The Battle for Ukraine

Ukraine’s democratization and ongoing efforts to fight entrenched graft and cronyism are a threat to Putin’s model of governance, but the real prize in Ukraine is the end of American influence in Europe.

By Tom McTague for The Atlantic, and , and Olena Halushka for 


Vladimir Putin likes to say that playing chess with the United States is like playing against a pigeon: It struts around the board, knocks over the pieces, shits everywhere, and then declares victory. Playing chess with Europe, in contrast, must be like playing with a child who has forgotten the rules of the game, claims to have invented new ones and then sulks when no one wants to play.

For so long, many people in Europe, including the U.K., have comforted themselves with platitudes that “hard power” no longer matters, that spheres of influence are outdated, and, even, that geopolitics itself has become somewhat passé. Then Russia sent 100,000 troops to the Ukrainian border. Suddenly playtime was over and once again the future security of Europe was being decided by someone else, somewhere else.

There’s no need to overstate the case. Europe’s major powers are not absent in this Ukrainian crisis. Britain and France, in particular, are playing prominent roles: London is winning plaudits in Eastern Europe for its proactive stance designed to make any Russian intervention as painful as possible, and Paris is pursuing its own path, hosting a summit of Ukrainians and Russians as part of the long-running talks under the “Normandy” format that also includes Germany. At each stage of this crisis, Europe’s major powers have also been consulted by a U.S. administration that seems to take its rhetoric about alliances seriously.

Still, if you step back for a moment, the situation is extraordinary. Russia is a country of 142 million people with a hollowed-out petro economy about the size of South Korea. Together, Europe’s big three powers—Germany, France, and Britain—dwarf Russia in terms of wealth and population; the whole of democratic Europe, even more so. And yet, Europe is of secondary importance in this crisis even though it is happening on its own continent.

For the West, the obvious reality is that America still calls the shots. London, Paris, and Berlin each lobby the White House and, depending on the crisis and the leader, exert real influence. But for whichever U.S. president is in office, the decision is, necessarily, America first. In this case, President Joe Biden is navigating a debate raging between the traditional foreign-policy establishment that is preaching deterrence and the ever more influential “restrainers,” who argue that the U.S. cannot afford to become bogged down in another war on its imperial periphery.

Part of Putin’s game, of course, is to capitalize on this division, both within America and across the West. He smells indecision and is seeking to exploit it. According to some experts I’ve spoken with over the past week, the Russian president’s grand aspiration is to push America out of Europe altogether, negotiating a deal that recognizes Russia as a legitimate player in the continent’s security order, and reversing the losses Moscow sustained in the 1990s when its military was forced back inside its own borders. Fiona Hill, a former White House adviser on Russia, told me Putin may have calculated that Biden is the last president able to negotiate such a formal agreement on Europe’s behalf before the possible return of Donald Trump in 2024.

Other analysts I spoke with were skeptical of Putin’s strength, pointing out that none of his military options could meet his objectives. Lawrence Freedman, an emeritus war-studies professor at King’s College London, told me that Russia’s rhetoric in recent months suggested Putin is frustrated by the impasse in eastern Ukraine, unable to break it without armed force that may just make the situation worse for Russia.

Either way, what is so striking to me—apart from the monumental nature of the crime Moscow is apparently contemplating—is the extent of geopolitical positioning within Europe designed to affect not only the crisis itself, but the future shape of the continent, and the West, after Putin makes his move (or doesn’t).

The scale of Putin’s demands—to not just control Ukraine but return much of Eastern Europe to Russia’s sphere of influence—and the threat to the existing order it represents, is challenging the basic structures of the Western alliance, forcing each country within it to evaluate how their national interests are best served in the future.

In large part, the crisis is strengthening the Western alliance, not weakening it. Russia’s moves have reinvigorated the West’s principal military force, NATO. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, NATO has a real and present danger. And yet, only two years have passed since Trump was commander in chief, and no one in Europe is naive enough to think he does not stand a very good chance of resuming his presidency in 2024. The whole basis of Trump’s foreign policy, remember, was that Europe and other American allies were taking the U.S. for a ride. He even described NATO as obsolete and had no qualms about using the U.S. security guarantee as leverage in trade talks with Germany and others.

The current crisis, then, acts as a reminder of NATO’s importance, and, by extension, the importance of the American-led world, but also of its structural weakness: American public opinion. As Boris Johnson well understands, particularly today, given the very real threat to his premiership caused by his failure to abide by his own pandemic rules, the most important thing in world politics is the zeitgeist, whether or not the ideas underpinning it are sound.

And when it comes to what the West should do to revive the West, no one can agree. France’s Emmanuel Macron last week argued with a straight face that apparently now was the moment for Europe to assert its “strategic autonomy” from the U.S. To Macron, Russia’s ability to bypass Europe to talk directly with the U.S. only confirmed his belief that the continent needed to become an independent actor on the world stage. In a speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Macron said that it was time for Europe to conduct its own dialogue with Russia, to create a “new security and stability order for Europe.” This is a drum he has been banging for quite some time to little effect. He could not have picked a worse crisis within which to assert Europe’s independence from America. Piddling around in the Sahel might be possible without the U.S., but not dealing with a nuclear Russia apparently set on invading a sovereign state in Europe.

Although it is understandable that Macron would use this latest crisis to jump back on his favorite hobbyhorse, he risks looking ridiculous—less an inspired general atop a rearing Marengo than a powerless captain on a stubborn Shetland pony. With the Russian army massing on Ukraine’s borders, what possible reason would any Eastern European state have to contemplate swapping Washington for Brussels as its primary representative on security matters, particularly given that Paris and Berlin have not been the most hawkish on this issue?

The fact is, and Macron understands this, Europe has no strategic autonomy—neither in its wider form, including the U.K., nor as to the European Union. Not only does it have no way of projecting its power militarily, but it cannot properly patrol its borders or guarantee its energy supply, much of which comes from Russia. The U.S. has even made plans to bolster fuel supply to the EU should Russia retaliate against Western sanctions by cutting off fuel to the continent. But the EU’s geopolitical weakness runs deeper than its energy and security dependency: The EU does not have a Silicon Valley or a Wall Street, and remains dependent on the American financial system and Chinese trade.

Britain, meanwhile, having cut itself out of the EU, has been hyperactive in its efforts to remind allies of its continued relevance. London has released intelligence about Russian war plans, dispatched weapons to Ukraine, and made diplomatic shows of support to a range of Eastern European states. Such have been its efforts that #GodSavetheQueen was trending on Twitter in Ukraine after a planeload of arms arrived from Britain last week (flown around German airspace to avoid any diplomatic difficulties that might emerge from Berlin’s policy of not exporting weapons to conflict zones). The purpose of this effort is to maintain support for NATO as the principal organization of Western security and, by extension, to ensure that Britain cannot be ignored.

And although Britain’s hawkish policy might be dismissed by the French as being the stance of “a chest-banging gorilla who will not charge,” chest banging is not without its merits for Britain. No one in the U.K. government is suggesting that Britain will charge, or has any intention of charging, but it is happy to be noticed. The more Britain can convince European states that it remains a serious security partner, the less likely it is to be cut out of Europe’s future security order. What would Poland or the Baltics have to gain from supporting alternative security arrangements that might challenge the supremacy of NATO, thereby weakening both British and American commitment to European security?

And yet for Britain, the fact remains that it must work harder to maintain its influence because it is, as of January 31, 2020, outside the EU and, whatever the U.K. might secretly wish, that union will likely only grow in power as an independent actor within NATO.

Germany, meanwhile, continues its decades-long game of pretending that it isn’t really a power at all. Despite being the richest and most powerful country in Europe, it acts as though it were a kind of morally superior Switzerland, peaceful and objective. Frustrated officials I spoke with said Germany was trying to have its Western cake and eat it too, lodged firmly in NATO and the EU, and determined to withstand involvement in America’s geopolitical considerations for as long as it can to avoid contamination by any unnecessary moral or economic costs that come with being a power.

The irony is that each position taken by Europe’s big three undermines the other two. America remains Europe’s fatherly overlord, just as it was when the Balkans collapsed in the early 1990s, only this time it is an aging and slightly more bedraggled protector with enemies that appear stronger than they were. The result, in other words, is stasis, which, if you are being cynical, suits everyone in Europe just fine: America continues to pay, and no hard choices have to be faced.

The problem for Europe is that with each new crisis, Washington’s commitment to its own hegemonic world order continues to weaken, but nobody has any real idea what to replace it with.

Whatever happens next, this feels like a pivotal moment in the 21st century. The countries that make up NATO remain some of the wealthiest and most advanced societies on earth. So far, the West has united in a fairly impressive manner in the face of Russia’s aggression. Yet the fact remains that one half of the empire is overextended and the other is underextended. The pigeon and the child might not like the brutal geopolitical chess game that Putin (or, for that matter, Xi) is playing, but it’s time they sat down and relearned the rules before they are placed in checkmate.



Building democracy is not an easy task. Doing so while defending against the aggression of a neighboring country makes the job even harder. As U.S. President Joe Biden has announced a global crusade for democracy with anti-corruption as one of its pillars, Ukraine’s experience can teach the world a lesson or two.

