Is Ukraine a failed state? That is a question most readers would not even consider relevant to the current crisis in Ukraine mostly because when people think of a failed state, the image they have in mind are collapsed states like Somalia or Afghanistan places with ungoverned spaces, minimal economic development and large scale civil war. But asking if Ukraine is failed is important for two reasons.  First it shows us what Ukraine could become if the right decisions are not taken to prevent it from happening. One can easily envisage a country torn apart East to West because the military lacks the capacity, willingness and impartiality to provide security for all Ukrainians including its ethnic and religious minorities.

Second, it forces us to refocus on the core issue at hand.  The simple fact is that Ukraine is now more than ever vulnerable to exploitation and susceptible to outside influence from both West and East because it is weak. Its weakness invites outside involvement not the other way around.   Being bankrupt it is now almost entirely dependent on outside financial support to run its economy. Crippled by a frail military apparatus  and ineffective political institutions its leaders have shown repeatedly that  their legitimacy is not derived from the will of the people but from the international support that they can muster from the United States  and its allies both politically and militarily.

Those who write continuously about Russia’s broader strategic ambitions in the region or even its irredentist tendencies which may or may not extend beyond Crimea to Eastern Ukraine are merely avoiding a larger set of more fundamental  issues. The dominant narrative from Western media commentary and scholarly analysis has focused on the Russia-West rivalry with Ukraine’s upheaval set in the context of geopolitics, Putin’s domestic political imperatives or even his regional aspirations to recreate a greater Russia.

But all of these arguments never seem to confront first causes which can be traced back to the failure of leadership in Kiev and all subsequent events that preceded and precipitated the separation of Crimea from Ukraine following the Maidan. If Russia is going to intervene further in Ukraine it will do so because it will be responding to a set of opportunities and incentives that present themselves over time by decisions taken from Kiev.

Since achieving independence after the Cold War, Kiev has shown repeatedly that is incapable of acting in the best interests of its peoples – politically and economically. Consider that a 2009 Pew Center poll showed that most people believed they were better off under communist rule. And to reinforce the point, a 2008 survey asked “Can we trust people in general?” According to that survey, 67 per cent of Ukrainians believed that trust is “not necessary” for Ukrainian politics. As another indicator of social cohesion, the survey results showed that most citizens do not even consider themselves close to their neighbors within their own country but they do feel closeness to people in neighboring states. In Western Ukraine, people feel closer to Hungary and Poland, but not neighboring regions within Ukraine. The same tendency exists in the East, where people feel closer to Russia and Belarus. In short,  it would appear that Ukrainians have not trusted each other all that much and have little faith in the current political system.

That must change. It is the West’s unwillingness to understand that long term solutions to Ukraine’s stability and security rest with leadership in Ukraine and not with Russian ambitions. It is that blind spot that is adversely affecting the presentation of viable policy options to bring stability to Ukraine.  Instead the West is determined to focus on punishing Putin.

The real issue is not Russia’s undue influence which is unlikely to diminish over time but Ukraine’s centripetal tendencies which are now apparent for all to see, as Crimea  joins Russia and separatist sentiment in Eastern Ukraine continues to grow exponentially. For the West to lay all this at Putin’s doorstep is to absolve themselves and Kiev of any responsibility.

Photo from EEAS
Deposed President Viktor Yanukovych (Photo from European External Action Service)

If you are not convinced that Ukraine is teetering towards failure consider for example measurements used by the CIA’s Political Instability Task Force (PITF). PITF codes adverse regime change as an indicator of the onset of state failure, while a second equally pertinent category of ethnic war constitutes a second type of state failure onset. Adverse regime change has already occurred in Ukraine first with the collapse of the elected government in Kiev and second by the annexation of Crimea to Russia.

Crimea’s decision to join Russia may also be construed as an ethnic war – albeit with limited loss of life (so far) because  the referendum, in which a vast majority of ethnic Russians voted in favour of leaving Ukraine, was deemed illegal by Kiev. And if the outcome was illegal then that, along with the loss of territory, must be seen as a rebellion if not a war. True the nonviolent rapidity of this annexation is distinct from most historical examples because secessions are normally protracted, usually unsuccessful and violent affairs. And irredenta are typically even more violent (there have been at least 80 instances of separatism and a lesser number of irredentist conflicts since 1945- see Carment, James, Taydas- Who Intervenes OSUP 2006).

