By Paolo von Schirach
February 25, 2014
WASHINGTON – The Ukraine may have a special symbolic meaning for Russia. It is a vast country, (roughly the size of Texas), with about 44 million people. It used to be a significant piece of the old Soviet Union. For these reasons, the notion that the Ukraine could become part of a Western camp, for some reason perceived as hostile by Russia, caused huge anxieties in Moscow.
But these Russian perceptions vastly exaggerate the reach of European influence. In what way would a western leaning Ukraine be a threat to Moscow? Does Putin really believe that Manuel Barroso, (the President of the EU Commission), prodded by Berlin and Paris, is plotting against him?
Russia’s “zero sum game” approach
The truth is that in the overly simplified Russian “zero sum game” view of the world, if Moscow loses a piece of its sphere of influence, this must be somebody else’s net gain. This might be true if the Ukraine contained untold riches in term of natural resources and other precious commodities. But none of this is true. The fact is that the Ukraine is a vast but rather poor and hopelessly disorganized country. And this was the case way before the beginning of the horrible mess that caused loss of life, destruction, economic losses and much more.
Give easy loans to Kiev
Anyway, in their wisdom, the Russians thought that it would be really smart to yank Kiev away from Europe by offering easy credit and other blandishments to the Yanukovych government just a few months ago. They of course did not foresee the popular rebellion against this move. In a vague and possibly naive way, the people in the Ukraine see Europe as a beacon of hope. Very simply they instinctively feel that there is more to be gained by linking up with a more modern and more liberal West than by going back into Moscow’s orbit.
Well, we know what happened. President Yanukovych tried to stick with his Moscow bargain. When the people noted their strong dissent, he ignored them. And then, (most likely counting on Russian support), he took the hard-line that created almost a civil war. Now (former) president Yanukovych is a wanted man.
That said, nobody “wins” here. The Ukraine was and is a horrible mess. Just to prop it up, it will take time, sacrifices and billions of dollars. The idea that Europe, (instigated by evil America?), provoked this crisis in order to score a geo-political victory against Russia is insane. Now Europe, if it really wants to help Kiev, has to pay the bill. After the Irish, Greek, Portuguese and Spanish messes, with Italy tottering and France not doing so great, now Brussels has to deal with the (much worse) Ukrainian mess, something that includes more tense relations with Moscow. And you really want to believe that Brussels plotted all this?
How bad is the Ukraine?
Well, but how bad is the Ukraine? Bad enough. As the global recession hit, the Ukraine GDP in 2009 fell by 15%, one of the worst results in the world. GDP growth for 2012 was zero. The economy continues to rely on Russia for most of its basic energy needs. There are few (if any) good economic sectors.
Worse yet, the demographic trends look bleak. The fertility rate of Ukrainian women is 1.29 children per woman. This is horrible, as it indicates rapid population decline. And life expectancy, a good indicator of overall wealth and well-being, is only 68.9 years. This puts the Ukraine below North Korea and just a few notches ahead of India. So here is the Ukraine for you: a relatively poor country, (now semi-destroyed, or at least badly damaged), composed mostly of old people in poor health.
The Grand Prize in a renewed East-West contest?
Given all this, the notion that the Ukraine is the Grand Prize in some kind of renewed East-West contest is ridiculous. Sure enough, it is important for Russia to have a friendly state at its southern border. Fine. But what are the Russians thinking? Do they really believe that a Ukrainian state that does a bit better economically via closer relation with Europe is going to become the launching pad for a NATO-led aggression? Are they that paranoid, (or that stupid)?
The fact is that the Ukraine is yet another state in transition that has not yet managed to understand that to have a functioning democracy one needs cohesion, accountability, justice, tolerance, plus laws and institutions that favor enterprise and innovation. If the Ukraine were in the middle of Africa nobody would care that much. But it sits on a mythical East-West Frontier and therefore it looks a lot more important than it actually is.
Will the people come together?
That said, we should only hope that the brave Ukrainians who fought in the streets against a pro-Russian government now will have enough common sense to build together a functioning society with a viable economy. However, we all know that (as always) building something new is a lot harder than breaking things apart.