Ukraine on the Edge

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, left, with Belarusian President Alexander ­Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Minsk, February 2015
Grigory Dukor/Reuters
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, left, with Belarusian President Alexander ­Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Minsk, February 2015

At the beginning of 2015 Ukraine faced a plethora of obstacles and enemies, first and foremost Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was determined to destabilize the country and use the might of the Russian army to crush it. He violated Russian law by using conscripts outside the borders of the country without their written authorization. Accounting for Russian soldiers who were killed and disposing of their bodies caused him a great deal of difficulty and embarrassment.

But he succeeded in defeating the valiant Ukrainian soldiers defending Donetsk airport in January. This led to the agreement called Minsk II, signed on February 11, which was negotiated by Ukraine under military duress. Ukraine had to concede the territorial gains that the separatist enclaves had made since the Minsk I agreement, signed in September 2014. Even so, the Russians kept up the military pressure on the town of Debaltseve, which was evacuated by the Ukrainian army seven days after the signing of Minsk II.

After that, the direct involvement of the Russian army diminished and Putin reverted to waging a proxy war. He also kept the main provisions of the Minsk agreement deliberately vague. Taking advantage of his negotiating position, he insisted that Ukraine fulfill all of Minsk II’s requirements before Russia would be obliged to relinquish control of its border with the separatist enclaves. This left the conditions under which those enclaves would hold elections undecided.

Ukraine insisted that the elections should be held under Ukrainian law, but Putin wanted to create problems for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko by requiring the Ukrainians to negotiate the conditions for the elections directly with the separatists. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande took a neutral position and eventually put pressure on Ukraine, weakening its negotiating position even further. In the end Putin relented, and negotiations have been taking place in the so-called “Normandy format,” a diplomatic group that includes representatives from the Ukrainian, French, German, and Russian governments.

The third obstacle Ukraine encountered was the lack of adequate financial, political, and military support from its allies. By holding Ukraine on a tight financial leash, Germany was in danger of making the same mistake it had made with Greece. Greece had much in common with the old Ukraine: it had an economy dominated by oligarchs and a civil service that exploited the people instead of serving them. To add to Ukraine’s woes, at the beginning of 2015 the government’s authority was directly challenged by the most powerful oligarch, Igor Kolomoisky—who dominated the financial sector—and by various other oligarchs acting individually or together.

Under these pressures, Ukraine’s economy collapsed in the first part of 2015. The…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.