Answering the Critics: Donbas Disengagement

What should Ukraine do about the occupied Donbas enclave?

As readers of this blog know, I have long been arguing for disengagement. Critics of my view generally emphasize some or all of the following three points:

First, won’t disengagement help promote Vladimir Putin’s strategic goal of destroying Ukraine?

Second, doesn’t Ukraine have a moral obligation to reannex this territory and its citizens?

Third, what exactly does disengagement entail and how would it be brought about??

All three are serious questions that deserve serious answers. I’ll address the first two questions in this blog and the third in the next one.

Dying for the Donbas?

Just about every day, soldiers die. Sometimes, it’s as many as three or four. Sometimes, it’s two or three. Usually, it’s only one.

Only one young life snuffed out—for what?

For the Russian-occupied Donbas enclave. That is to say, for nothing.

I can understand, intellectually, at least, dying for your family or friends, for your country or city or community, for democracy or peace or your nation.

But dying for a piece of crummy land populated by 3 million inhabitants, the vast majority of whom hate Ukraine and everything it stands for? That makes no sense.

Most Ukrainian policymakers and most Ukrainian people appear determined to win back the Donbas territory occupied by Vladimir Putin’s troops and proxies. At the same time, they appear to be equally determined to lead normal lives, as if the war—and make no mistake, it is a war—were taking place in some distant land.

Kyiv’s New Leadership and Ukraine's Economic Prospects

MOTYL: Mr. Monyak, as Executive Vice President for Eurasia at WorldBusiness Capital, how would you assess existing investment opportunities in Ukraine?

Putin Celebrates Unrepentant Fascist Zhirinovsky

This time, Vladimir Putin has out-Putined himself.

On April 18, Russia’s erratic, though consistently anti-democratic, leader awarded the Russian Federation’s prestigious “For Service to the Fatherland Order, Class II,” to none other than Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Zhirinovsky, who is the head of the bizarrely named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, has been an unabashed promoter of Russian illiberalism, fascism, and imperialism since he first made a splash in the Duma elections of 1993, when his party garnered 23 percent of the vote.

Zhirinovsky has never minced his words. To his credit, he’s never pretended to be anything but an imperialist and a fascist. Indeed, he’s been so brazen, so outrageous, and so unapologetic that not even Putin Russia’s most ardent Western apologists apologize for him.  

Here’s a classic Zhirinovsky statement threatening Eastern Europe with war, from August 2014:

Ukraine’s New Cabinet

How should we evaluate Ukraine’s just-completed process of forming a new coalition and cabinet?

For starters, coalitions and cabinets are routinely changed in democracies. Devious presidents, devious prime ministers, and devious parliamentarians are also business as usual. So, too, are horse trading, smoke-filled rooms, shady deals, opportunistic bargains, and outrageous demands. Although these things usually dismay and demoralize non-politicians like most of us, their presence actually signifies that a democratic process is taking place.

That said Ukraine isn’t a run-of-the-mill democracy. It’s a transitional democracy mired in economic crisis and war. While other elites can squabble to their hearts’ content, those in Ukraine have a political and moral obligation to set aside personal ambitions and animosities and, in the national interest, find effective solutions quickly. When time is of the essence, one can’t waste two months, as the Ukrainians just did, trying to come up with a new coalition and cabinet. That’s criminal.

Ukraine: A Bridge Linking the West and Russia?

MOTYL: Dr. Jiri Valenta, you’ve had extensive experience dealing with the Russians during and after the Prague Spring and wrote a seminal work on its tragic denouement, Soviet Intervention in Czechoslovakia, 1968 (Johns Hopkins, 1991). Is there a solution to the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war that would be acceptable to Ukraine, Russia, and the West?

VALENTA: Russian leaders abhor large, endless military campaigns and prolonged, costly wars. Many in Russia believe the war in Afghanistan led to revolutionary change and, in turn, to the 1991 fall of the empire. The Kremlin prefers low-cost interventions as in 1968 Czechoslovakia or bloodless ones as in 2014 Crimea. 

The Dutch, Kyiv, and Reform

The Dutch referendum is not the end of the world for Ukraine. As one smart and sober Ukrainian analyst points out, it actually changes very little in Ukraine’s relationship with the European Union. In a word, Ukraine need not panic.

That said, Ukraine needs to draw several conclusions from the decision by some 20 percent of Holland’s electorate to reject the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine.

First, that percentage of nay-sayers roughly corresponds to the percentage of citizenry in all EU states who actively reject “European values.” These are the supporters of extreme right-wing parties, many of which of late have attained 20-30 percent of the vote in various elections. These are the people who disagree with the following passage in the Preamble of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union:

Is Ukraine's Economic Potential Its Destiny?

The following is an interview with Ukraine investor, Ian Hague.


MOTYL: As a Founding Partner of Firebird Management LLC, a fund management company focusing on the capital markets of the former Soviet Union, you’ve pursued investment opportunities in Ukraine since 1994. Whence this long-standing interest?

Ukrainian Identity After the Euromaidan

The following is an interview with the Ukrainian intellectual, analyst, and critic, Mykola Riabchuk.

