UkraineAlert

World attention focuses on ISIS and Iran, with its half an atomic weapon. But the biggest geopolitical issue is Vladimir Putin, backed by thousands of nuclear weapons, who is gradually conquering Ukraine, a democracy with 45 million people the size of Germany and Poland combined.

In just over a year, Russia has seized 9 percent of Ukraine, killed 6,200, wounded 30,000, displaced 1.38 million people, and shot down a commercial airliner with 298 people aboard.

Even so, European and American retaliation has been soft, and ineffective. The Russians have ignored a February ceasefire agreement and captured another 28 towns and villages, 250 square kilometers, and killed 200 Ukrainians. It's also moving tanks, artillery, troops, and equipment into Ukraine by the trainload.

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With less than 80 days before election day in Ukraine, mayoral races are already heating up. Parliament approved a new election law that does two things: Ukraine will use an open-list system and the country will hold runoffs for mayors in larger cities. These two features combined with the potential decentralization reforms being debated by parliament make the October 25 local elections more important than previous ones.

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As Ukraine struggles with a collapsing economy and Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas, a third crisis threatens its long-term national stability: endemic corruption.

Ukraine ranks 142nd out of 175 countries on Transparency International's latest annual Corruption Perceptions Index. Of the fifteen former Soviet republics, only Tajikistan and Uzbekistan score lower. Official graft is widespread, but public procurement corruption tops the Kyiv government's list of challenges. In early 2014, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk noted that 40 percent of the $25 billion spent annually on public procurement "stays in the corrupt pockets of the people who carry out these purchases." Under the old regime, 50 percent kickbacks in state tenders was considered normal, and a survey from Business Environment and Enterprise Performance discovered that an astounding 99 percent of firms expect to pay bribes to win government contracts.

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Recent articles in the US media suggest that the Pentagon is "rebalancing" its forces towards Europe to meet the Russian challenge. At the same time, NATO plans to halve the number of air patrols over the Baltic. Supposedly the Russian threat to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania has ebbed, and governments are finally stepping up to Europe's defense.

If only this were true. In fact, even though Russia hasn't yet attacked Ukraine head-on, and the time for such a full-scale offensive is slipping away—not to mention the crippling impact sanctions and falling oil prices have had on Russia's economy—the Kremlin threat has not gone away.

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Let me tell you the story of Mr. X—a student whom I had never seen in class, and who had not shown up for any of his final exams. "Oh, do not worry," his fellow students reassured me, "it has been like this year in year out." I could have easily forgotten this trivial episode had Mr. X not earned a university diploma and had someone answered my humble inquiry into how he managed to pull that off.

The day I learned about Mr. X's remarkable academic achievements, the weekly magazine Vlast Deneg named Education Minister Serhiy Kvit the most successful reformer in Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk's cabinet. The press praised Kvit for adopting the Higher Education Law, which broadened universities' autonomy and brought Ukraine's higher education systems in line with global academic standards. Kvit had quickly ended the corrupt state procurements of school textbooks and revoked the accreditation of 70 universities with low academic standards. Under ex-Education Minister Dmytro Tabachnyk—now a fugitive from Ukrainian justice—textbook printers allegedly paid millions of hryvnia in kickbacks, while numerous private universities easily renewed their academic licenses after paying tokens of respect to the right people.

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The Ukraine crisis is not only about Ukraine. Far more urgent for humanity as a whole are the commitments made by Russia and other UN Security Council members with regard to Ukraine's accession to the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT) following the Soviet Union's collapse. The NPT aims to curtail the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Upon independence in 1991, Ukraine inherited the world's third-largest arsenal of nuclear warheads. Most were not immediately deployable, since the black suitcase remained in Moscow. Even so, in principle, Kyiv had the possibility of resetting the old firing control systems of the Soviet nuclear weapons left on Ukrainian territory.

In early 1992, Ukraine's armed forces possessed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), long-range bombers and their payloads, as well as additional atomic weapons—a total of 4,025 units, or 15 percent of the former Soviet nuclear arsenal, according to the US Natural Resources Defense Council. Up until the mid-1990s, Ukraine had far more nuclear weapons than China, France, or the United Kingdom combined. The cumulative destructive power of this arsenal was enormous. Even if Ukraine had retained only a fraction of this weaponry, today it would be a feared nuclear power.

