On 1 July 2016, EU member states formally extended sanctions on Russia yet again. Ukraine has hailed this as a diplomatic victory and its government has spent considerable effort and time trying to persuade EU countries to keep the restrictions in place. Kyiv has two reasons for doing so. It assumes, correctly, that with sanctions in place Moscow will have more reason to end the war in the Donbas, or at least prevent it from deteriorating further. However, Kyiv also seems to believe that a vote for sanctions is a sign of support for Kyiv. The problem with this logic is that it is flawed and, in fact, western impatience with Ukraine is growing.
For the past two years, Kyiv has been confusing western solidarity with western support for its own policies. In reality, these are two different things. The sanctions the EU imposed on Russia are primarily seen by EU members as a way of delivering a clear message to Moscow that its annexation of Crimea and support for the war in the Donbas is unacceptable. But that is not the same as unconditional support for the Ukrainian government or its policies: such assistance is much more contingent on the country's ability to reform itself. In fact, many EU governments most vocally supportive of sanctions are also increasingly exasperated with Kyiv.
Over the past two years Kyiv has carried out more sweeping reforms than in the past 25 years combined. Beginning with an overhaul of its notoriously corrupt gas sector, the reforms also extended to the introduction of e-procurement for state institutions, a clean-up of the banking sector, privatisation, and the launch of decentralisation. But for every successful reform there are at least two major corruption scandals. To many, the president's procrastination about the shake-up of in the Prosecutor General's Office earlier this year has become an embodiment of the absence of political will among elites to give up control and open up state institutions to democratic control and scrutiny. The rise of financial-political groups and their growing influence in various sectors and institutions has impeded reforms and further contributed to the fragmentation of governance. In other words, while numerous sweeping changes have taken place already, Kyiv still has a way to go when it comes to showing its unwavering commitment to the country's full transformation.
To be fair to Ukraine, it is not being given an entirely fair hearing in the West. Some European capitals find it easier to focus solely on obstacles to reforms and seem to be blind to the progress that has been made already. The country is far from being the failed state it has been described as by some, and the past two years have proven wrong those who said that the country is “unreformable” and hopeless. While Kyiv has come a long way when taking into account the size of the task, it’s clear that the progress on transformation is still relatively small. A more determined response is required from Kyiv to help the country turn a corner. Ukraine's western friends are right to be tough on it, as long as they don’t lose sight of its many achievements to date, and need to continue pushing for more reforms.
The problem is one of communication, as Kyiv continues to confuse western solidarity with western support. Neither the sanctions nor high-profile meetings with EU politicians are necessarily a vote of support for Ukraine or its policies. More and more European leaders criticise Ukraine privately while praising it publicly. The Ukrainians seem to assume this is some sort of a game and ignore the private part of the message – the part about reforms. That is a dangerous mistake.
At some point, sanctions will be partly lifted, despite the sad fact that the ceasefire exists on paper only, with reports of casualties coming in on a daily basis. The Minsk agreements have not been implemented and are unlikely to be fulfilled any time soon. Still, the intra-EU debate about the cost of sanctions on the EU's own economies has been gathering pace. Western willingness to underwrite Ukraine will decrease over time, too, if Kyiv does not deliver on reforms. The government has six months, possibly a year, to demonstrate that it has the will to turn the country around, and it is not clear that Kyiv understands this. There is a real risk that it will compound the damage wrought by Russia by also forfeiting support from the West. If Ukraine fails to shed the image of a country that is merely muddling through, it will increasingly struggle to find friends in Europe: then, while western solidarity might remain, its support will be gone.
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