UkraineAlert

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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On July 29, Russia vetoed a draft UN resolution seeking to set up a tribunal to prosecute those responsible for shooting down a Malaysia Airlines jumbo jet more than a year ago.

By exercising its Security Council veto against the resolution, Moscow has lost control of the process, committing a possible error that may ultimately lead to convictions of rebel leaders and Russian officials—and a new round of sanctions against the Kremlin. This appears to be a massive strategic misstep, which the West may exploit.

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The Congress of National Communities of Ukraine's latest reports on xenophobia in Ukraine have struck another blow to Moscow's persistent attempts to present the country as a hotbed of anti-Semitism. The reports make no mention of the "pogroms" alleged by the Russian Foreign Ministry, nor do they back Russian President Vladimir Putin's assertion of a "rampage of reactionary, nationalist and anti-Semitic forces."

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In March 2015, the Atlantic Council and Freedom House published a report by Crimean journalist Andrii Klymenko showing how Russia's occupation and annexation of Crimea has unleashed an ongoing chain of human rights violations across the peninsula.

Five days after release of the report—Human Rights Abuses in Russian-Occupied Crimea—Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) charged Klymenko with challenging the annexation's legitimacy and threatening Russian sovereignty. Under Article 280 of Russia's criminal code, Klymenko faces up to five years in jail. Yet Klymenko wasn't told about the charges; he learned about them in April, when the FSB began searching and interrogating his former colleagues.

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Ukraine finds itself in an economic crisis of massive proportions. In the past twelve months, its GDP has contracted by over 7.5 percent, the national deficit exceeds 10 percent, its currency has lost more than 50 percent of its value, its banks are insolvent and the national debt-to-GDP ratio has ballooned to more than 100 percent—causing a drastic drop in the standard of living for Ukraine's citizens.

Undoubtedly, Russia's hybrid war against Ukraine has largely triggered this crisis. But the root cause of Ukraine's economic malaise is its culture of corruption, which has persisted for decades and has earned Ukraine the dubious distinction of being ranked among the most corrupt economies in the world.

The moment is fast approaching when President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk change course, undertake serious reforms, and cement their legacy as great leaders or risk being remembered as self-interested politicians—and possibly triggering a new Maidan. The system of bureaucrats, police, prosecutors, judges, and politicians controlling governance for the oligarchs' benefit must be broken or Ukraine will sink under the weight of a totally failed economy.

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