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Ever since US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi last May, Ukraine's friends have been concerned that in its eagerness to ensure Kremlin support for a deal with Iran, the White House was willing to let Putin have his way in Ukraine. Advocates of this outlook point to five developments:

  1. In Sochi, Kerry's principal focus was Iran, and his subsequent public statements about the breach of the Minsk II ceasefire by Russia and its separatist agents were weak;
  2. The post-Sochi visit of Assistant US Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland to Moscow to establish a US-Russia channel on the Ukraine crisis with Deputy Minister Grigory Karasin without Ukrainian participation;
  3. Nuland's presence in Kyiv in mid-July to lobby the Verkhovna Rada to pass the constitutional change on decentralization granting the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples' Republics special status, as required by Minsk II;
  4. Praise by President Barack Obama, Kerry, and other senior US officials for Moscow's role in clinching the nuclear deal with Iran in late July; and
  5. The quick White House denial that an aggressive Kremlin is the top US national security challenge, after General Joseph Dunford, the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made that statement at his Congressional confirmation hearings in July.

But the notion that Washington is restraining or curtailing that support in exchange for Russian cooperation on Iran doesn't match the facts. Kyiv has been understandably disappointed by limited support from the West in addressing Moscow's aggression in Ukraine. While the White House has been slow to recognize the grave danger posed by Putin's revisionist ambitions, its policies in fact have been improving with time.

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In July, residents of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk marked the first anniversary of liberation from the occupation of Russian-backed separatists. Both cities experienced their rule for nearly four months in 2014. In the last year, marches, concerts, and city lights with slogans promoting peace have helped reinforce a growing sense of national pride. And yet a strong feeling of distrust toward the central government in Kyiv persists. The government has been slow in dealing with the aftershocks of war while assistance to internally displaced persons remains a steep challenge.

Hundreds of volunteers from around the country have tried to fill the communications and humanitarian gap in the Donbas. Over the last year, I have been privileged to work in eastern Ukraine as part of the Lviv Education Foundation's efforts. I found eight initiatives that demonstrate that volunteerism is on the rise in the Donbas and they—along with the people that I've met—give me cause to be hopeful for eastern Ukraine.

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No Instagram account is more entertaining, more dumbfounding, and more terrifying than that of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. On any given day, one is guaranteed to see video clips ranging from Kadyrov praying before dawn in the Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque to playing soccer at the FC Terek facilities (Kadyrov was the President of FC Terek from 2004 to 2011) to speaking to visibly shaken construction employees at delayed project sites. Kadyrov's Instagram account is a vivid reminder that his control of Chechnya is absolute and unparalleled among the heads of state in Russia's twenty-two republics. Recent developments in eastern Ukraine suggest that Kadyrov's power is increasingly unrestricted; the involvement of his personal security guard—officially called the Security Service of Akhmat Kadyrov—in Crimea and the Donbas is case and point.

The involvement of Chechen soldiers fighting in eastern Ukraine devoutly loyal to Kadyrov has broad implications for Kremlin policy. Not only does it reinforce Moscow's reliance on "informal paramilitary-style forces" that shift blame for controversial operations away from the Kremlin, it also provides an example as to how Russian President Vladimir Putin may use Kadyrov to solidify his own power.

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Ukraine's system of agricultural production is paternalistic, dating back to the Soviet era, when bureaucrats constantly intruded into the production process. Such a strategy may have suited the planned economy, but in Ukraine's market economy it has only spawned widespread corruption, because authorities cannot inspect every farm and business in person. EU standards allow producers more leeway in this regard, but this implies more responsibilities. So even though inspections continue, the regulatory agencies' job is to check quality and standards—not meddle with the production process. Taras Kachka, former acting President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Ukraine, expressed optimism over the prospects for Ukrainian agriculture after the implementation of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) between Ukraine and the European Union in a 2014 TV interview—noting that despite tremendous differences in production standards, Ukrainian legislation is catching up to the EU.

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