MOTYL: You’ve stated that independent Ukraine has never had a government as good as the one it has today. As you know, most Ukrainians think of their president and prime minister as corrupt and untruthful. Who’s right?

RIABCHUK: I meant only that a bad government is better than very, very bad governments, which is what we’ve had up to now. The incumbents deserve a minimal pass, whereas all their predecessors deserved Fs. Most countries can live with bad governments, but not Ukraine, especially given the war and the institutional ruin created by past governments.

I’m not sure the incumbent president and prime minister deliberately engage in premeditated duplicity and mendacity, as was the case with Leonid Kuchma, Viktor Yanukovych, and Yulia Tymoshenko. Rather, they don’t keep all their promises or uphold their moral principles. But this is true of all politicians who face difficult trade-offs. People’s high post-revolutionary expectations make the problem particularly conspicuous.

Time for Ukraine to Take the Initiative

Vladimir Putin’s maneuverings with the West and Ukraine are often compared to a game of chess. The comparison is spot on, with one qualification. Contrary to the image of grandmaster he prefers, the Russian president more closely resembles a loudmouthed barroom player who slams pieces against the board. The effect is intimidating at first, but the best way to beat him is to take a deep breath, stick to your strategy, and play a consistently offensive and defensive game.

Unfortunately, President Obama isn’t very interested in playing chess with Putin. Maybe the State Department and the Pentagon are, but they’re hamstrung by Obama’s apparent indifference. The European Union, almost by definition, doesn’t play well. Indeed, its member states can’t agree on whether the game is chess, checkers, or soccer.

Putin’s bullying and the West’s non-play give Ukraine’s leaders considerable room for maneuver. If Kyiv had a vision of its future, it could stop reacting to events and attempt to settle the war in eastern Ukraine on its own terms. By announcing bold initiatives, Kyiv could take the initiative and shock Washington and Europe out of their complacency or denial.

Putin’s Syria Gambit

All the hullaballoo provoked by Vladimir Putin’s surprise announcement of a Russian troop withdrawal from Syria misses two important points.

First, given that even Putin’s inner circle in the Kremlin appears not to have known anything about his plans, the episode has reaffirmed the widespread belief that Putin makes all the strategic decisions in the Kremlin. Which is exactly what we would expect from a dictator who models his leadership style on Benito Mussolini’s. Unconstrained by institutions or rules, Putin can invade Crimea, the Donbas, and Syria one day and announce a withdrawal from Syria the other. If he wanted to end the war against Ukraine, he could do so by declaring victory over the “Kyiv junta” and withdrawing his troops. That he chooses not to do so is less the result of a rational calculation of the war’s costs and benefits for Russia than the product of his whim.

Not surprisingly, Putin keeps surprising the world—and, in all likelihood, himself. That’s not leadership, and that’s certainly not genius. That’s authoritarian conceit.

Decentralizing Government Power is Key to Reforming Ukraine

It’s not surprising that Kyiv’s convoluted politics color what we think about Ukraine and its future prospects. But don’t let the turmoil in Kyiv obscure the hopeful developments taking place in Ukraine’s provinces. Take agricultural reform. As Kyiv’s policymakers squawk and squabble, real Ukrainians have to live real lives. And they do, frequently developing innovative new schemes that qualify as no less important reforms than those contemplated and adopted in the capital.

Managing Kyiv's Government Crisis

For those who are puzzled by current goings-on in Ukraine’s government, here are a few tips.

First, let’s not confuse “crisis of government” with “crisis of Ukraine.” True, Prime Minister Arsenii Yatseniuk is unpopular and should probably resign. Also true, his cabinet needs reshuffling. But it’s illogical to jump from the claim that the government is dysfunctional to the claim that Ukraine is experiencing a “grim slide.” Governments are not countries, even when they’re absolutist, as in Louis XIV’s France, or fascist, as in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Ukraine is a poorly functioning democracy—which means that its poorly functioning democratic institutions do not determine the fate of the country as a whole.

Why Reintegrating the Donbas Is Suicide for Ukraine

If you’re wondering why the Minsk peace process isn’t leading to peace, look no further than a recent interview with Vladislav Inozemtsev, a highly respected Russian economist and director of the Center for the Study of Postindustrial Society in Moscow. The bottom line—surprise, surprise!—is this: Vladimir  Putin doesn’t want peace. He wants to make Ukraine into a permanent backwater state dependent on the Kremlin.

Signs of Hope for Judicial Reform in Ukraine

Post-communist Ukraine has long struggled to reform its judicial system and rid itself of pervasive and systematic petty and serious corruption—one of the many poisonous legacies experienced by all post-Soviet states. I recently interviewed Oleksandr Marusiak, an articulate and serious 25-year old from Chernivtsi in western Ukraine, who is part of a new breed of young people being recruited to reform and modernize the country’s police and its policing methods. As he described his on-the-ground experience in the recruiting and training process, I couldn’t help but be hopeful that, despite the continuing problems in Kyiv, some reforms just might be taking hold in the provinces. Here’s why:

MOTYL: How did you apply for and get the job?


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