As NATO’s Wales Summit approaches—and Russia’s support for Ukrainian separatists grows—the Obama administration and U.S. allies face increasing pressure to act. Most attractive are the simple-sounding solutions, like additional sanctions against Russia or military assistance to Ukraine. Unfortunately, commendable and appropriate desires to deter Moscow and help Kyiv in the short-term are obscuring some unfortunate realities and some painful lessons from other civil wars. The bottom line is that even if Moscow allows Ukraine’s military to defeat the separatists—an outcome that does not seem likely at this point—finding a sustainable solution will be costly and quite difficult.
Ukraine’s weak economy gets worse with every day the fighting continues. Ukraine’s economic problems will be very expensive and challenging to fix in the best of circumstances; even before Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the bloody fighting in and around Donetsk and Luhansk, Ukraine was an economic basket case. For over two decades, the country’s political elites were content dividing and re-dividing the spoils of Ukraine’s largely unreformed economy rather than making tough choices. The results included high foreign debt and deficits, failed international assistance plans, vulnerability to external economic leverage, a largely paper military, and public resentment.