What are the biggest problems in Ukraine?

Domestic conflicts

Oleksiy Semeniy

Dr. Oleksiy Semeniy (1978) has been Director of the Institute for Global Transformations (Kiev) since January 2013. Stations in his professional career included positions in the Department for Foreign Policy in the Presidential Office of Ukraine, employee in the legal department of one of the largest financial and industrial groups in Ukraine, associated expert in the International Center for Policy Studies (Kiev) and deputy director of the Foundation "Uniform World "(Kiev). He is a member of the Younger Generation Leaders Network on Euro-Atlantic Security, EASI Next Generation project (organized by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) and was a member of the Transnistria Task Force (2011-13). His expertise relates to the following topics: international politics and geopolitics; Foreign and Security Policy of Ukraine; Foreign, domestic and security policy of Germany, USA, Russia and China; Energy policy; European integration and development of the EU; new types of threats and challenges.

Years before the Ukraine crisis, tensions between Russia and the West had intensified. Nevertheless, another development would have been possible, believes Oleksiy Semeniy. However, this was prevented by misjudgments and the not particularly far-sighted policies of the main actors Ukraine, Russia, the EU and the USA.

Oleksiy Semeniy (& copy Oleksiy Semeniy)
The decisions and developments that led to the Ukraine crisis can be divided into four complexes: (1) the mistakes of the old Ukrainian government under President Yanukovych; (2) the miscalculations of the Moscow leadership and the confrontational dynamics in Russia; (3) the inadequate analysis in Brussels and the EU's overconfidence; (4) US reluctance and failure to draw a clear "red line" towards Moscow.

The mistakes of the old and new Ukrainian governments

The main cause of the Ukraine crisis were cardinal errors of the government under President Yanukovych (2010-14) in domestic and economic policy. Yanukovych was Prime Minister of Ukraine from 2002 to 2004 and from 2006 to 2007. In addition, there was the mismanagement in favor of its own interests as well as the favor of a growing influence of Russia far beyond the critical border, especially on the security and military sector of Ukraine. Overall, by the end of 2013, his government had maneuvered the country and the state to the brink of disaster.

In 2014, the new leadership under President Poroshenko and Prime Minister Yatsenyuk had a difficult legacy. Unfortunately, however, it has not infrequently shown a lack of professionalism and in some cases has not shown the necessary political will to act primarily in the interests of the state and society and not in its own interests [1]. In addition, the new team has either ignored or isolated competing elite groups [2] and has not exactly promoted inclusiveness within society.

Ukraine's weakness has further encouraged Russia to aggression. According to the information available to the Russian secret services, Moscow apparently did not expect much resistance. This expectation initially seemed to be confirmed by the annexation of Crimea in February and March 2014.

Russian miscalculations and confrontational internal dynamics

In its attempt to take the conflict to eastern Ukraine, Russia has clearly underestimated the country's resolve and ability to resist and the will of a significant majority of the population to fight for their country. Targeted measures in recent years to weaken the neighboring country [3] did not have the intended effect. The expectations regarding support for Russian politics, some of which were also aroused by certain circles in Ukraine [4], turned out to be far exaggerated. The calculation that more or less all Russian-speaking Ukrainians would naturally support Russia did not work out. [5]

One must be aware that the causes of Russian politics are of a long-term nature. It is primarily a response to feelings of "humiliation" by Western policies in the 1990s. The Russian willingness to cooperate at the time was not reciprocated, but rather "exploited" [6]. Russia sees itself today as a fortress "surrounded by the West and NATO". Contrary to promises to the contrary, the West has expanded its security structures towards the East. From the perspective of the Russian government, this perception is shared by the majority of Russians - be it the people on the street or the politically responsible in the corridors of power. [7] Against the background of this experience, it is believed that Russia needs to position itself much stronger and more resolutely geopolitically and militarily today in order to force the West into a dialogue between equal partners.

Furthermore, as a neighboring country with close ties to Russia, Ukraine plays a key role in the geopolitical reorientation of the leading Russian elites. This prominent role is conditioned by objective and subjective factors. Objective factors include the large number of networks between Ukraine and Russia at many levels (economy, energy, military, society and families, etc.) that have remained alive since Soviet times. In addition, there has recently been the increasingly open articulation of Russia's claim to its own sphere of influence, which it is also prepared to "defend" with violence. [8] This is the background to the prevailing assessment of the Ukrainian events in the winter of 2013/14 in Russia. Fearing the "total loss of Ukraine", Moscow was forced to act quickly, decisively and brutally, according to the perception.

But the ultimate decisive reason why the Kremlin has changed its foreign policy course so dramatically towards the West lies in Russian domestic policy. There, the tendency to circumcise and deform democracy and the rule of law has become increasingly evident since the 1990s. The West is suspected of supporting the liberal political opposition and critical civil society. Fear of "colored revolutions" in their own country and in neighboring states is rampant among the Russian ruling class.

In order to prevent this development, the West should have dealt with the domestic political change of direction in Russia much earlier and had to be more sensitive to the relevant signs and warnings and to react to them.

