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For Ukraine Aid, Guns Are Good, but Butter Is Better

The country needs more than just military help.

By , a Ukrainian student at University College, London, and , a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science’s department of international history.
Ukrainians guard border with Russia and Belarus.
Ukrainians guard border with Russia and Belarus.
Members of the Ukrainian State Border Guard Service patrol along the Ukrainian border fence at the “Three Sisters” border crossing between Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus in Senkivka, Ukraine, on Feb. 14. Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Putin’s War

Since the recent escalation of tensions around Ukraine, Western governments have been quick to send military aid to Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. The United States approved a $200 million military aid package that includes ammunition, anti-tank weapons, and other valuable military systems. The United Kingdom, meanwhile, has sent a large number of anti-tank infantry weapons and agreed to a deal that would allow Ukraine to buy British-made warships with loans.

As welcome as the very vocal and public Western support is to many Ukrainians, it has its own set of issues. The speed with which Western governments have rushed to provide military support to Ukraine is matched by the slowness of Ukraine’s transformation to an open, economically prosperous democracy. Much of the obstruction to Ukraine’s transformation has been centered in Kyiv, where predatory oligarchs and unscrupulous politicians have hampered real reform and abated systemic corruption. The West has made efforts to help Ukraine overcome these difficulties, but more help is needed before a richer, more democratic Ukraine emerges. Such a state will be a more secure and stable country, but the aid needed for this transformation has not arrived with the same speed, ease, and fanfare as weaponry.

This policy failure mirrors the same judgement error that Western, particularly American, policymakers have made toward the former Soviet Union over the last 30 years. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, and Central Asian states looked to the West for financial and technocratic support to build their new states in the West’s image. But what was forthcoming was inconsistent, and Western policy wonks’ advice—grounded in unshakable faith in the strict macroeconomic policies of the Washington consensus—was sometimes actively harmful.

Since the recent escalation of tensions around Ukraine, Western governments have been quick to send military aid to Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. The United States approved a $200 million military aid package that includes ammunition, anti-tank weapons, and other valuable military systems. The United Kingdom, meanwhile, has sent a large number of anti-tank infantry weapons and agreed to a deal that would allow Ukraine to buy British-made warships with loans.

As welcome as the very vocal and public Western support is to many Ukrainians, it has its own set of issues. The speed with which Western governments have rushed to provide military support to Ukraine is matched by the slowness of Ukraine’s transformation to an open, economically prosperous democracy. Much of the obstruction to Ukraine’s transformation has been centered in Kyiv, where predatory oligarchs and unscrupulous politicians have hampered real reform and abated systemic corruption. The West has made efforts to help Ukraine overcome these difficulties, but more help is needed before a richer, more democratic Ukraine emerges. Such a state will be a more secure and stable country, but the aid needed for this transformation has not arrived with the same speed, ease, and fanfare as weaponry.

This policy failure mirrors the same judgement error that Western, particularly American, policymakers have made toward the former Soviet Union over the last 30 years. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, and Central Asian states looked to the West for financial and technocratic support to build their new states in the West’s image. But what was forthcoming was inconsistent, and Western policy wonks’ advice—grounded in unshakable faith in the strict macroeconomic policies of the Washington consensus—was sometimes actively harmful.

The Soviet Union’s highly integrated economy’s lack of aid and investment, decades of economic mismanagement, and class of leaders more eager to line their own pockets than address the serious issues confronting them all contributed to its failure of reform—with the exception of the Baltics, whose small economies were quickly able to stabilize. This was in contrast to Eastern Europe, which, though still economically behind the West, stabilized and began to experience growth. The East benefited from more political stability, whereas in Russia and Central Asia, the United States was willing to look the other way on severe violations of democracy in exchange for stability. The end result was a series of inconsistent, shortsighted polices that actively abetted corrupt local elites’ ability to cannibalize the countries and build new corrupt power structures.

Ukraine suffered as much as the other former Soviet republics, but through a combination of tenacity and luck, it was able to hold onto at least a semblance of democratic governance while Belarus and Russia sank further into authoritarianism. Time and again, the Ukrainian people sought to upend the corrupt politics that served the interests of the country’s shadowy oligarchs: in the 2004 to 2005 Orange Revolution, the 2014 Euromaidan revolution, and (most recently) with the election of Volodymyr Zelensky as president in 2019. Zelensky is not an ideal reformer, but the former TV comedian beat out several established politicians, including incumbent Petro Poroshenko, because of the deep anger many Ukrainians felt toward the country’s perpetual corruption.