Despite a deceptive and even pernicious feeling that the country is drowning in more corruption than ever before, the fact is that in some areas, such as transparency or monitoring of public officials’ lifestyles, Ukraine is now arguably far ahead of Western countries. As it faces huge corruption and challenges related to the rule of law, it has become the testing ground for bold and innovative solutions.

Ukraine’s corruption-related problems go back to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. When the state-planned economy collapsed, state enterprises went bankrupt and were privatized on the principle of “first come, first serve” amid lawlessness and chaos. This gave birth to oligarchy, which remains a roadblock to Ukraine’s progress.

In the 1990s, powerful businessmen took control over key sectors of the economy, such as energy and the extraction of mineral resources. In the 2000s, in order to protect the sources of their megaprofits, they started building media holdings by gradually buying up existing media assets or opening up new ones to influence public opinion in general and electoral outcomes in particular. Moreover, their media applied both carrot and stick, praising loyal politicians and giving them a platform in popular talk shows, and punishing the disloyal. Consequently, parliament passing laws benefiting certain oligarchs was quite a common practice. This created a vicious circle of oligarchy while money siphoned from the Ukrainian economy was laundered through Western financial systems.

Simultaneously, the country’s judiciary and law enforcement institutions were broken. They often carried out political orders. In cases with no political sensitivity, investigators or judges were free to take bribes and make decisions at their discretion. Millions of dollars were embezzled on public procurements annually, including in such sectors as healthcare, infrastructure, and the military. The secrecy of ownership data (such as real estate, land, and company ownership) enabled corruption schemes by providing anonymity and shielding wrongdoings.

This chance for democratization is even more precious given that it is being defended by Ukraine’s servicemen fighting every day against Russia’s ongoing military aggression.

Viktor Yanukovych, Ukrainian president from 2010-14, was notable for his pro-Russian policy, building of a kleptocratic regime, and tightening of the screws on freedom of speech and peaceful protests. His refusal to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union in November 2013 and the announcement of Ukraine’s drift toward a Russia-led customs union triggered the Revolution of Dignity, which eventually forced Yanukovych to flee in February 2014, opening a new chapter of the country’s modern history.

That same month, Russia invaded Ukraine. So this chance for democratization is even more precious given that it is being defended by Ukraine’s servicemen fighting every day against Russia’s ongoing military aggression.

Since 2014, Ukrainian civil society groups, governmental reformers, and international partners have been crafting the country’s anti-corruption architecture. Experts advocated for the adoption of a host of laws, and then monitored their implementation and sustainability. Inspired by the experiences of Romania and Georgia, anti-corruption reforms were based primarily on two pillars.

The first one foresaw opening to the public as much state-controlled information (such as registries, or information on public procurements or state spending) as possible to shrink the space for corruption. The second was based on establishing independent anti-corruption institutions from scratch to prosecute top officials.

As a result, in 2015-16 the Ukrainian government opened state databases, including real estate, vehicle, land, and company registries. Public procurement was transferred to the online system ProZorro (which means “transparent” in English), which now saves up to 10 percent of the funds budgeted for each purchase due to the site’s auction approach, transparency, and competitiveness.

Since 2016, around one million public servants have submitted asset declarations to the electronic declaration system annually. They must report their and their family members’ incomes, assets, real estate, valuable property, corporate rights, beneficial ownership of companies, bank accounts, art, fur coats—and even hard cash stocked in closets or deposit boxes. If there’s a gross discrepancy between their lifestyles and income, they will face administrative or criminal sanctions.

These measures significantly empowered civil society experts and investigative journalists to reveal and expose corruption, thus elevating the risk for corrupt officials, who are sensitive to any public exposure of their wrongdoings. Also, these measures contributed to the country’s business climate, particularly via better protection of property rights.

This radical openness gave birth to more anti-kleptocracy projects driven by civil society, such as a public national database of politically exposed persons—individuals who hold “prominent public function”—and their family members and close associates. These people include the president, ministers, members of parliament, top judges, and executives of state enterprises.

According to international anti-money laundering standards, the transactions of such figures should be monitored more scrupulously, and explanations should be provided for the origins of funds. Previously, in order to avoid this monitoring, politically exposed persons deliberately failed to report their status to financial institutions. Now, the database includes profiles of over 48,000 top officials and their associates and dossiers on more than 30,000 affiliated legal entities. Ukrainian and international financial institutions, as well as law enforcement agencies, are using this information for due diligence measures and to investigate suspicious transactions.

Due to increased transparency and the work of new institutions, civil society, and journalists, more corruption is now revealed, reported, and investigated in Ukraine.

