There are two crucibles for Russian foreign policy today—Ukraine and Syria. Taken together they show the extent of what hybrid warfare, the Kremlin’s centerpiece approach to the world, can do in an era of divided U.S. attention, weakened European consensus, and rising challenges from other growing centers of gravity. However, what makes Ukraine and Syria so important is not that they illustrate the age-old opportunism characteristic of Moscow’s worldview. Rather, they show clear vulnerabilities in that approach, which if exploited by the United States and its partners, can enable the U.S. to reclaim the strategic initiative and restore strategic balance on at least one critical front.
Ukraine is the proverbial low-hanging, and equally importantly, ripe fruit for U.S. support.
Much has been written about the morass that is Syria, and current U.S. approaches have more limitations than opportunities there due in large part to the “war of all against all” conditions. Ukraine on the other hand, is the proverbial low-hanging, and equally importantly, ripe fruit for U.S. support. This does not mean that it is without problems; quite the contrary. The country’s political culture possesses several nascent qualities that raise concerns, not least the endemic “guilt by accusation” in politics and business, and as a general tenor of the narrative landscape these days. Accordingly, if everyone is to be believed, then everyone must be a Russian agent. Ukrainian elites thus regularly go the extra mile to use any and all opportunities for mudslinging, which often leads to obstructing the functions of government by those not currently holding power, rather than opposing policies within an agreed framework of effective governance. Yet this is neither surprising, nor entirely undesirable from a comparative democratization standpoint.
Democratic transitions take a long time to reach consolidation, the stage when the rules of the political game become inviolable; many fail to reach that state at all. Once achieved, state and society abide by those rules, even with the inevitable rancor about implementing them, and challenges to the meaning of the rules themselves. Ukraine is not at that stage, nor would any reasonable assessment of the country expect that it should be for a considerable time. However, a general consensus does exist on at least one sine qua non fact, namely that the political system cannot go back to the way it was under Yanukovych; the time of arbitrary arrests and politically motivated killings so familiar to many in the post-communist world. Recognizing that Ukrainian elites and the society they represent, can in fact argue publically and in the halls of power, is a good sign for democratic development in the country, and an equally bad sign for Russian victory there. That victory depends on Ukraine failing to rebuild a stable, independent country with a functioning government.
With more than 1000 years of history to draw on, much of it as an independent or at least autonomous actor in the region, Ukraine has a stronger foundation than what might appear.
At the heart of Ukraine’s defiance to Russia lies a simple concept that many in the United States do not readily see—longevity. With more than 1000 years of history to draw on, much of it as an independent or at least autonomous actor in the region (if not more broadly through empire and trade), Ukraine has a stronger foundation than what might appear. In particular, it has historic examples of a democratic past, much like other countries in Eastern Europe, and critically, unlike Russia. Yet, here the challenges begin in earnest, not from contradictions between a perceived glorious past free from political tyranny and the messy reality of history. Instead, the problems stem from most in the West not knowing these legacies exist at all.
So powerful and pervasive has the Russian narrative become, that the country is still often referred to as the Ukraine, as if it were a quiet pasture land populated by peasant farmers born with servile views of the world. As false as this is for Ukraine, it fits into the Kremlin’s view of Russian society itself, whether under the current tenants, their Soviet predecessors, or the Muscovite Tsars before them. Undermining this traditional view of Europe’s largest country is no easy task, but there are some strong indications that it can and should happen.
First, governance is working, albeit messily at times, but still with increasing effectiveness under immense pressures. Few countries have had to face an armed invasion, terrorist attacks, separatist aggression, international lawfare against its territorial independence, crushing economic constraints, and constant influence operations to divide the population, all the while trying to build a new political relationship between elites, society, and the international community. Russia’s active measures to disrupt any and all attempts at Ukrainian independence are considerable indeed. However, progress is happening. Reforms in administrative transparency, adjusting to life under unfavorable exchange rates, and the development of investment partnerships with European companies bode well for Ukraine’s ledger.
Russia’s active measures to disrupt any and all attempts at Ukrainian independence are considerable indeed. However, progress is happening.
Second, the fiction of a divided Ukraine carries little weight among the population, especially given the reality of its resistance to Russian invasion in the east. Earlier stories of the Revolution of Dignity (the Ukrainian term for what we in the West mistakenly call the Maidan Revolution, a term that misses the heart of the uprising), ring true to many. Even more prevalent are the stories of families and whole communities knitting blankets, cooking kasha – the ubiquitous “oatmeal” that is a part of everyday life in Ukraine, and driving medical supplies to the front in run-down family cars. The people and the military united in ways Putin never imagined possible, and that social effort is a major strength of Ukrainian defense.
Third, despite serious hardships, the country is not starving. With a relatively stable and sustainable food supply, the population avoids one of the biggest causes of upheaval and suffering. When combined with the presence of enduring educational excellence in technical fields like medicine and engineering, along with an undeterred cultural love for the arts and a growing entrepreneurship, there are good things on the horizon. Ensuring these succeed rests in part on the state itself, namely the kinds of political-economic relationships it can enable. Options exist, whether through local economic transit zones along the eastern border with Russia to replace lost trade, or more problematically, by removing Russian influence weapons like V Kontakte—a version of Facebook that until its recent shut down by the Ukrainian government had an overwhelming share in social media space in the country.
Cultural nuances matter in democratic development, and Ukraine should not be held hostage to whims of social reengineering that often run counter to its cultural norms.
Facing these strengths are a few specific and extremely daunting obstacles. The most pressing is the presence of Russian information dominance through traditional media. Countering the weight of Russian controlled TV and radio is beyond the scope of Ukrainian resources – questions surround even the larger Ukrainian owned outlets as having close ties to Moscow. Small startups might be able to challenge for niche market share, but even with the reduction in Russian media influence, without a clear alternative—a Ukrainian “Our Space” outlet—the vacuum will likely be filled by an equally hostile Russian alternative.
Next is the pressure from the West itself to go too quickly, too broadly, and too deeply with reforms. No stable democracy has escaped the problems of corruption, obstructionist partisan divides, or policy chaos as rivals seek to undo their opponents’ accomplishments once they get a turn in power. Yet these things take time to work through, and Ukraine needs the opportunities every other successful democracy had during its development.
Even more damaging for Ukraine’s efforts to build effective governance would be exporting onto the Ukrainian landscape the West’s current social convulsions. This would play directly in the Russian strategy as it would force priorities that have little resonance there, and worse, create artificial divisions that do not already exist. Even more so, cultural nuances matter in democratic development, and Ukraine should not be held hostage to whims of social reengineering that often run counter to its cultural norms. Instead, what binds Ukraine to Europe and to the U.S. is not really Ukrainian per se. It is the glue, the brick and mortar of Western civilization itself that matters most—a belief put into practice that responsive government must be maintained by all parties, that responsibilities for democracy are as important as rights within it, and supporting the development of those virtues in others is part of who we are.
Moscow has fewer pieces on the global chessboard, and marginalizing its queen in Ukraine would be a clear step in the U.S. reclaiming the strategic initiative.
In the end, this is what distinguishes the West from the rest, and what makes Ukraine a natural strategic ally for the United States. Such a relationship offers obvious benefits to Ukraine, but equally so, it provides opportunities for the U.S. to foster its identity as a democratic Great Power, one that supports those who bear the mantle of responsive government––in clear contrast to both Russian and Chinese dictatorships, and rival regional and non-state powers vying for influence on the global stage. The relationship also presents multiple avenues for countering Russian overall geopolitical influence. Moscow has fewer pieces on the global chessboard, and marginalizing its queen in Ukraine would be a clear step in the U.S. reclaiming the strategic initiative.
Supporting Ukraine must be pragmatic though. Idealism has less value than realistically assessing what can be done; still holding the standard of democratic development as a goal to strive after, rather than a destination required in the short-term. If the U.S. can do that, Ukraine has a good chance of succeeding, and we will have gained a valuable strategic partner in the process.
Dr. Spencer B. Meredith III is a professor of national security strategy at the U.S. National Defense University. He is a Fulbright Scholar and a regular advisor and contributor to several DoD projects, including multiple Joint Staff Strategic Multilayer Assessments supporting the joint warfighter in the areas of governance, human factors of conflict, and information operations.
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Header Image: U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis walks past a honor guard during a welcome ceremony in Kyiv, Ukraine, on August 24, 2017 (Reuters/Gleb Garanich)