For the first time in 20 years, Ukraine’s disappearance as a state is imaginable. Since Ukraine is a pivotal state of great geopolitical significance to the stability of both Europe and Asia, its collapse could have considerable geopolitical consequences.
If Ukraine fails as a state, future historians will place the blame on four factors:
- NATO enlargement up to Ukraine’s western border. Expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to include East Central Europe and the Baltic states effectively placed Ukraine in a strategically untenable no-man’s land between a united West and an increasingly hostile Russia.
- President Viktor Yushchenko’s catastrophic mismanagement of the country in 2005-2009. Yushchenko neglected the economy, permitted corruption to flourish, demoralized the population, polarized the country, and destroyed the unity of pro-Western Ukrainian elites.
- Europe’s criminal indifference to Ukraine’s strategic dilemmas and experiment in democracy after the Orange Revolution of 2004. Europe—and especially Germany—courted authoritarian Russia and turned its back on Ukraine’s pleas for assistance, at precisely the time that even a vague promise of eventual membership in the European Union would have united Ukraine’s pro-Western elites around a democratic reform agenda.
- President Viktor Yanukovych’s rush to dismantle democracy and destroy Ukraine’s Ukrainian identity. In the two months that Yanukovych has been in office, he and his comrades in the Party of Regions have launched a full-scale rollback of Ukraine’s democratic institutions, a full-scale attack on Ukrainian language and culture, and a full-scale shift toward Russia.
Yanukovych’s actions could result in three possible scenarios, arranged below according to long-, medium-, and short-term probability:
1) Least likely in the short term is Ukraine’s transformation into a vassal state of Russia. Although critics of Yanukovych’s agreement to extend the Black Sea Fleet’s base in Sevastopol for 30 years accuse him of selling out to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the short-term reality is that the fleet would have stayed in the Crimea until 2017 anyway. The long-term prospects, however, are different. The continued presence of the fleet until 2047—in conjunction with Yanukovych’s apparent desire to forge the closest possible economic, cultural, political, and military ties with Russia—will draw Ukraine into Russia’s sphere of influence and could then, in a process of creeping re-imperialization, transform Ukraine into a Russian protectorate.
2) The real importance, in the short to medium term, of the Black Sea Feet deal is that it demonstrates that Yanukovych is not an economic reformer committed to introducing genuine market relations in Ukraine. The deal rests on an anti-market approach to economics and shows that Yanukovych is less interested in making Ukraine modern and productive than in acquiring easy money to sustain his hyper-centralized rule and make painful reforms unnecessary. Yanukovych, in sum, is rapidly transforming Ukraine into a backward sultanistic regime, in which authoritarianism and corruption flourish and the economy stagnates. Such regimes are inherently unstable and, as they lose the support of even their die-hard supporters in the medium term, become vulnerable to people power, radical movements, and terrorism.
3) The most immediate—and most likely—short-term consequence of Yanukovych’s anti-Ukrainian and anti-democratic measures is the mobilization of Ukrainian democrats and the radicalization of Ukrainian nationalists. The harder Yanukovych pushes, the harder will they push back. A second Orange Revolution would be the best-case outcome, but rather more likely is the abandonment of moderation by Ukrainians fed up with being treated as second-class citizens by a chauvinistic regime determined to push Ukrainian identity into Bantustans. As social tensions rise, both violence and an attempt by Western Ukraine to secede become increasingly conceivable. Yanukovych will try to crack down, but how the resulting conflict will be resolved is anybody’s guess. One thing is sure: Ukraine will be destabilized.
What would be the consequences for Eurasia of the end of Ukraine?
First, the European project will collapse. If the European Union is unwilling or unable to defend democracy in its back yard and to prevent Ukraine’s transformation into a second Yugoslavia, then the EU is as meaningless as its commitment to supposedly humane European values is hollow.
Second, Russian democracy will be set back for generations, as Ukraine’s collapse will be said to demonstrate that Eastern Slavs are congenitally incapable of democratic self-rule. In turn, the case for autocracy will be made with increased vigor, and the authoritarian character of the Putin-Medvedev regime will be strengthened.
Third, Putin Russia’s neo-imperial agenda will have been vindicated. The end of Ukraine will seemingly prove that Russia can, should, and must reestablish imperial sway over the formerly Soviet states. If a Russian empire is reestablished, a second cold war with the United States is inevitable, an arms race in Central Europe is probable, and a hot war with imperial Russia’s non-Russian neighbors, including China, becomes possible. If the imperial project fails—as a result, perhaps, of misguided imperialist adventures that lead to disaster and discredit the Russian regime—Russia will be destabilized and Eurasia will suffer the contagion. At the very least, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Middle East will remain unstable for many decades to come.
Are such trends inevitable? Europe could easily correct Ukraine’s trajectory by promoting Ukraine’s integration into Euro-Atlantic structures—but will not as long as it frames the issue as Ukrainian democracy vs Russian gas. The United States could impress Yanukovych with the need to keep his sultanistic ambitions in check—but won’t as long as it deems Russia indispensable to its geopolitical designs.
That means that Ukrainians alone will have to stop the destruction of their state. The chances of such an outcome are actually greater than Yanukovych may think. He’s already alienated one third to one half of the country and transformed most of its truculent intellectual and cultural elites into his enemies. As the country continues to stagnate economically under his sultanistic rule, disenchantment will spread to those Ukrainians who are still willing to give Yanukovych a chance. As the gap between his increasingly brittle sultanistic regime and the increasingly angry population grows, elite defections will multiply and a second Orange Revolution could very well take place.
Whatever the scenario—vassalage, popular upheaval, or civil conflict—Ukraine will be unstable. And Yanukovych will go down in history as even more ineffective than the hapless Yushchenko.
Alexander J. Motyl, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. This essay previously appeared in Kyiv Post.