Drawing on my own project’s ( sequencing of state fragility processes that captures three core elements of states: Authority, Legitimacy and Capacity – we know that challenges to authority – namely the loss of territory or challenges to political leadership undermine the legitimacy of a regime. There is no doubt that Crimea’s departure is clearly a political loss that deeply affects Kiev’s legitimacy and authority.  A weaker Kiev propped up by outsiders will do three things.

First it will reinforce the image of a vulnerable state or worse a captured state that is acting in the interests of a particular ethnic group to the disadvantage of minorities. Second it will help strengthen the hand of extremists who will capitalize on the loss as a way of increasing their influence in government. Third it will move the balance of power away from Kiev to the oligarchs who have been scattered throughout Ukraine. All three of these processes help contribute to the loss of power at the centre.  But that is a reality Kiev must confront.  The question is will they turn that from a negative to a positive.

The next real tests for Kiev will be how it responds to the increasing violence in Eastern Ukraine. There is no simple solution here. The separatists in Ukraine are probably already determined to pursue political agitation and some may make a case for carving off pieces of Ukraine to join with Russia. Kiev’s response will undoubtedly be to fight back through force.

If that happens any claim Kiev can make to being a neutral arbiter will be lost and thereafter it is only a matter of time before Putin once again stakes his claim to parts of Ukraine  making the case that if Kiev cannot protect the Russian minorities then he will.

But there is another option here though the window is rapidly closing:  dialogue and decentralization. If Crimea can secede quickly and without violence then why can’t Kiev consider engaging Eastern Ukraine with equal decisiveness?

Surely Kiev could be enticed to move quickly to engage Eastern Ukraine in a dialogue on greater autonomy including federalism that would give greater authority over to its local leaders. The lesson from Crimea for Kiev is that Crimeans were willing to consider greater autonomy and remain as part of Ukraine (it was the second question on the ballot). That lesson came too late to save Crimea.  It’s not too late to save Eastern Ukraine. But Kiev needs to make the first move.

Of course if you believe  there is no room for negotiation then prepare yourself for what will follow. A weaker Kiev can only strengthen the hand of Ukraine’s nationalists parties who already it appears have greater influence in government than ever before . A weaker Kiev with moderates pushed to the sidelines will also give eastern Ukraine and possibly other regions like Odessa pause to consider whether being part of a rump Ukraine is in their interests. Of course Putin will be blamed for that too when they start looking for greater autonomy if not independence.

Back in 2009 a brief was produced on the future of Ukraine and scenarios drawn up using structural data: We also monitored Kaliningrad and Moldova on behalf of the EC:




On March 29 Russia’s foreign Minister reiterated an earlier statement that Russia had no interest in invading Ukraine adding  that;Russia reserves the right to protect Russian Minorities in Eastern Ukraine.

So here is one scenario of what could  happen:

As pre-election tensions build agitation for autonomy and then separation in Eastern Ukraine increase;

In the mean time nationalist parties in Kiev begin to exert even greater authority within the government and in regions where Ukrainian nationalism dominates;

Moderates are pushed aside;

The Ukrainian army is called into quell unrest in Eastern Ukraine, driving separatists further apart as they come under the gun of poorly trained forces from Ukraine and self appointed militia;

The situation escalates and unravels and ordinary citizens are caught up in the violence;

This becomes the green light for Putin to move in first incrementally and then wholly to carve off pieces of Eastern Ukraine;

NATO is stymied.


You can track fragile states at my project website:

My research on irredenta and secession appears in JPR, JCR, ISR CMPS among others  and in    several books on the topic going back to the 90s.

Social Capital Development in Multiethnic Crimea: Global, Regional and Local Constraints and Opportunities

Canada has a key role to play in Ukraine’s future MILANA NIKOLKO AND DAVID CARMENT Contributed to The Globe and Mail,

David Carment – CDFAI Fellow, Editor of Canadian Foreign Policy Journal  and principal investigator – Country Indicators for Foreign Policy

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