Ukraine: Reforming a Country in War is Difficult, but There Is No Other Way | VoxUkraine

Ukraine: Reforming a Country in War is Difficult, but There Is No Other Way

27 October 2017

The recent opinion article on EUobserver, “West Needs to Get Real on Ukraine”, calls upon the West and supporters of reforms in Ukraine to realize how difficult it is to implement changes while fighting off Russia’s aggression and suggests that they should decrease the pressure on the Ukrainian government. The authors argue that it is necessary to put off major reforms because they divert valuable resources, generate instability and undermine national unity. At first glance, some of the arguments may seem to be convincing. Yet the reasoning behind the key arguments is not persuasive.

The article “West needs to get real on Ukraine” by Roman Sohn and Ariana Gic considers the expectations about reforms in Ukraine in the context of Russia’s aggression. The authors rightly note that the demand that Ukraine carries out reforms does not free the West from the necessity to resolutely oppose Russia. They are also right to argue that the Government bears the full burden of political responsibility; hence one should recognize its achievements and be objective when criticizing it. Other points, however, are much more controversial.

The authors argue that Ukraine needs to mobilize all of its resources to win the war and should thus put resource-intensive and destabilizing reforms on hold. The article calls upon the West to abandon unrealistic expectations about the progress of reforms in Ukraine, recognize the priority of its right to defend itself, and let Ukrainian society determine the balance and pace of the reforms. The lobbyists of reforms should focus on promoting the demand for change among the population.

Mobilise all resources to win the war before turning attention to reforms?

As the authors write, Ukraine confronts a much stronger opponent. Russia has an interest and ability to wage a hybrid war for quite some time. Even if Ukraine does mobilize all of its resources, will it be able to end this conflict – and if so, when and at what cost will this happen? Ukraine lacks the resources to win a decisive victory whereas a gradual build-up of armaments at the country’s own expense will not be enough to stop the simmering conflict. One should thus not expect the conflict to end soon.

Therefore, all the ways to enhance the country’s ability to withstand Russia’s pressure over a long period constitute an effective use of resources. It is right though that a balance must be found between maintaining defence capabilities in the short run and the accumulation of resources in the medium run.

Besides, putting the economy on a war footing would provoke a socio-economic instability at least equal to one that, the authors fear, is created by reforms. The authors also emphasize that significant changes should be clearly validated by the people. Yet to what extent is the society willing to support the full mobilization of resources for military purposes?

Recent reports about the embezzlement by high-ranking officials at the Defense Ministry do not help here. As long as the level of perception of corruption remains high, doubts as to the real use of funds will linger.

Apart from corruption, the weakness of the Ukrainian state, and hence of the army, arguably results from the low efficiency of the use of available resources. Reforms, which are long overdue, could improve the situation. The authors believe that liberal Western institutions are equally unable to fend off Russia’s attacks. In their opinion, this shows that pro-Western reforms will not enhance Ukraine’s ability to resist Russia’s aggression. However, this comparison is hardly convincing. Western institutions were not created to withstand Russia, yet there is no doubt that they can be more effective than their unreformed analogues. Moreover, it remains unclear what the actual impact of Russia’s interference in the internal affairs of Western countries is, especially compared with its interference in Ukraine.

Reforms scatter the country’s resources?

Reforms do not necessarily consume valuable internal resources. Some reforms are already being financed by the West. For example, the EU is committed to providing 100 mln to fund the public administration reform. Other reforms, such as the reform of inefficient state enterprises, are not prohibitively expensive yet can play a crucial role in balancing public finances, reducing corruption risks, attracting foreign investment etc. Any difficulties here are mostly of political nature.

Moreover, the state has also been carrying out a number of reforms without any pressure from the West, even though they require considerable expenses, e.g. the education reform. Therefore, if reforms are high on the priority list, resources can be found.

The expectations of the West are utopian and its pressure excessive?

Western governments and organizations provide a balanced assessment of the progress of reforms in Ukraine. Francis Malige, EBRD’s Managing Director, says that Ukraine’s reform successes have exceeded his expectations. David Lipton, First Deputy Managing Director of the IMF, also emphasizes Ukraine’s achievements in macroeconomic stabilization, banking sector reform, innovative decisions in public procurement, etc. One can thus hardly say that the West has utopian expectations or that it underestimates Ukraine’s achievements.

It may be rather tempting instead to accuse Ukraine’s government of encouraging utopian expectations. For instance, a number of extremely optimistic goals in President Poroshenko’s Strategy 2020 were not imposed by any Western government, international organization, or Ukrainian NGO. On the other hand, it reflects the aspiration of the Ukrainian people for change.

The West does exert pressure on Ukraine’s government. Still, according to the publicly available information, the interaction between Ukraine and e.g., the IMF, hardly resembles blackmail. The negotiations are ongoing and the IMF is well aware of the difficulties and political nuances that major reforms entail. Deadlines are often postponed. For example, the IMF understands that the opposition to lifting the ban on land sales in Ukraine is currently too strong. In the words of David Lipton, “What was agreed is that more time is needed to get the right decision on this important topic.”

