The Right Peace for Ukraine
"There was never a bad peace nor a good war," Benjamin Franklin once said. The Russian language version of this is somewhat more direct: Bad peace is always better than a good war. In Ukraine today, we have a bad peace. Although violations of the cease-fire occur daily, full-scale warfare has, for now, abated. But it could start again, and our situation is as precarious as ever. We as Ukrainians need to unify now, before it is too late. The next step to be taken is not on the battlefield - it is in Kiev.
The world has seen how unpredictable our adversary is. Yet our fate today depends as much as ever on ourselves, and on whether we learn from past events or repeat mistakes.
One year has passed since Russia annexed Crimea. Let us take stock of the current situation. Two well-armed groups tied to the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics challenge Ukrainian forces, and the zone of recent warfare is located in direct proximity to other regions, such as the Nikolaev and Zaporizhya oblasts, where the reactors of two of Ukraine's four nuclear power plants are located. Civilians are suffering, and residents of Donetsk and Luhansk, who have been deprived of social support from Kiev, have so far borne the brunt of that suffering.
The periodic shooting wears on, despite the Minsk agreements. As it does, the mood in Ukraine darkens. If full-scale warfare resumes in the area surrounding Mariupol - a key industrial center and a seaport - an escalation of the conflict is inevitable. Last week, USA Today reported a story out of Mariupol citing a poll in which more than half of respondents in the Southeast said that what they want most are "peace and pensions.'" Millions more throughout the country agree with them.
In parallel, consider what has been delivered against the promise of the "Revolution of Dignity" that preceded the conflict. Corruption has not receded in the last year, and real reforms are lagging. The state financial inspector recently reported to Ukraine's parliament that members of the current government may have defrauded the country of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Meanwhile, politically motivated persecution is on the rise: In the last two weeks, three former members of parliament from the former ruling party have committed suicide in the face of pressure from authorities. Inter, one of Ukraine's top TV stations, whose news programs are sometimes critical of the government, has had its signal intermittently blocked during its news broadcasts. Now, the regulators threaten to revoke the channel's licenses on the specious basis that a popular holiday program included Russian showmen.
Political imbalance also threatens a viable peace, as well as the development of the economy in Ukraine. Detached from our industrial heartland, it will be very difficult for our economy to regain its balance. Just as noxious as the separatists, economic devastation and worsening corruption threaten the health of our country. The most effective rebuke of Ukraine's aggressors would be for all sides of the political divide within the country to work together toward democratic stability. Instead of prosecuting the opposition and making examples of former officials, who for the most part have committed no crime, the current government could work with them to achieve reforms that work, aiming its guns against actual, persisting corruption.
Our goal today should be to impose a cease-fire that holds, and to end all fighting now, before the damage reaches epic scale. After Maidan, when we got annexation and war instead of EU accession, a deficit in trust widened. Today, when a deputy U.S. secretary of state stops in Kiev, it would be worth his time to visit with both sides of the internal political divide, rather than have it seem like the United States is taking sides. After all, the goal is a united, democratic, and prosperous Ukraine. This goal cannot be achieved if the rights of one group in society are favored over another, nor if the rule of law is applied selectively.
Several months ago, one of my colleagues suggested one of the best bridges to peace so far: the introduction of UN peacekeepers to the conflict zones. Finally, the idea is catching on. It will take the combined efforts of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the United Nations, and other multilateral bodies speaking with one voice to achieve on the ground what the Minsk rounds alone have not yet done.
In the meantime, we need to focus on what Ukrainians can do for ourselves right now. The Second Minsk Agreement calls for constitutional reform, and this could be a way to reform the state, decentralize the government, create new incentives for development outside of Kiev, and develop mechanisms to root out corruption in our country. But if we abuse this opportunity, our past mistakes will only compound themselves. An amended Constitution could create a better system - one that would protect all Ukrainians and create a new system of checks and balances. It needs to do that.
What the war has obscured is the fact that the new government is operating in much the same way as the one it ousted. It decides which judges are loyal and which are not, which businesses are protected and which are not, and who should be seen in the media versus who shouldn't. A war-weary public senses this. Increasingly it looks at the current government and shrugs.
Bad peace is a bad deal for Ukraine, and "good" war is a fallacy. We should reject both. Instead, this is precisely the time to propose the kind of agreement that puts the interests of the Ukrainian people first, including our compatriots on the ground in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. By showing that we're in this together, that we are driving our own economic reform - as opposed to hoping others will do it for us - we create the best chance to defend ourselves as a united Ukraine.