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Ukraine's Alternative Futures

If peace comes, what territory will Ukraine  occupy, and what political system will prevail on that territory?

This article originally appeared at Fort Russ

Ukraine's national anthem starts with the words "Ukraine's not dead yet," which is a true enough statement which remains silent (as does the rest of the anthem) on the rather vital question of what territory Ukraine proposes to occupy, and what political system will prevail on that territory. 

<figcaption>An uncertain future</figcaption>
An uncertain future

After a couple of decades of sweeping Ukraine's problems under the rug, the Maidan brought them into the open, all at once, so much so that every aspect of Ukraine and Ukrainianness is now up for grabs. So let's start with listing some alternatives.

1. "United Ukraine", or a single, unitary, centralized state within post-1991 borders (minus Crimea--but that's a separate story). The advocates of such a Ukraine include the US government, the EU, the Kiev elite (officially, at least), and even many supporters of Novorossia who do not believe that Novorossia is a viable creation on its own, but rather the "bridgehead" of a new "United Ukraine" that would be allied with Russia.  That Ukraine, we can safely say, is done for. Maidan saw to it. Prior to the Maidan, the definition of "Ukrainianness" was simply "I live in Ukraine therefore I'm Ukrainian." After the Maidan it became "I speak Ukrainian and think Bandera was a great national hero, therefore I'm Ukrainian." As bad as that was, once the inevitable civil war broke out, the definition evolved still more into "I fought against the terrorists, separatists, and Russia, therefore I am Ukrainian." Well, that simply won't do. As long as Ukraine was in a sort of a historical limbo where there was no real discussion of Ukrainian national identity, all of these internal contradictions did not pose a threat to Ukraine's political or territorial integrity. However, these contradictions were pretty extreme: it's simply not possible to create a Ukrainian national myth in which both the Red Army and UPA are Ukraine's national heroes. They are simply incompatible narratives. As soon as one of those narratives made a claim to being the national myth, "United Ukraine" was finished. The Humpty-Dumpty has fallen off the wall, and all of Obama's Victoria Nulands and IMF's billions will not put it back together again. Which gets us to the next alternative.

2. Federal Ukraine, which includes Novorossia. Dead on arrival, for reasons listed in point 1 above. Federal Ukraine implies Kiev’s sovereign authority, which in turn implies the monopoly on the means of violence. Too many people had died on the Donbass at the hands of Kiev’s “means of violence” for the survivors to accept that government’s authority. EU is half-heartedly pushing this option, but I doubt even they believe in its viability. Which gets us to point 3.

3. “Ukraine of Regions”, meaning a confederation in which Ukraine’s regions (or clusters of regions) become de-facto sovereign. A tempting proposition for many (especially the oligarchs who are the main supporters of this option) but economically unviable. Would it mean each region would be able to print its own currency? Set own tariffs? There are very few examples of successful confederations out there, and this Ukraine has too many strikes against it already to make it work here. Which gets us to point 4.

4. “Rump Ukraine,” in other words Ukraine minus Novorossia, defined as extending pretty much to the Dnepr river (!). Since, in the words of a prominent Russian politician, “20 million Russians in Ukraine will never be compelled to kiss Bandera’s bust”, why not let them go, so that they can become their own country or join Russia? This option poses a classic problem of politics: the perfectly viable solution that everyone hates for political reasons, although Poroshenko might quite possibly be open to it, except that he can’t very well make it public. Rump Ukraine would mean a major blow to the image of “united Ukraine” nationalists for whom Ukraine’s borders extend to Vistula river in the West and the Caspian Sea in the East. Poroshenko was quite right to call them the most important constituency in Ukraine. Likewise the EU does not want to encourage the many separatist movements in Europe, and the US “war faction” is still toying with the idea of Ukraine as an anti-Russian outpost in Europe and is therefore not willing to tolerate its diminishment. Moreover, from the perspective of Kiev elites, Rump Ukraine might only be a stepping stone to point 5.

5. The final option on the table are “Many Ukraines”, in which regions or clusters of regions (Galicia, for example) declare all-out independence, possibly after an intermediate period of confederalization. Ironically enough, Yatsenyuk’s sharp cuts to the national budget actually strengthened the hand of separatist forces in western Ukraine and elsewhere by shifting the burden of providing social services to regional governments. Saddled with extra responsibilities, the regional governments will naturally want extra authority, a process that might lead to outright independence. Another factor that makes option 5 plausible and even viable is Ukraine’s foreign debt, to the point that it’s now a virtual Catch-22 scenario for both Kiev and the IMF. IMF is afraid to give money to Kiev because, should Ukraine splinter, which of the successor states will assume Kiev’s debt obligations? But if the IMF does not give Kiev money, it makes the prospect of splintering all the more likely. 

So which of those will come to pass? There are two simple rules of thumb:

The longer the fighting continues, and the more casualties it causes, the stronger Ukraine’s centrifugal forces will be. 

The less money the IMF lends to Ukraine, and the more stringent the conditions attached to these credits, the stronger the centrifugal forces will be. 

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