Ukraine: Putin hinders, but so do old ways

Are things finally turning around for Ukraine? In the space of a few hours last week, a cease-fire with the Kremlin-sponsored separatists was agreed in Minsk, and the International Monetary Fund pledged $17.5 billion in financial assistance to the government as part of a package from various donors totaling $40 billion.

The events on Kiev’s Maidan last year opened a window of opportunity to stop the economic, social and human devastation of Ukraine by its own political elites. The popular will to stop corruption and fix the country’s political and economic institutions was palpable. Two successive governments of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk have included a number of promising reformists, raising hopes that this time might be different.

The prospect of Ukraine’s transformation from a client state run by gangsters into a successful market democracy would set a precedent for the region — most importantly for Russia. That might be the best explanation for Vladimir Putin’s ongoing military escapade in Donbass.

Attacked by Russia and entering a second year of a continuous economic downturn, the country needs — and deserves — some form of help from the west.

But, ultimately, Ukraine’s economic and institutional problems can only be solved in Kiev. Nor should western donors have any illusions about the effects of their financial assistance. Ukraine, after all, has a history of IMF programs going back to the 1990s, with the various governments typically reneging on its reform commitments. We have yet to see evidence that this time really is different.

We should not discount the tragedy of the military conflict initiated by Putin. Yet, for the future of Ukraine, getting the economy on track, stopping corruption and government predation and building inclusive economic and political institutions are just as important as containing the Kremlin-sponsored aggression.

At a discussion in Washington, a Ukrainian journalist raised a rhetorical question: “The war is taking place on just 3 percent of Ukraine’s territory. But what happens on the rest?” Although it has affected industrial production, the conflict hardly explains the magnitude of Kiev’s economic and financial problems.

This year’s military and law enforcement expenditure — increased substantially relative to previous years — is still a mere $3.2 billion, or 5 percent of the country’s public budget.

There is a thin line between showing a united front in face of a foreign aggression and giving the government slack with policy reforms. Ukrainians should certainly not err on the side of the latter. If anything, the sense of urgency created by Russia’s aggression ought to be harnessed, while there is still time, to support politically difficult reforms.

Those have yet to materialize. As Balasz Jarabik, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote recently, “the old ways of doing business — through endemic corruption and state capture by oligarchs and their proxies — are still the rule, not the exception.”

It should not surprise anybody if the new Minsk agreement is short-lived, for reasons beyond Kiev’s control. What is more tragic is that there are equally good reasons to think that the financial assistance provided to Ukraine will be squandered, for reasons perfectly within Kiev’s control.

And with that, the opportunity to turn Ukraine into a success story might be gone for many years to come.

Dalibor Rohac is a policy analyst at the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity at the Cato Institute. Send comments to