After centuries of nearly continuous foreign control, we Ukrainians achieved our independence from the Soviet Union 25 years ago, in 1991. In 2005, after a fraudulent election brought Viktor Yanukovych into power, our Orange Revolution helped defeat him. And this month, we mark two years since Maidan — the Revolution of Dignity — when we overthrew kleptocratic rule by Mr. Yanukovych a second time. For Ukrainians, it seems the new Ukraine is never here; it’s always coming.
But momentum may be shifting. Again and again, our country has expressed its desire to integrate more fully with the European Union; now, for the first time, the European Union — roiled by nationalism and a refugee crisis — may need us as much as we need it. We are a rare breed these days, a people in support of the European Union and its shared identity, rather than in contempt of it.
Today, we are making progress toward integration with the help of our allies. The United States has promised at least $2 billion in loan guarantees and direct aid of nearly $760 million. In December, the European Commission issued a report indicating that Ukraine had met standards allowing Ukrainians visa-free travel throughout the union. And last week, the United States Defense Department unveiled a plan to increase the rotating deployment of heavy weapons, armored vehicles and troops within NATO countries in Central and Eastern Europe — a signal to Russia to back off.
Nevertheless, achieving the new Ukraine won’t be easy. Russia has annexed Crimea and occupied part of eastern Ukraine, leaving a so-called frozen conflict that could reheat at Russia’s bidding. Even in the face of that, some of our politicians are better at arguing and lining their own pockets than at governing. And despite our serial changes in leadership, we don’t have enough practice at mutual trust to work together at building a democracy.
Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, respects international rules — and borders — only when they align with his interests. We have no illusions that he will change.
But that does not mean the West and Ukraine should shelve their desire for closer ties. Helping Ukraine stand up to Moscow now is in the West’s best interest and would spare it the expense of confronting a bigger, more powerful Russia in the future. NATO’s enhanced military posture in the region is a start, but what we need most is for the West to follow through on what’s already been promised: an investment in the new Ukraine as a powerful model of governance for Eastern Europe, an alternative to Mr. Putin’s fictive “sovereign democracy.”
Of course, Ukrainians must prove we are ready for the challenge.
In the past, we haven’t done so. In 2005, people fell back into apathy soon after the Orange Revolution had rid us of Mr. Yanukovych. When the next regime proved to be also corrupt and inept, people simply became passive and uninterested.
But the movement named after Maidan, the square in Kiev where protesters clamoring for change refused to be dispersed two years ago, marked a turning point. In contrast to 2005, civil society groups survived Mr. Yanukovych’s second ouster. Now there is an energy in our country we haven’t felt before — a desire and increasing capacity to defend our basic values and interests.
We know we must first build a functional democracy. The government has already made progress, but our civil society is demanding more decisive steps. Active networks of civic-minded citizens play an increasing role in planning and advocacy for vitally important reforms in public administration, the judiciary, decentralization, public procurement, investment and more.
Democracy also means a governmental monopoly over all armed units. While self-organized voluntary battalions, some with far-right sympathies, played a vital role in halting the advances of Russia and its separatist allies in the crisis two years ago, a primary condition of effective statehood is assuring the complete submission of such groups to central control, and the government has made essential progress in this area.
We also need to provide political freedoms, despite the continuing proxy war in the east. In the parts of eastern Ukraine now controlled by separatists, we must guarantee full access for officials monitoring the cease-fire; demilitarize the area; obtain the withdrawal of Russian-armed militants and weapons; ensure the safety of people of all views; and restore normal political and civic life, including unrestricted activity by Ukrainian political parties and civic groups. Only then should we move ahead to the most essential step, elections — free and fair contests that meet international standards. Above all, we must root out corruption everywhere. A new National Anti-Corruption Bureau is up and running, but another agency intended to prevent corruption and conflicts of interest among officials is not fully staffed.
In short, if we want to be part of the European Union, we must adhere to its ideals. But we also need to add value.
Fortunately, we have value to add. Across the globe, the space for democracy and rule of law is shrinking. Europe has offered one of the most efficient governance models in history, especially for eliminating legacies of hostility, building sustainable peace, and creating a productive economy alongside an inclusive social system. But that model is being tested severely by the rise of virulent nationalists, who are fueled in part by the fear of terrorism and resentment of migrants. We are an antidote. Europe needs our dynamism just as soon as we can deliver it.
The new Ukraine is a metaphor, but it brings new passion for freedom to the whole region. If we get a little better every year — even slowly — we will move ahead. And perhaps others will follow our lead.
Oleksandr Sushko is the research director at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation.