Why the West Is Helping Ukraine Save Itself

THIS week's Group of Seven (G-7) summit in Naples, Italy, provided a show of Western support for Ukrainian reform.

With Ukraine's signing of a January agreement on nuclear weapons, the main obstacle to Western aid had been removed. Now the G-7 summit has announced some $4 billion in aid to Ukraine, including funds to deal with the nuclear reactors at Chernobyl.

To get the money, however, Ukraine must introduce a market economy, an area in which it has lagged behind Russia and other Eastern European countries.

Despite the G-7 announcement, two misguided judgments about Ukraine still stand in the way of future aid. First, many in the West believe Ukraine cannot be saved. Second, many holding this view believe that Russia is able to pick up the pieces in the wake of Kiev's enfeeblement. Neither judgment holds water.

Ukraine is not beyond saving. Local, parliamentary, and presidential elections have demonstrated the strength of Ukraine's young democracy. Parliamentary and presidential voting demonstrated that Ukrainian citizens want to address Ukraine's problems through governmental action, not secession or civil war. Even ethnic Russians went to the polls in numbers that showed they understood better than outside observers that there is more to gain in Kiev than by joining the long line for subsidies in Moscow. The seriousness of Ukraine's economic plight can scarcely be exaggerated, but the standard of living is better than the statistics suggest because of the shadow economy and the strong links between the cities and the agriculturally rich countryside. The real, if still incomplete, gains made in Poland and Russia show that Ukraine's economic plight can be reversed.

If Kiev's hold on the country begins to unravel, Russian intervention is not a solution. Such an intervention is the end of Russian reform. It inevitably involves Russia in imperial responsibilities even if Russia undertook those responsibilities with no imperial intentions. These responsibilities traditionally have been the enemy of more-liberal government in Moscow. And they are beyond the Russian government's current financial and military capabilities. In the near term, as a few analysts have noted, Russia lacks the military means to conduct the large-scale military operation that an intervention in Ukraine would require.

If Ukraine unravels, the most likely scenario is not a return to Russia but the rise of semi-independent states based on Ukraine's many regions. Extreme nationalist forces would dominate some of these new states; old party bosses or factory managers, the rest. These new leaders would control substantial military forces on their territory, including for some a portion of the nuclear weapons now on Ukrainian soil. None would be as democratic or tolerant as the government in Kiev.

A return to feudal states in Eurasia would threaten the stability of the still-fragile states of East Central Europe and of Russia itself. It would revive on Eurasian soil a new Eastern question from which the great powers could not turn away.

The West had ample reason to act to encourage the stabilization of the Ukrainian state. The G-7 summit gave Western governments the opportunity to demonstrate their serious interests in Ukraine's stability and reform by announcing a package of incentives.

The West cannot save Ukraine. The West can only help Ukraine save itself. Its leaders must face squarely their responsibility for the survival of the state and the well-being of its citizens.

In the next few months, the new Ukrainian government of President-elect Leonid Kuchma must take steps to begin economic reform or risk a further erosion of authority.

The Western stake in Ukraine's survival prompted the G-7 to provide incentives for the new Ukrainian leadership to act in its own best interests and begin real economic reforms. But the G-7 package of incentives was only a logical first step. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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