The authors rightly point out that the West needs to deal more resolutely with Russia’s aggression. They are not alone in thinking so. Chatham House’s experts argue that the West can and should do more to dissuade Russia from continuing its hostilities against Ukraine. However, they also believe that one of the ways to do this is to ensure the continuity and depth of reforms in Ukraine: to that end, it is necessary both to give more support to Ukraine and to make sure that it undertakes real, not cosmetic, reforms.

It is also worth remembering that the West is not a monolithic entity. Facing the pressure from populists in a still complicated economic settings, governments in the EU countries have to to convince voters that their support for Ukraine is important. If reforms in Ukraine are successful, the population of other European countries will more readily agree to assisting Ukraine, which will make a favorable resolution of the conflict with Russia more likely.

Lead and innovate instead of repeating and copying?

As the authors remark, Ukraine’s resources, including human ones, are limited. Given the pressure from Russia and criticism from the populists, this does not leave much room for experiments. Hence the safest bet for Ukraine is to employ the recipes that other countries (not necessarily EU members) have successfully tested. Besides, innovation is always possible as the required changes are so massive while the settings are inevitably unique.

Moreover, the IMF does not insist on implementing any specific model of reform. Its main message to Ukraine is not to postpone changes. For example, Mr Lipton says the following about the land reform, “The reform can be done in different ways, and there are different models and examples from different countries. What’s important is that there is land reform rather than no land reform.” Ukraine can thus offer various ways to reform itself to Western donors.

The balance of reforms should be determined by the people rather than by non-accountable NGOs or the West?

The Ukrainian people hardly exert effective and systematic influence on public policy. While hoping for a change for the better, the majority of the population remains politically passive. Most media outlets are dependent. Main political parties are based on personalities and interpersonal arrangements rather than on ideas and specific programs. It will take years for the status quo to change even if relevant political reforms are implemented.

In these settings, NGOs is a channel through which the society can influence politicians – by means of pooling the country’s intellectual resources, creating alternatives for public policy, and controlling the authorities. Yet the authors clearly exaggerate this influence when they warn that no reformist NGO should have a monopoly over the reform agenda. At the same time, some of the authors’ comments are fair. NGOs have to ensure their transparency and work more actively with the population.

However, politicians do not merely translate the public opinion into political decisions. Voters sometimes provide general guidelines, transferring the right to make decisions to politicians and expecting that the latter will improve public welfare. Linking each and every issue to the public opinion is tantamount to escaping from responsibility. If politicians always take the public opinion as an excuse, a good moment for change may never arrive.

Influencing the public opinion through discussion and informing sometimes becomes part of a reform. It is complicated yet feasible. And here the state is much more powerful than reformist NGOs, which, the authors think, should focus on building public support for the reforms. In Mr Lipton’s words, “Ukraine must and can find a way for a public debate and consensus to get past rejection, shelving and blocking the reform. Again, it’s important to act rather than not act.”

The authors caution Ukraine against turning into a client state of the West. Yet in the absence of reforms Ukraine will inevitably have to seek outside support over and over again. In Ukraine’s history, reforms have been much slower and less decisive than necessary. There is a risk that some of the much-needed reforms will be shelved again, as it happened after the Orange Revolution. When the society does not have sufficient influence on political decision-making, external stimuli can be decisive. For instance, it was the prospect of the visa-free regime with the EU that motivated Ukraine’s parliament to pass important anti-corruption measures. The reliance on Western aid can actually serve as a lever that frees the reformist politicians from the pressure of special interest groups.

The changes should be carefully crafted and implemented, so as to maintain government stability and national unity?

Sometimes, politicians should have the courage to take the steps that may seem unpopular. This would not necessarily lead to losing power. The failure to act may have even worse consequences. After all, no relation has been found between reform and government instability. Economic performance is much more important. In fact, it is passivity and lack of reforms that eventually leads to economic downturn and to socio-economic instability. Besides, in Ukraine, opposition parties are likely to find many reasons for criticising the government anyway, given the strain that the conflict has put on the country’s economy and other long-standing problems.

All the mentions of the “window of opportunities” is not just empty talk. Reforms, especially so massive, are more likely to succeed when implemented quickly. If one keeps insisting on a gradual approach, reform may not happen at all. Even necessary changes add to the public fatigue, prompt the opponents to organize, and threaten the unity within the government.


Russia’s aggression aims to weaken Ukraine, prevent it from succeeding, keep it isolated and under Russian control. This war is unlikely to be won exclusively by military means and will probably continue for quite some time in one form or another. Ukraine needs reforms to become stronger. The pressure of the West can help to circumvent the opposition of special interest groups, yet leaves much room for initiative and dialogue in Ukraine. Shelving the reforms because of the military conflict would ultimately play into the hands of Russia.

Main photo: depositphotos / etiamos

  • Rostyslav Averchuk, VoxUkraine guest editor, a graduate of BA program “Philosophy, politics, economics” of Oxford university


The author doesn`t work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations