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  • UAinFocus

Ukraine has been fighting heroically on multiple fronts, but many allies are losing their resolve.




Erik Herron is the Eberly Family Distinguished Professor of Political Science at West Virginia University. From 2001-14, he was on faculty at the University of Kansas where he served as Director of the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies (2004-07), Director of Graduate Studies (2010-11), Academic Advisor to the Dole Institute (2011), and Associate Department Chair (2012-14). He also served as a Program Director (2011-2014) and Intermittent Expert (2017-2018) at the National Science Foundation. His research focuses on political institutions, especially electoral systems. He has traveled extensively in Eastern Europe and Eurasia, including a term as a Fulbright scholar in Ukraine and 15 election observation missions. He has published research in the American Journal of Political Science, Journal of Politics, World Politics, Comparative Political Studies, Electoral Studies, and other journals, and four books: Mixed Electoral Systems: Contamination and its Consequences (with Federico Ferrara and Misa Nishikawa), Elections and Democracy after Communism, The Oxford Handbook of Electoral Systems (with Robert Pekkanen and Matthew Shugart), and Normalizing Corruption: Failures of Accountability in Ukraine.


Recently, you published an article in the War on Rocks about “Rebuilding Ukraine’s Economy Starts Now”. Could you touch upon its key messages and importance for Ukraine?


Ukraine is fighting a war for its survival on multiple fronts. The most obvious one is the battlefield, where Ukraine’s armed forces have heroically defended the country not just for two years but since the initial phase of the invasion in 2014. The fight to preserve Ukrainian culture is another front, and there has been a robust mobilization to document and protect physical and intellectual treasures. We could also talk about defending democratic institutions and values as a front in the war. Ukrainians are confronting the challenges of maintaining democratic practices while the country is under constant assault from a hostile enemy that wants to destroy its democratic system. Efforts to rally Ukrainian society – and also the world community – to continue the effort is yet another front.

Our War on the Rocks piece speaks to a crucial building block for all of the defense efforts on every front: how to convert human potential into productive output that can financially sustain the people of Ukraine. Many years ago, people thought of Eastern Ukraine as the engine of economic growth and activity, but we document how this has been changing. The war has accelerated these changes and created new challenges. How do you rebuild Ukraine after the war to ensure the security of people and productive potential, but also ensure that people all over the country have access to employment opportunities? While this is a question for Ukrainians to answer, it is an issue that should not wait until the end of hostilities. It is also an area of support that Ukraine’s allies should emphasize along with military aid. Weapons and ammunition are needed on the frontlines, but all of the frontlines need supplies.


What is your view on the latest developments in Ukraine?


As we approach the two-year anniversary of the full-scale invasion, I remain in awe of the Ukrainian people’s resolve. It was discouraging to see fewer battlefield successes than we hoped for over the last few months, but it’s important not to lose sight of what Ukraine has accomplished. If we had asked commentators and experts in February 2022 what the situation would look like in February 2024, I doubt that most of them would have described a scenario as positive as we see now on the ground. I am not suggesting that the circumstances are desirable – Ukrainian land is occupied, and innocent people are regularly terrorized. But I suspect that the conventional wisdom would not have been that most of Ukraine would hold firm, the government would be intact, and society would be functioning at the level it is. The most discouraging trend for me has been the deterioration of support among politicians and the public in the United States and other allies.


Do you think there is a risk of Western allies pushing Ukraine to seek compromise with the Kremlin by not providing sufficient aid, etc.?


Yes, I see this as a real risk. In the United States, we see some members of the Republican House majority echoing Kremlin talking points about Ukraine and openly opposing any additional assistance. The removal of aid for Ukraine a few months ago to temporarily resolve the budget impasse was a huge mistake – and I actually yelled at my television when I heard the report. Once budget items are out, it’s hard to get them back in. I am a bit more optimistic about the REPO Act, which would transfer frozen Russian assets for Ukraine's rebuilding efforts, but it still has to get on the agenda in the House. In an election year with a divided government, the US is unlikely to lead on assistance for Ukraine. Many European governments have been more consistent in their support, like the Baltic countries, and hopefully, Europe will step up where the US has faltered.

As other crises emerge in the world, like the Israel-Hamas war in October, the greater the likelihood that allies will seek an end to hostilities that would sacrifice Ukrainian territory and the freedom of those living in those territories. It’s not that Western allies trust Russia to keep its word – it’s clear that Russia will not keep its word – but other domestic and international concerns are supplanting Ukraine as the cause to support.


How can Putin be stopped in Ukraine? What are the risks for Ukraine and the world if he succeeds?


Unfortunately, it has become clear over the last two years that the war in Ukraine is not just Putin’s war. Russian political, military, and economic elites – as well as much of the general public – support or at least accept the war. Ukraine needs ammunition and advanced weapons, and the Russian system – particularly its economic system – needs to be more effectively isolated for Russia’s war to be stopped.

It is also not just about stopping Russia in Ukraine. The Russian media amplifies the idea that the war is not only Russia against Ukraine, but it is Russia against the “West.” Russia continues to mount information operations to undermine democratic elections and governments. It continues to stoke conflict all over the world; look at the recent decision by Russian-backed governments in Mali and Burkina Faso to leave a regional security alliance as one of many examples. Russia may be militarily and economically weakened at this point, but it can still foment discord and chaos.

Ukraine is especially important because Russia is testing the world’s resolve. If Putin finds that his patience pays off – that Russians are willing to absorb losses until the West tires of supporting Ukraine – then it is an essential lesson for him and other authoritarian regimes. It would likely lead to an escalation in conflict and increased risks for the survival of democratic governments across the globe, not just from Russian aggression but aggression by other regimes that are willing to be patient and pay the price until the West loses interest.

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