As Ukrainians celebrate the 25th anniversary of their independence this year, they would do well to remember that the next 25 years will be far more important—and difficult—than the last.
Ukraine declared independence on August 24, 1991, in exceptionally favorable geopolitical circumstances: the Soviet empire was disintegrating; its Russian successor state was democratically inclined and militarily weak; the United States, the world’s sole superpower, was determined to promote democracy around the world; NATO had proved its mettle and was soon to expand; and Europe was brimming with the self-confidence that would culminate in the formation of the European Union.
Under such benign conditions, Ukraine could neglect fundamental systemic reform and simply get by, as it did for many of its 25 years.
This period of fair weather has ended, and the approaching storm clouds will require Ukraine to cope with far more challenging, as well as existentially threatening, conditions. In order to survive, Ukraine will need to do more than muddle along. It must pursue, with unwavering resolve, a clearly defined set of priorities.
Consider the changes that have taken place in Ukraine’s geopolitical environment.
President Vladimir Putin is actively pursuing hegemony in Russia’s “near abroad.” Hoping to reestablish a militarily dominant Russia in central Eurasia, Putin has expended an enormous amount of resources in upgrading Russia’s armed forces and weapons arsenal; engaged in relentless saber rattling and occasional land grabbing; routinely violated international norms and the postwar European security order; vastly strengthened Russia’s internal security apparatus; dismantled the country’s democratic institutions; and constructed a despotic, hypernationalist regime centered on his cult of personality. In the process, Putin has managed, by means of bluster and propaganda, to persuade most Russians, and many Westerners, that he is acting in their interests.
At the same time, Putin’s Russia is a brittle regime that is in the throes of advanced decay. It is hyper-centralized, corrupt, inimical to introducing systemic reform, and incapable of changing itself. Although Putin himself is
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