Insufficient situation analysis by Brussels and the EU's overestimation of itself

When the European Union categorically rejected the option of trilateral talks on the free trade agreement with Ukraine (DCFTA) [9] until February 2014 [10], although there had been corresponding proposals from both Moscow and Kiev in 2013 [11], it was clear probably not aware in Brussels [12] that this stance would impose an insurmountable balancing act on Ukraine and provide Russia with an excuse to escalate the conflict. Brussels has apparently underestimated the sensitivity of the Russian leadership to certain issues and actions as well as their willingness to disregard the principles and taboos of European politics. [13]

In addition, the EU was under illusions about the domestic political and economic development in Ukraine and the possibilities of reforming the country quickly. [14] For its part, the EU has overestimated its own capacity to contain or control the crisis. This is particularly true with regard to their influence on Russia and the possibilities of reaching and enforcing binding agreements with Moscow. A particularly critical momentum for the Russian escalation was the non-compliance with the agreement on the settlement of the crisis of February 21, 2014 between Yanukovych and the then opposition leader [15] by the foreign ministers of Germany and Poland as well as a representative of the French foreign ministry was guaranteed. [16]

The Russian leadership viewed the new Ukrainian government's failure to comply with the agreement as a breach of word by the EU. She saw confirmation of her suspicions that the Maidan movement was inspired and directed by the West. Their conclusion: Agreements made with the West are not valid; the only thing that matters are hard facts in the political dispute. The agreement was the last chance to somehow stop the Russian annexation of Crimea and the interference in Donbass and thus prevent the Ukraine crisis.

US reluctance and failure to draw clear red lines

Perhaps both the US and the EU could have shown more sensitivity to the officially and unofficially declared Russian concerns. On the other hand, one shouldn't overestimate the capacities of the West either. The politics of the USA and the EU states are subject to their own strong limitations - be it with regard to sensitive domestic issues or relations with other states. The best strategy would have been a "smart power policy", i.e. a combination of all available political, economic, symbolic and social instruments in order to have a positive influence on Russia. But the cardinal question remains unanswered: Was and is the West really ready to integrate Russia into its own community of values ​​and economic communities, or was it aware from the start that a partnership could at best come about?

From the standpoint of its own interests and priorities, the United States has, by and large, acted prudently during the crisis. The only problem is that the other three sides expected a different policy from Washington! The USA was only actively involved at the beginning of the crisis [17], after which it was largely limited to steps behind the scenes or activities to consolidate the West against Russia. You have to be aware that the Ukraine and Eastern Europe issues were never on the Obama administration's list of priorities - and for good reasons.The US needs to focus much more on the Pacific and the Middle East. There is a significant difference here in terms of interests and assessments on both sides of the Atlantic.

There were also personal factors that explain why Obama kept his distance from the Ukraine crisis. First and foremost are the bad relations and mistrust between Obama and Putin, as well as the not particularly positive first impressions that Obama had gained as a US Senator in 2005 during a trip to Ukraine. [18] At the same time, Washington underestimated or even ignored Russia's willingness to confront and its reaction and possibilities with regard to Ukraine. [19] The US did not seem to see any direct threat in this. But this definitely sent the wrong signal to Moscow. Even more: Due to the Russian understanding of the applicable "rules of the game", this probably even provoked an additional escalation. The Kremlin was and is convinced that the great powers on the world stage do not have to abide by all the rules that apply to other states.

Russia would probably have acted differently if the US had clearly communicated in advance where the "red lines" run in relation to the region and what counter-actions the US might undertake. Had they known in Kiev and in other European capitals how limited America's willingness to provide active solidarity, support and, if necessary, military interference is, they would most likely have acted differently. Perhaps the insight into the need to take on more personal responsibility and show more determination would have been greater.


As a conclusion from the course of the Ukraine crisis, reference must also be made to the lack of trust between Russia and the West - it has been eroding for years - as well as the lack of real exchange on the creation of a sustainable security architecture in Europe. A central component would be a common understanding of the political, international law and security status of those states that are neither part of the Russian sphere of influence nor of NATO and the EU. These so-called "states in-between" are in an uncomfortable position between the two power blocks without any real security guarantees.

In order to avoid dramatic developments like the Ukraine crisis in the future, one has to start dealing with these difficult questions instead of pushing them aside again and again. The principle should apply here to concentrate on what is possible and on positive developments and not always to react immediately in a confrontational manner. One option would be for NATO and the EU to reach a strategic agreement with Russia on the independent and autonomous status of these "states in between". As a first step, this could include an agreement on the modalities of economic cooperation between the European Union and the Eurasian Union. A clear and credible definition of the "red lines" by the West, which Russia must not cross under any circumstances, would also be conceivable. Unfortunately, both have been neglected so far.


Agreement on Settlement of Crisis in Ukraine as of 21st of February 2014.

Geneva Statement of April 17, 2014 agreed by the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Russia, USA, Ukraine and the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

Joint Declaration of the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius, November 28-29, 2013

Joint Declaration of the Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga, 21-22. May 2015

The National Security Strategy of Ukraine, approved by the Decree of the President of Ukraine as of 26th of May 2015.

Russian National Security Strategy, December 2015.

A Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy

Stewart, Susan (2016): The resignation of the Ukrainian Prime Minister does not bring about a push for reform.

Stewart, Susan (2016): Today's Ukraine and the Rule of Law. SWP News, January 2016.

Stewart, Susan (2016): A change in political culture is crucial for the reform process in Ukraine.