The slough of despair

The Wilson Center Tuesday hosted a panel on Ukraine and its challenges. Speakers included former Ambassador to Lithuania John Cloud, now Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College, his colleague Professor Nikolas K. Gvosdev and Matthew Rojansky, Director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, who also moderated the event.

Rojansky shared insights from his recent travel to Ukraine. He warned that the media’s portrayal of Ukraine is different from events on the ground. From the Ukrainian point of view, the conflict is about values and the survival of Western civilization. There is a culture war between neo-Soviet culture and the resurgence of Western Ukrainian ideas and history.

Rojansky also emphasized the severe cognitive dissonance in the country, where there are people experiencing the impact of war every day, as well as those who are isolated from it. He claimed that macro-level psychological impacts, such as cognitive dissonance and untreated post traumatic stress, could be extremely unhealthy for Ukrainian society.

Cloud talked about his experience visiting bordering areas of Ukraine, near Poland, Latvia and Lithuania. He explained the slow and painful process of reforms, wracked by poor coordination. Reforms have been on and off for a long time with few concrete results, resulting in public distrust of the government.

The need for economic reform is acute, given Ukraine’s high levels of inflation and budget deficit. Oligarchs continue to do well and therefore are resistant to change. Cloud suggested three solutions:

  1. Prosecute or force the oligarchs to leave the county,
  2. Strike a deal with them, or
  3. Create a thriving middle-class, which is the hardest solution of the three options.

Cloud also discussed the European Union’s “donor fatigue.” Although Ukraine is only entering its second year of conflict since the revolution began, the EU has been assisting Ukraine for the past 24 years. The Commission has nevertheless put together a $1.2 billion macroeconomic assistance program—the largest such package the EU has ever provided.

This does not mean the EU has severed relations with Russia. The Union has made concerted efforts to keep Russia content, notably by inviting Russia to join discussions on the impact of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA)—a free trade area between the EU and Ukraine.

Gvosdev described three important themes of the Ukraine-Russia crisis. First, he viewed the European conflict as a “crisis of rules,” in which the enforcement of EU rules is imposing a cost that the Europeans are unwilling to pay. He cautioned, however, against avoiding enforcement, as it carries a higher cost in the long-term.

Second, the EU lacks unity. The further west and south one goes in Europe, the less Ukraine is an issue. This disparity has made it difficult to create an EU framework agreed by both Poland and Spain. Building a unified response to Ukraine will require compromises and concessions from all EU member states. Another point of disagreement is the resettlement of migrants. Eastern European countries are very resistant to accepting Ukrainian migrants and worry about radicalized refugee flows.

Third are the geopolitical and geoeconomic implications of the crisis. Geopolitically, Russia is challenging post-Cold War stability and threatening the current world order. Economically, many business interests are at stake, including the Asia-Pacific “Silk Road,” which will pass through Russia. Many businesses lack confidence in North America’s shale gas and would like to keep Russia as Europe’s energy supplier.

A huge sense of fatigue and pessimism casts a shadow on the Ukraine-Russia crisis. Gvosdev said that Euro-Atlantic solidarity is questionable and the US is unlikely to play a major role as it gets caught up in domestic politics with the nearing presidential elections.

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One thought on “The slough of despair”

  1. This is an extremely informative post. From my own recent experiences in Ukraine, I can second Rojansky’s observation about the Western media’s failure to stress the competing visions of Ukraine’s future. This isn’t former Yugoslavia, where people divided mainly by ethnicity.

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