Ukraine Faces Its Moment of Truth

July 03, 1994|By ELIZABETH POND

Kiev -- "If they make it through their fifth anniversary of independence, I think the present [bad] streak will be broken," ventures one of the many Ukrainian-Canadians in Kiev. He and fellow optimists think Ukraine probably can muddle through the remaining 2 1/2 years to his imagined deadline for creating critical momentum.

Pessimists, by contrast, expect Ukraine to implode before then out of sheer incompetence, procrastination and entropy. And, of course, pressure from Russians across the political spectrum, who deem Ukrainian independence illegitimate after three centuries of union.

For the optimists, salvation lies in crisis. Even the old Communists who still run Ukraine must surely grasp by now that prolonging the tatters of the Soviet system without substituting a new one ensures disaster. And Kiev's obvious economic catastrophe at least has the advantage of deterring Russians from active destabilization in Ukraine; it's more efficient just to wait for their former province to drop into their laps.

Under these circumstances a Western security role in the region is crucial, though not in the sense that Ukrainians conceived of last January when they promised yet again to destroy their inherited share of Soviet nuclear missiles in return for a triangular guarantee" of their borders in the American-Russian-Ukrainian deal.

However confused the situation, the stakes are the highest here in all of post-Cold War Europe. Any Russian-Ukrainian military confrontation "would be much worse than Yugoslavia," because both sides possess nuclear weapons, asserts Yuri Kostenko, Ukrainian environment minister and a leading member of the parliamentary defense commission. Moreover, a showdown at the new East-West divide of Ukraine would not remain isolated like fighting in the Balkans, but would drag in the rest of Europe.

No one really expects a military clash (beyond the very localized skirmishes in which Ukrainian and Russian sailors in Crimea basically sort out their separate turf for foraging for food and income). Yet anyone who remembers the savagery of the civil war in Ukraine after the Bolshevik revolution -- and Stalin's murder of millions of Ukrainian peasants through collectivization and famine -- worries about even remote dangers. Anyone who saw Lt. Gen. Alexander Lebed's 14th Army carve out a Russian enclave of Transdniestr in Moldova next door to Odessa two years ago wants to avoid similar Russian mischief in Ukraine.

Alarm over Crimean dispute

This risk explains the West's alarm when the Crimean dispute flared up again last month. American, British, German and other officials swiftly urged Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin to restrain Crimea's separatist-minded President Yuri Meshkov and any rogue Russian military units or Cossack freebooters.

So far, so good. Mr. Yeltsin is much more interested in winning admission to the West's G-7 directorate this summer than in wresting back sovereignty over the Crimean vacationland and naval base that Nikita S. Khrushchev donated to Ukraine in 1954. Under prodding, the Russian president presumably can still constrain his neo-imperialists. And the Crimean legislature has pulled Mr. Meshkov back from secession for the time being. Probably, as in the dispute over Ukraine's debts for Russian oil and gas, the Crimean argument will just fizzle out without ever really being resolved.

The second part of the West's implicit security mission in Ukraine is harder: convincing those Ukrainians who eventually consolidate power that they must institute real economic reform to stop the rot. Dissatisfaction spread last winter as Ukrainian production plummeted and inflation soared even more than in Russia -- and many Ukrainian firms stopped paying workers even their formal pittance. Already many ethnic Russians here have turned against the Ukrainian independence they originally voted for and are looking longingly at the less moribund economy in Rostov. With time, a political demand to rejoin Russia could spread from Crimea to other regions.

Up until a month ago the few Ukrainian would-be liberalizers and their Western allies favored a variation on the Leninist precept of "the worse, the better." As economic collapse increasingly showed that the only thing worse than reform was no reform, they calculated, even the old Communist functionaries would have to acknowledge the crisis. They might resist adopting the system of a West that was miserly with aid but severe in forcing Kiev to surrender its nuclear weapons, but they would have no alternative. Disillusionment with a Russian economy that was only marginally better than the Ukrainian one would soon match disillusionment with the West.

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