Replacing a corrupt oligarchy with a reformist democracy is such a good idea that Ukraine does it every couple of years. You might call it a balanced constitution: Democracy ensures change, oligarchy continuity. This May’s elections, which brought to power the billionaire chocolatier and television magnate Petro Poroshenko, were occasioned by a winter of urban protest in the capital of Kiev, to which the United States and much of the European Union lent moral support. After dozens were killed on Kiev’s main square, the Maidan, in February, Viktor Yanukovych, the corrupt but elected president, fled the country. Russian president Vladimir Putin, Yanukovych’s ally and sponsor, declared the historically Russian and strategically indispensable Crimean peninsula Russian territory again, after a hasty referendum. And a war was launched by Russian-sympathizing Ukrainians in three eastern provinces.
President Obama, who has been taunting Putin for months, now finds himself in a pickle. For Putin, events in Ukraine are a matter of national survival. Ukraine is right next-door. It has 45 million people in it. It has long been the home of Russia’s warm-water navy. But Obama and the leaders of the 28-nation European Union are, diplomatically as well as geographically, all over the map—from Poland, which sees countering Russian power as its top foreign-policy priority, to Bulgaria, which depends on Russia for close to 100 percent of its oil and gas.
The United States and the EU passed pro forma sanctions in March, after Russia annexed Crimea. But in the flurry of European summits on the eve of the seventieth anniversary of D-Day, Obama had a hard time rallying allies. London-based BP has just signed a big shale-oil deal with Russia’s state oil company, Rosneft. France spent the winter boasting about its willingness to cancel the sale of two advanced Mistral warships to Russia, contrasting its principled stance with Britain’s indulgence of Russia’s oligarchic elites in London. But then French president François Hollande took a look at his country’s economic statistics and decided to make the deal anyway. (Before D-Day, Hollande had separate state dinners for Putin and Obama on the same night.) Since Angela Merkel’s decision in 2011 to phase out nuclear power, Germany has grown more dependent on Russian energy. These considerations have gone over the head of Washington, which has constructed its diplomacy as if the West were still united, confident, and economically invulnerable.
In the quarter-century since the breakup of the Soviet Union, corruption has been, as one Western diplomat puts it, the “alpha and omega” of Ukrainian politics. An oligarchy was born out of communism’s fall, much as it was in Russia. Insiders took advantage of “privatization” to corner natural resources, industrial plants, and the networks that went with them. The mineral- and coal-rich Donbass region (named after the basin of the river Donets) became the main center of the country’s magnates, who have succeeded in befouling national politics. According to Transparency International, Ukraine is the most corrupt place in Europe, ranking 144th of 177 countries in the world. State authorities often do not meter the flow of gas through Ukrainian territory, making siphoning and overcharging possible. Ukraine’s government estimates $70 billion has been stolen from state coffers over the past three years.
By the time Viktor Yanukovych was chased from power four months ago, his Party of the Regions was seen as the party of one region—the Donbass—and the symbol of the corruption that went on there. But things were more complicated than that, because corruption was national, and Yanukovych had a genuine power base. The “Orange Revolution” of 2004 happened when a court ruled Yanukovych’s election victory over reformer Viktor Yushchenko had been fraudulent. Into the bargain, someone had poisoned the handsome Yushchenko in the course of the campaign, horribly disfiguring him. A re-vote produced an 8-point margin for Yushchenko, but he could not do without Yanukovych. Eventually Yushchenko made Yanukovych prime minister. Yushchenko’s Orange Revolution ally and rival, the charismatic Yulia Tymoshenko, lost to Yanukovych in the 2010 elections, which international observers have called free and fair. Tymoshenko, who began as a reformer, herself sought out political contact with oligarchs in both Ukraine and Russia.