By Paolo von Schirach
March 10, 2014
WASHINGTON – A few days ago, I argued in a related piece that it is hard to believe how Ukraine can be considered by either Russia or the West as a coveted prize in this emerging new version of an East-West confrontation. The country is vast, (almost the size of Texas), and it is home of a fairly large population, (somewhere around 45 million). Other than that, however, Ukraine is a real mess. It is poorly organized, very corrupt and essentially broke. Indeed, just to get things back together, we are talking about a $35 billion bill. I assume that includes all the unpaid natural gas bills that Ukraine owes Russia’s Gazprom.
Save the Ukraine?
And yet, notwithstanding this economic train wreck, now the talk is about the (semi-broke) West bravely stepping up to the plate in order to “save” Ukraine. Indeed, if I understand correctly the still hazy plans articulated by US Secretary of State John Kerry and some European policy-makers, we are in for a lot more than just an emergency financial rescue operation.
We are talking about a long-term commitment to turn the Ukraine around.
We are talking a major, multi-year assistance package, (including money, tools, technical expertise), aimed at helping the new leaders of the courageous Maidan demonstrators in planning and then implementing major reforms. The goal is nothing less than a reborn Ukraine that would prove to the world (and of course to its Russian neighbors) that a messed up, post-Soviet Republic can become a viable, modern country by adopting best practices when it comes to ensuring basic freedoms via good governance and the adoption of sound economic management. In a nutshell: if we are serious about this, we are talking years and years of sustained work, and tens of billions of dollars.
This is going to be expensive
Turning the Ukraine around is of course a great idea. The problem is that, even assuming good will and not too much negative Russian interference, (you can count on Moscow’s attempts at sabotaging pro-Western policies), this is going to be difficult and very, very costly.
Therefore, Western leaders should make this very clear. For instance, I am not sure that US voters, worried about unemployment, stagnant wages and massive student loans debt burdening millions of young workers are that keen on pouring billions of dollars into the Ukraine mess.
That said, I do hope that America and Europe, with the support of the IMF and others, will try this. If the Ukraine succeeds, if it becomes like Poland, a former Communist country that successfully embraced Western values, this would strengthen Europe and America. Furthermore, it would show the world that our model works. Yes, a well-functioning democracy is the foundation for sustainable prosperity.
Nation building? Again?
Look, I realize that here in the US any undertaking that even remotely resembles “nation building” evokes the truly bad experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq. And for very good reasons. Lacking judgment and even elementary common sense, the Bush administration and to a lesser extent the Obama administration poured tax payers’ money into costly and generally ill-advised development assistance projects aimed at these two countries. The US “Grand Strategy” at the time of the Bush administration was to crush dangerous tyrants and autocrats, have free elections so that the people would finally have a say, and then help the new, democratically elected policy-makers rebuild their countries following the tried and tested Western model. And so, thanks to America, there would be genuine freedoms, market economies, no more corruption, gender equality –and a lot more. Yes, people would vote, children would get immunizations, girls would go to school. A New World.
Nice and noble ideas. But it could not be done. Not because the aims were bad, but because there was a gigantic disconnect between the lofty goals on one side and the relatively small resources allocated, plus the (almost insane) belief that much could be done in a relatively short period of time on the other.
It could not be done
Simply put, you cannot have gigantic social and economic transformations –premised on new values being genuinely embraced by millions– in a matter of a few years. At the time of the US military occupation in 2001, Afghanistan was a semi-destroyed country with almost no viable economic activities. Thanks to the Taliban, it lived virtually in the Middle Ages. It was disconnected from the rest of world.
The very fact that some people in Washington embraced the notion of a turbo-charged modernization program as a viable proposition is baffling. And that approach, mind you, was developed before the rebirth of the Taliban-led insurgency made everything a lot more difficult.
Ukraine is different
Well, if we fast forward to today’s Ukraine with the still fresh memories of the Afghan and Iraqi failures in our minds, the idea of starting all over along the same path looks really unpalatable. And for very good reasons.
The huge difference, though, is that the Ukraine, while in truly bad shape, is a semi-modern country. It has educated people and some of the building blocks to make things work. Therefore we can assume that our chances of success would be a lot higher. And, again, let’s keep in mind that helping to build a viable society in a vast country at Europe’s immediate periphery in the long-term would help peace and stability in the Continent.
Uncertain mission, but worth pursuing
That said, if America and Europe are serious about this undertaking, we are talking about tens of billions of dollars over a number of years. Beyond the immediate financial crunch, the Ukraine will need investments and help to modernize its industries, its infrastructure, its governance, its education systems, and what not. And, let’s not forget that this noble attempt may fail. If the country will not abandon its deeply rooted culture of corruption nothing much can be done.
Still, even keeping in mind the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the uncertainties embedded in any undertaking of this magnitude, the Ukraine is a far better place. And the stakes for the West are arguably much higher.
Vladimir Putin’s dream is to bring major pieces of the old Soviet Union back into the fold. But he has nothing good to offer. Beyond oil and gas, Russia is not a leader in anything. Whereas Europe and America can offer a new path to democracy and prosperity (via investments, technology transfers and trade) to the Ukrainian people.
And ultimately it is in our own self-interest to demonstrate that our values and our systems really work. This is the best lesson that we can offer to all the people who suffer under autocratic regimes, in Russia and elsewhere:
Democracy is the right choice, and it is really good for you.