The West needs to tackle the obstacles Ukraine faces to democratization and invest resources in helping the Ukrainian people overcome them. Despite several previous attempts to introduce reforms and improve transparency, there has been little success since senior officials stalled many of the necessary procedures. Take the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine. Although the institution is relatively functioning, it only covers category A (i.e. the most severe) cases of corruption, letting less severe cases be handled in the regular highly biased court system. In practice, many class A corruption charges are downgraded for political reasons whereas other, more minor cases are conversely upgraded.

And although a specialized anti-corruption court does exist, there still is no anti-corruption prosecutor. The electoral committee has been stalling the meetings for appointing an anti-corruption prosecutor for more than 18 months, thus leaving hundreds of corruption cases unresolved. Similarly, reforms to the judiciary system under Poroshenko were carried out without the participation of international partners and have not led to democratic changes. In contrast, they have resulted in further centralization of power over the judiciary in the hands of the ruling elite.

The West needs to incentive the initial progress that has been made by tying measurable reform, such as the appointment of an anti-corruption prosecutor, to incentives, such as increased European integration and better trade status. The lifting of travel and trade barriers can be held up as tiered packages that will become available as Ukraine sorts out its corruption, as can increases in the nation’s credit.

Reforming this broken system requires sustained attention and investment on the part of Western policymakers. An international commission of judicial authorities comprised of Ukrainian, U.S., and European experts under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe could draw up a path of judicial and democratic reform as well as create an ethical monitoring commission. Once agreed to, the European Union, United States, and Canada should agree to fund a democratic stabilization fund. This would be a substantial fund of money each donor agreed to pay into yearly that could be used by the Ukrainian government as it sees fit—but with the release of these funds tied to an annual review by the reform commission. A portion of the fund should also provide advisors to supreme court judges, senior government officials, law enforcement officials, and prosecutors.

Judicial advisory missions to Ukraine have begun to bear fruit, and several governments, including the United States, have whole offices within their own judiciary committed to effectively training jurists. Yet there has always been too little money and too little consistency. Take the Electoral Dispute Resolution training for Ukrainian judges and prosecutors in 2019 offered with the help of the Council of Europe. The program amounted to a two-day seminar, when clearly much longer, more regular, and more consistent help was needed.

These democracy-building programs have failed in the past in other nations and risk failing in Ukraine because money has run out and attention has waned. The hope is that having a set fund, combined with other macroeconomic trade and travel incentives, would allow Ukraine to be able to engage more consistently in reform over a longer period. In past cases in other countries, advisors were foisted on governments and seen as unwanted intruders. Yet many in Ukraine’s general population and government are actively reaching out for partnership, and the West should embrace that. By holding Ukraine to a commitment to cleanse its corrupt behavior, the West can help nudge Ukraine in the direction its people have long sought.

Reform will likely come from Kyiv if it is left to its own devices, but it will be fitful, with frequent starts and stops, and hampered by the oligarchs and political bosses of Ukraine’s previous generation. Western support must strike a balance between providing tangible incentives and sufficient safeguards in the hope that Kyiv’s cohort of reform-minded technocrats can bolster their credibility and help push the nation forward. Georgia achieved a massive reduction in public corruption. The West should help Ukraine accomplish a similar feat without backsliding into soft authoritarian politics.

That said, the success of such initiatives would only be possible if Ukraine’s own ruling elites do not stall the process of reform but, on the contrary, facilitate a consistent process of institutionalizing the judiciary and law enforcement sector with the help of Western funds and expertise. True change in Ukraine must come from within, where the will does exist on a lower level, and it must be helped and incentivized strongly. Yet, it is currently unclear if the West has the will to consistently bolster Ukraine’s march toward democracy through long-term commitments in addition to last-minute military aid packages.

Consistent and sufficient economic and technical aid along with greater economic integration will, of course, provoke reactions from Moscow, but there is only so much Moscow can do to stop it. Russia must be considered in the West’s calculus of Ukraine, but if the West truly wants to define itself as standing for the light of liberty and democracy in the new century, the Ukrainian people’s aspirations toward becoming a more Europeanized state should not be neglected because of irritation from their larger and more aggressive neighbor.

Anastasiia Rudkovska is a Ukrainian student at University College, London.

Jeff Hawn is a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science’s department of international history. His research focuses on the 1993 Russian constitutional crisis and the post-Cold War international order.

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