To avoid calamity with Russia, the US must help Ukrainians to help themselves

If the 20th century teaches us anything, it must be that either you master history or history masters you. In his 2014 book, “The Sleepwalkers,” historian Christopher Clark makes it tragically plain that “the protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers … blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.”

By taking their eye off the ball over what seemed yet another minor Balkan crisis — following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo — Western statesmen neglected to take seriously a calamity that would come to sweep away their glorious belle epoque world, at the cost of 20 million deaths in the charnel house of World War I.

Today’s statesmen simply must do better than what happened during that fateful summer of 1914. For now, Presidents Biden and Putin have avoided a massive escalation between the U.S. and Russia, but systemic challenges plaguing Eastern Europe’s borderlands remain.

The West must not be caught sleepwalking again.

What can the U.S. do to avert this coming storm? First, we must clearly understand the geostrategic stakes. Ukraine is ground zero in this conflict. Ideally, Putin hopes to grab Kyiv and subjugate Ukraine as a vassal state. The second-best outcome for the Russian president is that his current brinkmanship yields fruit in the form of panicky Western appeasement. 

His price for pulling back? A Russian veto over any further eastern expansion of NATO. Whatever one thinks of further NATO membership, Washington must categorically reject this. The U.S. is an autonomous superpower; it does not let other countries tell it who it can, and cannot, ally with. To give Russia such control over U.S. foreign policy would telegraph to the rest of the world that America has embarked upon a dangerous new age of isolation. This would have long-term consequences in the global balance of power to the detriment of the U.S.

Putin’s third best strategic option is Ukraine as a domestic basket case, refuting the very notion that an aspiring Eastern European country’s westward tilt can yield independence, prosperity and democracy. Putin can live with each of these three strategic outcomes. It is up to Biden to deny him these clearly articulated goals. 

Ukraine’s resurgence rests on a three-legged policy stool: a resurgent military, a vibrant domestic political scene, and an autonomous energy policy. While much attention has been focused on the first, equally important is the United States’s involvement in helping to nurture the latter two imperatives.

In terms of domestic politics, that means America must remind novice President Volodymyr Zelensky that personality-driven populism is a dangerous road for him to travel upon. Zelensky was catapulted to the Ukrainian presidency by virtue of the character he played in the popular political satire, “Servant of the People.” In it, a decent, ordinary schoolteacher, Vasyl Holoborodko, remakes Ukraine’s murky politics. Coming to office with a broad mandate for change, Zelensky won an overwhelming 73 percent of the vote in the Ukraine presidential election. But, after taking office in May 2019 — much as has proven true for political populist amateurs around the world — Zelensky has found governing harder than satire.

Now, more than two years into his term, Zelensky has run into real political difficulty. An October poll taken by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found the president’s approval rating has plummeted to a subterranean 25 percent, and 59 percent of the voters don’t trust him. 

First, the leaked Pandora Papers revealed that Zelensky held several offshore financial holdings in the British Virgin Islands, Cyprus and Belize — hardly the actions of a scourge of the oligarchs. Second, he sacked his youthful reformist ally, Dmytro Rozumkov, from his position as speaker of the Rada, Ukraine’s parliament. 

Third, Zelensky has chosen to pick a fight with Ukraine’s richest businessman, who is a major player in the country’s media and energy sectors. While government figures long have been welcome on his television stations, recently opposition political figures have appeared on his programs more often. This seems the likely cause of this unedifying fight; Zelensky is growing thin-skinned when it comes to the absolutely pivotal notion of freedom of the press and would like to have unfettered opportunities to promote his agenda in any media in the country. This conflict in the face of the imminent Russia threat undermines Ukraine’s security.

For all these reasons, the U.S. must support Ukraine robustly, while reminding Zelensky that America supports the country’s democratic future, rather than the personal prospects of any one man.

Lastly, Ukraine must deal with its looming energy crisis. Perilously, more than half of the country’s electricity is produced at aging, state-owned nuclear power plants, run on Russian fuel. In another sign of Ukraine’s dependence on Moscow, only one of these power plants has its own fuel storage facility; the rest are bound to export their waste for storage in Russia. An overwhelming 70 percent of Ukraine’s coal imports comes from Russia. 

Rather than push through the necessary reforms, the Zelensky government is accusing DTEK, a private company that manages a large part of Ukraine’s thermal generation, of poor planning for the winter to come. But, as DTEK CEO Maxim Timchenko put it, “As we approach winter every year, we cannot assume that we have a crisis. We need to prepare for winter in advance.”

The Ukrainian government, which accumulated large debts to energy producers from renewable sources since 2020, has recently paid these off, with the exception of DTEK’s, which is a major investor in this sector. 

Over the pivotal energy issue, the U.S. has a large policy role to play here, sustaining Ukraine’s energy (and thus political) independence. The Biden administration should strongly support Kyiv’s efforts to integrate its energy grid with European Union energy markets as soon as possible. Otherwise, Putin can turn on and off the power to Kyiv at will. Predictably, on Nov. 1, that is what he did — the Kremlin stopped thermal coal exports to Ukraine just as the cold winter is setting in. 

It is time to end America’s passive approach to the coming crisis in Ukraine. The best way to avoid sleepwalking into calamity is to swiftly and decisively help Kyiv to help itself, in order for a far more resilient Ukraine to meet the perilous times ahead.

This blog post was originally published in The Hill.

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