Russia’s aggression in Eastern Ukraine continues unabated, whatever supposed cease fires there may be in place, regardless of any Minsk agreements, and contrary to the all the lies and disinformation that continues to pour out of Moscow. Ukrainian soldiers continue to die and be maimed, and the towns and villages on the front lines continue to be destroyed. The occupied territories in Donetsk and Luhansk have been devastated by the war, their industries destroyed and their peoples impoverished and turned into helpless victims. Worst of all, there appears to be no end in sight. Though Putin may have failed in his original plans to occupy Eastern Ukraine and destabilize the rest of the country, he has no apparent exit strategy except to continue this war of attrition, hoping for things to somehow swing his way.
Contrary to his calculations, Ukraine did not crumble three years ago when he made his bold move to bring Ukraine back under Russia’s orbit. The spirit of the Maidan revolution that ousted former President Yanukovich and the activists that made it possible, shifted their focus to the Donbas. Although the Ukrainian army was in sorry shape back then, there were enough dedicated volunteer fighters to stem the tide and hold on while the armed forces were painstakingly rebuilt and reinforced. Three years later, the separatist rebels and their Russian mercenaries and handlers are now facing a much better equipped and trained Ukrainian army totaling some 250,000 fighters that refuse to yield another inch of territory. The war continues, but it has become apparent that the Ukrainian side has learned its lessons and is more than capable of fighting this war.
What is somewhat less certain is Ukraine’s ability to fight the other war, the one against a dysfunctional government, entrenched corruption and an oligarchic dominated economic system that keeps the majority of Ukrainians poor and powerless. This is a different kind of war, one where the very soul and spirit of Ukraine is at stake.
Seventy years of communist totalitarianism destroyed civil society in Ukraine and created a class of self-serving ruling bureaucrats devoid of any real sense of ethics and morality. They created a system where authoritarianism and corruption ruled under a thin veneer of ideology. When the Soviet Union fell apart, they and their like-minded descendants managed to take over both the government and the economy. Ideology was discarded, and Ukraine became their privatized cash cow. For the past twenty-five years, a small elite has run the country for their own benefit, while the majority of the population struggles to eke out a living. Authoritarianism and corruption continue, only now under a thin veneer of manipulated democracy and free enterprise.
Twice during those twenty-five years, a frustrated Ukrainian citizenry have staged revolutions to try and regain control of their country and implement true reforms, and twice they have been outmaneuvered and stymied by the deeply entrenched oligarchic elite. The 2014 Revolution of Dignity and the subsequent elections originally created strong new hopes that Ukraine was finally on the right path to reform and true democracy. It is becoming ever more obvious, that that this war for Ukraine’s soul is far from won, and will require far more toil, sweat and tears.
A few battles have been won and some progress has been made, but Ukraine is a long way from having the kind of government it deserves.
The reality is that Parliament, the government and the economy are still largely controlled by the regressive and reactionary forces that have ruled since Ukraine’s independence. They will not give up either their power or the wealth they have pilfered easily. The rule of law in Ukraine is largely superficial, with the judicial and prosecutorial structures still being riddled with corruption and controlled by big money. The country is still being ruled “from the shadows”, and those that pull the strings have both the money and the skills and expertise to manipulate the current laws, constitution and bureaucracy to their advantage.
In my mind, this war is just as, if not more important than the physical war in the Donbas. There you pretty well know who your enemy is and how to fight them. But this other war for the soul of the country is much more difficult. The foes are more nebulous and hard to identify and disarm. They have untold wealth at their disposal and can buy off not only individuals, but whole political parties and movements. They are experts in the strategy of divide and conquer.
That war represents the true test of what Ukraine today is made of. That war, much more so than the one in the Donbas, will determine Ukraine’s long-term future.