UkraineAlert

As the August 31 grenade attacks, rioting, and violent protests at Ukraine's Parliament—the Verkhovna Rada—demonstrated quite literally, the Ukrainian decentralization effort is an explosive issue. Constitutional amendments granting local communities greater governing responsibilities have sparked widespread criticism, both in Ukraine and in the West.

Some warn that the new system will excessively empower the president at the expense of the Council of Ministers and the Rada. Others question how a country can change the distribution of powers without Luhansk and Donetsk, both still occupied by covert Russian forces. Other analysts worry about certain ambiguities in the legislation's language, arguing that the proposed amendment does not adequately distinguish the roles of the central government, regions, and towns. Still, most Ukrainians support decentralization. They want to adopt European standards of governance, and adopting a Polish-style institutional system is as good a way to get there as any.

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The West's deteriorating relationship with Russia has opened a window of opportunity to offer Eastern European countries a genuine future within the European Union, unrestrained by Moscow. To seize this opportunity, the West should refrain from past policies that, in the end, always put Russia first.

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Almost two years after the Euromaidan demonstrations began, most Ukrainians agree that the pace of reforms has been largely disappointing. While many former civil-society activists hold key positions in the government and parliament, corruption continues to plague the country and state institutions cannot provide basic services.

Amid the skepticism, one area where there is agreement that positive change has taken place is the new patrol police in Ukraine's major cities, including Kyiv. This bright spot comes largely thanks to an influx of former Georgian officials renown for similar achievements in their country.

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Ukrainians go to the polls on October 25 to elect mayors and city councils. These local elections matter more than one might expect. The likely passage of a constitutional amendment on decentralization by parliament later this year will give the newly elected mayors and councils more autonomy and authority than ever before.

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US President Barack Obama recently derided critics of his foreign policies as offering merely mumbo-jumbo. Yet everyone can plainly see the administration's shocking degree of across-the-board strategic incomprehension and incompetence in Europe and the Middle East. In fact, European Union diplomats publicly admit that confidence in US policies is plummeting throughout Europe. Therefore, I offer a strategy for Europe that aims to restore Western cohesion under a revitalized US and European Atlanticism that meets today's needs and responds to the linked challenges of Russia, Ukraine, immigration, the Middle East, and European economic-political stagnation. It also forthrightly asserts that absent US leadership, no adequate response to current crises will emerge.

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For a brief moment, it felt like déjà vu. As an officer with the Canadian Armed Forces, I visited several hot spots, witnessing my share of misery and destruction. Now I am in the Donbas, the war-torn region of eastern Ukraine.

Since its independence in 1991, Ukraine has struggled to shed its Soviet colonial past and the remaining vestiges of Russian domination. It seeks to join Europe and the world of free nations. The Euromaidan's Revolution of Dignity transformed the country by removing a corrupt dictator and bringing to power a government committed to anchoring Ukraine firmly within the Euro-Atlantic community. Russia responded by resorting to war. It officially annexed Crimea, and then de facto invaded portions of eastern Ukraine. Eighteen months later, entire villages and cities have been destroyed, almost 8,000 lives have been lost, and another 30,000 have been wounded. More than 1.5 million internal refugees have been displaced.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin is pivoting and wants to withdraw from the Donbas but keep Crimea, according to Iegor Soboliev, the head of the Ukrainian parliament's anti-corruption committee.

"He wants to give it back to us right now. He doesn't need the Donbas," he said in an interview on October 5.

"Unfortunately, he will try to keep Crimea. He announced the occupation as a big historical victory for Russia so now it's impossible to return the Crimea because many Russians would see it as a political defeat."

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What Russia hoped would be a small, victorious war has turned into the "geostrategic disaster of a new cold war," writes Volodymyr Horbulin, a respected foreign policy analyst currently advising Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

In an article in Dzerkalo Tyzhnia, Horbulin argues that the main participants in the war have exhausted themselves. The Donbas has become a black hole from which Russia, its creator, cannot escape.

Hybrid war succeeded in Crimea, but it failed in the Donbas. Ukraine's economic blockade of the occupied territories has strained Russia financially. Separatist leaders in Donetsk and Luhansk are incompetent, forcing Moscow to augment its military advisers with administrators. Returning Russian "volunteers" are a problem for Moscow, which has already asked rebels to create a border force to prevent former fighters from coming home to make trouble.

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The demonizing of Ukrainian oligarchs as major impediments to democratization and reform has become a shared mantra of Western and domestic pundits alike. Whenever explaining the slow pace of Ukraine's changes after the Euromaidan, analysts argue that oligarchs only gained influence and that by controlling whole chunks of the state apparatus, mass media, and economy, they are capable of halting reforms whenever their financial interests are at stake.

But instead of blaming the omnipresent bogeymen—the oligarchs—let's acknowledge that this view is just too simple to be true. Ukraine's government is often unprepared to kill the beast of underperforming post-Soviet institutions. Parliamentary support of reforms is similarly weak due to internal political rivalries and contradictions within the ruling coalition. The so-called "new professional faces" who got Cabinet posts on the basis of unjustified quotas were neither "new" nor "professional," while civil-society activists—despite their frenzied efforts to advocate change—are often disunited and too inexperienced to replace the government in the strenuous and intellectually demanding process of political reform.

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The October 2 Paris Summit with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and Russian President Vladimir Putin produced no breakthrough for peace in Ukraine. But it provided additional proof that, for the moment, Putin wants to lower tensions in the region. The parties spoke about three issues: the withdrawal of armaments, the timing and conditions of elections, and OSCE monitoring of the region controlled by Putin's proxies in eastern Ukraine. The handling of these issues puts most of the onus on Moscow and its agents, and the Kremlin's follow-through should be seen as a test of Putin's intentions.

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