For 25 years, Ukraine has been the pupil and Europe the teacher. Now, the roles have reversed, and it’s time for Europe to learn from Ukraine.
These are tough times for Europe. The United Kingdom has separated, and several other countries may soon join it. The Eurozone is a mess, and the economies of many EU states remain sluggish. Political violence is becoming almost quotidian, corruption is on the rise, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia is flexing its muscles, rattling sabers, and threatening to use its nuclear weapons.
These are all threats that Ukraine has experienced, and coped with, in the last three years. Indeed, since 2014’s Euromaidan Revolution, which swept the corrupt Yanukovych regime from power, Ukraine has had to deal with several simultaneous crises — war with Russia, separatism in the eastern Donbas and Crimea, economic contraction of about 25 percent, and persistent corruption.
Despite these enormous challenges, Ukraine has more than survived. It continues to make steady progress toward stability, security, democracy, economic prosperity, and rule of law. Its army has managed to fight Russia to a standstill — a well-nigh miraculous achievement in light of the 6,000 battle-ready troops Ukraine had when Russia attacked it in the spring of 2014. And, while staving off Russian aggression and Russian-fueled separatism, Ukraine has managed to adopt genuine systemic reforms and embark on economic growth. As the EU recently put it, Ukraine is carrying out intense and unprecedented reforms across its economy and political system, while its democratic institutions have been further revitalised. To be sure, Ukraine still has a long way to go before it becomes Switzerland, but it’s fully abandoned the Soviet totalitarian past and the Russian imperial present and is set to move, irreversibly, toward the West.
The moral for Europe is clear: its problems, challenges, and crises are not intrinsically insurmountable. If Ukraine could survive against all odds, then so, too, can the far more stable, far richer, and far more secure European Union.
Recent talk of the inevitable end of Europe or the end of the European Union — especially as a result of Donald Trump’s likely indifference to the EU and NATO — is, thus, wrong to conclude that overwhelming problems necessarily lead to collapse. They could, and often do, but only if the entities concerned are incapable of fixing them. The Soviet Union collapsed after Mikhail Gorbachev introduced glasnost and perestroika, not because free discussion and structural change are intrinsically deadly, but because the ossified Soviet
Russian totalitarian empire was incapable of progressive systemic change.
Putin’s authoritarian Russia, with its hierarchical structure topped by his personal dictatorship and a cult of personality, is as ossified as the USSR: the longer Putin remains the linchpin of the system, the more brittle it will become, and the less prone it will be to evolutionary change.
Both the USSR and Putin Russia demonstrate that collapse is most likely within systems that are rigid and incapable of adaptation to changing domestic and foreign circumstances. In a word, the more nimble the system, the better its odds of survival — with the United States, and its free-wheeling style of economics and politics — being a case in point.
America may be plagued with inequality, but there is no denying its remarkable capacity to adapt.
The Soviet and Russian cases demonstrate that three factors are crucial to a country’s ability to adapt: adaptable elites, an adaptable population, and adaptable institutions. The USSR lacked flexible elites and institutions, while possessing a change-oriented population. Putin’s Russia lacks all three.
In contrast, independent Ukraine currently has all three. Its political and economic elites were mostly interested in self-enrichment until 2014 — when the revolution and the Russian invasion of Crimea and the eastern Donbas put the fear of God in them. Since then, Ukrainian elites have been moving, mostly fitfully, sometimes boldly, toward reform.
Ordinary Ukrainians, on the other hand, have been resolutely committed to change since the late 1980s, having participated in several impressive manifestations of “people power”, the two most recent ones being the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the Euromaidan Revolution of 2014.
Ukraine’s inchoate post-Soviet institutions have been both a curse and a blessing: a curse, since they were sufficiently strong to put a drag on reform; a blessing, since they were sufficiently weak to permit reform.
These three factors — elites mobilized by Russia, an active civil society, and malleable institutions — have enabled Ukraine to progress, even as the vast majority of post-Soviet states have become mired in authoritarianism and economic backwardness.
Like Ukraine, Europe possesses elites that can be mobilized in defense of Europe by external threats — be they Trump’s indifference or Putin’s aggression. Europe also possesses large numbers of committed Europeans in all its member states. Thus far, many of them have been outflanked by EU opponents, but there is no reason that the pro-EU forces cannot rally to save Europe, just as Ukrainians have consistently rallied to save Ukraine. While sorely in need of reform, the European Union’s institutions are far from being ossified, if only because they’ve existed for barely 15 years.
Ukraine’s most important lesson for Europe is that political will matters. But not so much the political will of the elites as the political will of the people. Ukrainians have wanted to live in an independent, democratic Ukraine, and they have been willing to pay the highest of prices for it. Their desire for what they call “normalcy” and their willingness to bear the ultimate sacrifice largely derive from an intense hatred, and fear, of a return to Soviet totalitarianism and the rise of Russian imperialism.
The Ukrainian case demonstrates that hatred, and fear, of evil can be a powerful force driving people to strive for good things that appear to be out of their reach. The question before Europe and Europeans is simple.
Do they hate and fear authoritarian populism and Putin’s imperialism more than they love the fleeting pleasures offered by fine wine and good food?