to be very difficult, and with the stakes being as high as they are, a lot of engagement and concerted pressure for reform was called for. Western leaders—divided, distracted, and demoralized by a whole rush of crises—have by and large just thrown money and advice at the problem, hoping that the reformers would naturally prevail. They haven’t, and while the odds against their success were and continue to be very high, it’s impossible to describe what is happening as anything other than a serious setback for the West.

At the moment, the West seems to be trying to fool itself. It is pretending that it has always had a coherent policy towards Ukraine. Ukraine’s failure gives Western leaders an opportunity to throw their hands up in despair—“We tried!”—and start to walk away, leaving Ukraine to fester.

Sometimes effective foreign policy requires bluffing and deceiving your opponents, but fooling yourself almost never brings joy.

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