New criminal justice institutions have also been built in Ukraine, with a focus on hiring honest managers and staff who will then fight against high-profile corruption. Launched in 2015, the law enforcement body National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) has already made enemies by sending 325 indictments to court. After going after top officials, including the then-incumbent head of tax administration, and looking into complicated cases such as the unprecedented $5.5 billion bank robbery scheme, NABU has proven itself capable and politically independent.

Due to increased transparency and the work of new institutions, civil society, and journalists, more corruption is now revealed, reported, and investigated in Ukraine. But real accountability is yet to come. The reality is that Ukraine still needs holistic reform to clean the courts of corrupt judges and finally enshrine the rule of law.

NABU is working hard, but it has won only a few dozen cases so far. The independent High Anti-Corruption Court, established with the help of a panel of foreign experts who scrutinized all candidates and greenlighted only those judges who met integrity criteria, became operational in late 2019.

Before it, criminal proceedings had been sent to ordinary courts, where they were successfully buried due to either corruption, a busy docket, lack of professionalism, or even the fear of standing up to powerful people. As the work of the High Anti-Corruption Court is gathering pace, more verdicts in headline cases such as the former tax administration chief are expected soon.

Nevertheless, Ukraine’s unreformed courts are still a threat. Key institutions, which make decisions on the hiring and firing of judges and disciplinary cases against them, were expected to dismiss corrupt judges but failed in this task. In reality, they protect crooks and punish whistleblowers. The solution to this problem is reforming judicial governance bodies with the engagement of international partners, a move that the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s judicial watchdog, has blessed. This reform is now underway in Kyiv.

Despite the exposure and closing of a number of corruption schemes, including those masterminded by oligarchs, the biggest fight against the oligarchy in Ukraine is yet to come. A key institution that is expected to tackle monopolies and oversee market relations, the Anti-Monopoly Committee, does not have the teeth to stand up to oligarchs due to the lack of independence and resources.

Based on Ukraine’s previous practices, the agency should be reformed with its leadership selected through transparent, integrity-centered competition. It is also important to introduce the necessary safeguards to make groundless, abrupt dismissal of its leadership impossible.

Ukraine’s anti-corruption efforts offer a set of important lessons to transitional democracies seeking to overcome similar challenges—democracies such as Moldova, or other countries across the world where the window of opportunity might open suddenly after the power shift. The White House recently announced the establishment of an anti-corruption rapid response fund aimed at helping “new democratic and reform-minded regimes.”

In Ukraine, we have learned that overwhelming transparency is instrumental for corruption prevention, but accountability should follow promptly. If new institutions are established, necessary safeguards for their independence must be secured. In the case of Ukraine, these were integrity-based selections with foreign experts playing a crucial role in the decision making. Engagement of outsiders proved instrumental, as self-governance bodies or political appointees are often too tied to corrupt elites.

Comprehensive judicial reform should not be delayed, as other reforms cannot be sustained for long without the rule of law. And an efficient antitrust ecosystem is an instrument to eliminate the sources of ill-gotten gains for oligarchs and therefore limit their undue influence over policymaking.

Putin now threatens a large-scale invasion because Ukraine is successfully undergoing comprehensive domestic transformation and has the potential to trigger similar democratic reforms in Russia.

Despite the challenges Ukraine faces, it is a real electoral democracy that has experienced a peaceful transition of power and has genuine political competition, and it is closer than ever before to becoming a role model of successful democracy in action.

This is exactly what Russian President Vladimir Putin’s autocratic regime fears. Having tried to undermine Ukraine through military and hybrid aggression, Putin now threatens a large-scale invasion to destroy the country—not only because it is successfully undergoing comprehensive domestic transformation but, more importantly, because it has the potential to trigger similar democratic reforms in Russia.

If the West is serious about defending democracy, Ukraine is the right place to prove its words with deeds. Right now, Ukraine’s democracy is facing an existential threat from Russia. The biggest support the West could give to sustain domestic reform achievements would be helping the country hold its ground against external aggression.

This could be done by delivering more weapons to Ukraine and imposing harsh economic and political sanctions against the Kremlin before it makes further moves against Ukraine, and targeting Russia’s strategic corruption—a tool it uses to reach its geopolitical goals—by putting personal sanctions on oligarchs from Putin’s inner circle and their family members.

Modern Ukraine is a battlefield of the future against the past, democracy against autocracy. Losing Ukraine will mean losing the global war for democracy.

Tom McTague is a London-based staff writer at The Atlantic, and co-author of Betting the House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.

Daria Kaleniuk is the executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Ukraine. Twitter: @dkaleniuk

Olena Halushka is a board member at the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Ukraine. Twitter: @OlenaHalushka