Putin’s Dream Scenario for Ukraine

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko delivers a speech while standing next to Tomos, a decree granting the Orthodox Church of Ukraine independence, during the Orthodox Christmas service at the Saint Sophia's Cathedral in Kyiv, Ukraine January 7, 2019. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

Ukraine’s problem is not that it hasn’t changed enough. It’s that it’s changed too much too fast, thereby raising popular expectations, undermining long-existing patterns of behavior, creating uncertainty, and thereby increasing the popularity of populists who argue that a return to the good old days is imperative.

In fact, Ukraine has changed more in the last four years than in the previous two decades after independence in 1991. Consider the following eight impressive achievements:

  • Ukraine has built a highly competitive army and military industrial complex and stopped Russia’s aggression in the southeast—a remarkable achievement in light of Ukraine’s having had some 6,000 battle-ready troops in 2014.
  • Ukraine has moved decisively toward integration with the West and the world, as trade with Russia has fallen dramatically and foreign direct investment, much of which is Chinese, has grown. Ukraine is no longer Russia’s hinterland, especially as gas pricing has been rationalized and Ukraine’s dependence on direct imports of Russian gas have fallen dramatically.
  • Ukraine’s economy has been growing at about 3.5 percent for the last few years. Agriculture and IT are booming. Investments in alternative energies are on the rise (renewables are projected to comprise 25 percent of Ukraine’s energy production in 2035), even as Ukraine has identified several huge gas fields that could make it an energy exporter within a decade. Billions have been dedicated to repairing and expanding infrastructure. The banking system is on the mend and macroeconomic stability has been by and large achieved.
  • Local government has received greater authority and significant resources. In the meantime, local civic activism continues, sometimes leading to pushback by local powerbrokers, usually producing visible change. A much-needed reform is currently restructuring Ukraine’s dilapidated health care system, even as Ukrainians complain that the reform is misguided.
  • Education has been reformed at all levels; universities and colleges have received greater autonomy. Ukrainian language and culture are currently experiencing a renaissance similar to the golden 1920s. Book publishing is rapidly expanding, the filmmaking industry has been revived, art, music, dance, and theater—both of a traditional and avant-garde variety—are as innovative as anything in the West.
  • The Ukrainian Orthodox Church has become autonomous, thereby solidifying the country’s move away from Russia. As exarchs and parishes of the church subordinate to Moscow increasingly jump ship, the pace of defections will rise after a certain tipping point is reached.
  • Important steps have been taken to curb corruption. All functionaries must reveal their assets. An anti-corruption agency and Ukrainian equivalent of the FBI have been set up. An anti-corruption court is in the works. Business people report that it’s become easier to do business in Ukraine.
  • Ukraine has managed to remain a vigorous, if imperfect, democracy, with a lively press reflecting all opinions, a strong civil society, and generally accepted democratic institutions and procedures. The far left and the far right are marginal phenomena in Ukraine and nothing like their equivalents in such established democracies as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands. Antisemitism is also marginal.

Paradoxically, despite such impressive, and manifestly visible change, most Ukrainians will insist that “nothing has changed” and that the country is moving in the “wrong direction.” These views are contradictory—if nothing has changed, Ukraine can’t be moving in the wrong direction—but they reflect a widespread Ukrainian impatience fueled by exaggerated expectations in the aftermath of the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution. In fact, “everything has changed” and the country is moving in the “right direction.”

Understandably, Ukrainians want to live like Western Europeans—not tomorrow, not the day after, but today. Naturally, that hasn’t happened, for the simple reason that it’s impossible. By the same token, the only way to get Ukraine to begin to approximate Western Europe is to continue to adopt extremely painful reforms. Just that has been done—and it’s been painful, as Ukrainians struggle to make ends meet while gas price increases have cut into their growing wages. At the same time, oligarchs appear to have suffered very little (in fact, the war with Russia has severely diminished their assets), corruption remains a problem, and the politicians responsible for the massive thefts of the Yanukovych era have either fled or remained unpunished.  

Unsurprisingly, populist appeals are not without resonance and could affect the outcome of the forthcoming elections. President Petro Poroshenko deserves to win the presidential ballot in March, but probably won’t, as people hold him responsible for the supposed fact that “nothing has changed” and that Ukraine is moving in the “wrong direction.” Yulia Tymoshenko, the fiery former prime minister, co-architect of the Orange Revolution, and political prisoner under the Yanukovych regime, is leading the populist charge, promising to reverse the reforms and institute “social justice.” She leads in all the polls. Second in most polls is the actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who’s rocketed to fame thanks to the television exposure he’s received from playing an average Joe who becomes Ukraine’s reformist president. Some polls suggest he would beat Tymoshenko in the second-round run-off.

A Poroshenko victory would mean a continuation of Ukraine’s ongoing positive trends. A Tymoshenko victory could be destabilizing, especially if she decides to attack the “establishment” and seek a quick deal with Russia. A Zelenskiy victory could change “everything,” especially if he adopts incompetent policies that enable the oligarchs to retake control of the economy, fuels inflation by raising wages and pensions, and invites Russian invasion by neglecting security and defense.

Not surprisingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin is hoping for, and may be committed to doing everything possible to bring about, a Poroshenko defeat—which may be the best reason for reelecting the incumbent president. Tymoshenko would be preferable to Poroshenko for Putin, but, being unpredictable, could be cause for concern. A Zelenskiy victory would be Putin’s dream scenario.

Ironically, by failing to acknowledge that everything has in fact changed, Ukrainians could wind up with the worst of all possible worlds—a reversal to the status quo ante and a return to Russia’s embrace.

Alexander J. Motyl is professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark.