I recently had the opportunity to spend an extended amount of time in Ukraine, speaking to members of the country’s political and intellectual elite. The most striking impression I came away with was the near-universal disappointment of my interlocutors in the performance of President Petro Poroshenko and his administration.
Ukraine’s new order has failed to make good on the promises of the Euromaidan Revolution; corruption remains untamed and oligarchs retain their influence. Most galling, no one from ousted president Viktor Yanukovych’s venal regime has been held judicially accountable for the misdeeds of the old order.
The cynical truth is that the ongoing warfare in eastern Ukraine offers a good excuse to postpone reforms and continue the practice of diverting state funds into private pockets. Therefore lots of senior members of the Ukrainian government are not necessarily eager to end the conflict.
The cessation of the hostilities would also be potentially complicated for Ukraine’s top military brass, especially Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Viktor Muzhenko. Once the war is over, the generals would likely face scrutiny over tactical decisions made during the Ilovaisk and Debaltseve encirclements that resulted in the senseless loss of hundreds of soldiers’ lives.
Other issues for which the top of the military could be held accountable include a lack of military preparedness as a result of corruption. The fact is Ukraine inherited a huge arsenal from the Soviet Union following the collapse of communism. But for the last quarter of a century, lots of those arms and materiel, along with foreign military assistance provided since the government came to power in Kiev in February 2014, has been misappropriated or otherwise wasted.
For Ukrainian society, exhaustion is setting in. At the same time, a majority of Ukrainians cannot abide Russia’s aggression, which has resulted in the annexation of Crimea and the separatist war in Donbas. Arguably, the war has helped consolidate the Ukrainian nation, which prior to 2014 featured a split personality. These days, for instance, stories abound about children of upper middle class Russian-speaking families refusing to speak Russian to their parents, and instead only using Ukrainian.
While Ukrainians yearn for the return of Russian-grabbed lands, the existing ceasefire, as shaky as it is, may enjoy popular support for a while. Over the short and medium term, Ukrainians seem content with not having to bear the financial burden of subsidizing Crimea, which always had a high number of retirees, and Donbas, which long has consumed large chunks of state funds to prop up the antiquated coal sector.
Others see a political advantage to having Crimea and Donbas outside Kyiv’s political orbit since both regions were bastions of support for former president Viktor Yanukovych’s administration. With those two regions not currently represented in parliament, the road toward Westernization is a bit less bumpy for Ukraine’s incumbent government. Some also hope that the ceasefire can provide a sufficient respite for the Ukrainian military to retrain and rearm, and be in a better position to defend Ukrainian sovereignty down the road.
Ultimately, the war seems to have made a deep impact on the national psyche, and the idea of permanently yielding Crimea and Donbas to Russia is abhorrent. And beyond allegiance to the concept of the country’s territorial integrity, most Ukrainians believe that to acquiesce to the loss of Crimea and Donbas would be tantamount to an invitation for Russian leader Vladimir Putin to seek new conquests.
Alexei Sobchenko is an independent analyst and translator based in Washington, DC. He has worked at the US Department of State and for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Born in Russia, he holds an MA in Modern History from Moscow State University.