The crisis over Ukraine is quickly becoming a geostrategic conflict. As Vladimir Putin maneuvers to restore Russia’s right to behave with a superpower’s impunity, particularly in its own backyard, the West pushes back. But economic forces also have shaped this confrontation, especially Ukraine’s record as the world’s worst-performing industrial economy over the last twenty years. It was popular discontent with this disastrous performance that drove the recent dissent, which in turn triggered such a bloody response from Viktor Yanukovych — and that response consolidated the opposition and cost Yanukovych his job. Beyond this week’s political and military maneuvers, the outstanding question is, who will bail out the Ukrainian economy — Russia, or the EU and the United States — as the price of drawing the country into its trading system?
Stated simply, Ukraine is the economic equivalent of a failed state. After gaining independence in 1991, the country moved briefly to liberalize its economy along the same lines as most of Eastern and Central Europe. But Ukraine soon jettisoned its reforms in favor of the state-oligarch model also evolving in Russia. Some twenty years later, Ukraine’s GDP has shrunk 30 percent. Even Russia’s sorry economy is 20 percent bigger than it was in 1991 — and Poland’s economy, which looked much like Ukraine’s in 1991, grew 130 percent over the same period. Ukraine’s economic performance has been so terrible, for so long, that its sovereign debts are now considered the equivalent of junk bonds. Even before the crisis, Ukraine’s credit rating was worse than Greece’s — no small feat — and no better than that of Argentina, a global financial pariah for its mismanaged debt defaults and summary expropriations of foreign-owned companies.
Ukraine’s debts soon come due, with some $15 billion in sovereign bonds maturing this year and another $15 billion in 2015. With a current account deficit equal to 8 percent of its GDP, Ukraine cannot pay off and refinance those debts without large-scale aid — some $20 billion to $25 billion — and affiliating itself with a larger trading system. An economic and trade alliance with Russia would deliver the bailout, but with little prospects of improving the underlying economy. The EU and the United States (through the IMF) also are prepared to provide the bailout, if the Ukrainian government will accept far-reaching economic reforms. The EU-US/IMF reforms should lead to better economic times down the road. But they also would mean more short-term hardships for ordinary Ukrainians. That’s why Yanukovych sided with Putin: He feared that he could lose his grip on power if times got even worse — and yet, of course, he lost power anyway.
With a new, pro-Western government in charge in Kiev, Ukraine’s fate may well lie in the hands of Europe and the United States. Their choice is simple to state, if difficult to execute — namely, do they put sufficient economic and diplomatic pressure on Putin, to convince him to pocket his own bailout and let the West pick up the pieces?