Russian advance and US withdrawal could see Ukraine ever more dependent on continued German support.
Since 2014, Berlin has become the most frequently visited capital for Ukrainian politicians. President Petro Poroshenko, prime ministers Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Volodymyr Groysman, as well as members of the Rada, top officials from government ministries, civil society activists and policy experts: there has been a constant to-and-fro at all levels. The activity has covered everything from domestic reforms and the Minsk process to visa liberalisation and implementation of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement. For Germany, supporting Ukraine has become routine. But Poroshenko's visit to Berlin on 29 January was different.
The meeting was overshadowed by renewed hostilities in Donbas. On the day of Poroshenko’s arrival, Avdiivka, an industrial suburb north-west of Donetsk, suffered heavy shelling. Although it is not yet clear exactly what happened, it appeared to be the first combined arms assault conducted by Russian-backed insurgents since the offensive on Mariinka in June 2015. The assault was repelled, but the increasing escalation is seen as a probing attack to test whether the US would react and make the escalation a subject of the first formal call between the two presidents. If a new détente between the Kremlin and the White House is in the making, Russia might use this opportunity to increase the military pressure on Kyiv, to force it to make further concessions at the negotiating table.
In just the two weeks since he took office it has become obvious that Donald Trump will neither be tamed by institutions, traditions, nor Congress. And with Steve Bannon, a Putinversteher, claiming a central role in the administration, a Russian-American special deal throwing Ukraine under the bus is to be expected. And such a case would considerably complicate Germany's policies on Ukraine. Could Germany fill the void that a US withdrawal from Ukraine would leave behind?
Were the US to step back from Ukraine, the European Union, or its member states acting bilaterally, would find it difficult to plug the gap.
In the military realm, the United States is the country most active in training and equipping the Ukrainian army. However, even the US efforts are limited: no lethal goods have been on offer, and the training and exercises are on a very small scale. Still, in case of an escalation, Ukraine would be able to put up considerable resistance without US support, slowing any Russian advance and inflicting considerable numbers of casualties on the Russian side. Would Putin take the domestic risk? How would several thousand deaths impact on Russia's domestic politics? Nevertheless, few in Ukraine actually want to put this theory to a test. And it is important to observe that even limited US engagement had a considerable deterrence effect on Russia.
But, despite the United States’ limited train and equip role, were it to step back, the European Union, or its member states acting bilaterally, would find it difficult to plug this gap, not least in a tough election year and facing multiple populist insurgencies.
On many reform projects and policies – particularly anti-corruption reforms, decentralisation, and financial sector reforms – the US has worked in tandem with the EU. Many support programmes are complementary, and if the US pulled out this would leave many EU programmes in limbo, as they rest on the assumption that part of their burden is shared by the US. Furthermore, USAID has many more operative personnel on the ground in Ukraine than the EU has. Often they work with EU money or in EU programmes, so their departure would leave too few programme officers on the ground to actually implement the EU’s projects, even if the finances remained covered.
And even more importantly, at various points over the last few years, US interventions were critical to making reform happen. Former vice-president Joe Biden in particular was very vocal where he saw shortcomings or reforms being watered down, and at times his criticism caused Kyiv to change course. Now this voice has fallen silent. Germany, usually very restrained when commenting on the domestic politics of other countries, can hardly fill this void.
If the international situation were not already dire enough, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, also faces domestic criticism for her support for Ukraine. Russian propaganda is busy describing Ukraine as a ‘lost cause’ that can never reform and will never change. This point of view is propounded not only by parties favourable to Russia like Die Linke, but is also spreading across the political mainstream in Germany. West Germans in particular tend to underestimate the magnitude of Ukraine’s challenge in transforming from a post-Soviet kleptocracy into a competitive open democracy. Hence they easily fall prey to negative news. In fact, Ukraine is making progress. After long domestic squabbles, key legislation on judiciary reform entered into force in October 2016. Lustration of judges is in a critical phase. And, despite being bogged down by inter-service rivalries, Ukraine's national anti-corruption bureau is progressing on investigations against corrupt top-tier officials and lawmakers.
In Ukraine itself, Moscow's disinformation campaign has won an unusual ally. The recent nationalisation of PrivatBank, Ukraine's largest bank, was a severe blow to oligarch Igor Kolomoisky's political and financial influence within the country. Like many other oligarchic banks, it was used for transferring the bank's money into private pockets with the expectation of being reimbursed by the national bank's rescue fund. But the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU) held firm on clamping down on these practices. Since 2014, more than 80 out of 180 banks have been shut. And even though PrivatBank was ‘too big to fail’ given the number of Ukrainians who receive their salaries through it (and so it could not be simply closed down), its nationalisation put an end to these practices. However, in response Kolomoiskiy launched a campaign to discredit NBU governor Valeriya Hontareva in the hope of attracting international pressure to force Kyiv to make changes. Rada member Serhiy Taruta for the time serves as Kolomiski's mouthpiece in that institution. But Taruta’s close connections to the Bundestag – he chairs the Ukrainian-German parliamentary group – saw the smear campaign carried into Germany's domestic debate on Ukraine, reinforcing resistance to Merkel.
With American support for Ukraine hanging by a thread, Germany's continued backing for both sanctions and EU assistance to Ukraine has become more critical than ever. Resistance to both is growing on the international as well as domestic front. For Merkel, it is important to remind Poroshenko that only success on reforms in Ukraine can shore up the necessary support in Europe. And for Poroshenko, Merkel is one of his few allies still standing. When in 2014 Germany reluctantly engaged in the diplomatic struggle for the new Ukraine, few thought that within a couple of years the effort would come to rest almost entirely on Berlin. But as the war in Donbas and the cause for self-determination in Kyiv became a litmus-test for the survival of the European order, Berlin will have to carry this burden one way or the other.