Time to rethink assistance to Ukraine and the former Soviet space

The U.S. needs to go big with an economic aid package for Ukraine and the post-Soviet space. We need to massively increase assistance and attention to the former Eastern bloc. Ukraine is going to need a lot of help. We also need to recommit to many other countries diplomatically and economically.

Our existing approach to these post-communist transitions was built on the assumption that if the West invests a small amount of money combined with EU and NATO membership and globalization, countries will develop and follow that gravitational pull. In some places, our assistance supported big successes such as in the three Baltic States. In other places, the culture of democracy was fragile and never deeply embraced, such as in Belarus. Places like Moldova have been under Russian influence since the 19th century — their experience and understanding on how to manage democracy is different than in the U.S. and the West.

We needed a Marshall Plan after the fall of the Berlin Wall; instead, the United States and the West implemented half measures.

The Biden administration’s moves for major new support to Ukraine is a step in the right direction. Already there are leaders in Congress expecting a bigger request of $10 billion or more. Given the dire circumstances, we agree that Ukraine is going to merit something like that level of assistance.

Importantly, we must not forget the needs of neighbors and others threatened on Russia’s borders. Putin has a long track record of incursions (e.g. Transdniestria and South Ossetia, among others).

What should such a package include?

First, we need to spend money on relief for the internally displaced people in Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees.

Second, we should spend money to ensure the legitimate state of Ukraine can function. 

Third, we should spend more to ensure that Ukraine and its neighbors shift the electrical grid more fully away from Russia. Ukraine and its neighbors need a mix of energy sources — renewables as well as gas and oil — that comes from somewhere other than Russia.

Fourth, given past weaknesses, backsliding and corruption, the U.S. needs to spend more aid on democracy, human rights and governance.

Fifth, we ought to ensure that every country in the post-Soviet space can receive high-quality COVID vaccines — and has health systems to deliver them and sustain improvements in overall quality of care.

Sixth, the digital divide exposed and exacerbated in COVID is going to get closed everywhere, whether in Moldova, Armenia or Kazakhstan. Either Huawei will close this new digital divide, or “someone else” will close it. We should spend foreign aid and use other soft power tools to help ensure that it’s “someone else.” We do not want the “digital rails” of the future in the post-Soviet space controlled by Huawei and the People’s Republic of China.

Finally, much of Ukraine’s commerce is still with Russia. This is a major weakness. Ukraine has been trying to carry out an economic, political and (to some extent) cultural divorce since 2004. Our assistance should help Ukraine shift its commercial ties away from Russia once and for all.

Often overlooked, the Balkans and the South Caucasus are in desperate need of U.S. diplomatic and development engagement at a far higher level. The conflicts and chaos in these troubled regions are at a low boil, but Putin could turn up the heat and provoke further discord.  

We should take emergency action to protect Moldova and Georgia. Deeper ties for these two countries with the EU and NATO should be on the table. 

The U.S. should also find ways to support civil society and human rights in Russia. Our policy should not be “regime change” in the Kremlin. Our policy should be to deepen people-to-people ties with Russia, where we can and help give voice to the millions of Russians who wish a better future based on openness and fundamental freedoms. Our conflict is with Vladimir Putin not with the people of Russia.

Now we are suffering the consequences of our shortsightedness. Ukraine has long struggled to defend itself adequately and to build up its own strong institutions — in part because we thought our interests were elsewhere.

Of course, we have spent billions on helping these various nations, bringing them closer to the western fold wherever we could. But those billions pale in comparison to the Marshall Plan — over $100 billion in today’s dollars — that rebuilt Western Europe. The billions spent since the end of the Cold War were never enough to truly secure peace, stability and integration.

As General Jim Mattis once quipped at a Congressional hearing, if funding for civilian diplomacy and development gets cut, “then I need to buy more ammunition.”

Given the crisis in Ukraine, we need to rethink our assistance. We need to support Ukraine now, learn from our past mistakes, and pay more attention to this region going forward. 

Originally published on thehill.com on March 1, 2022.

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