Ukraine Takes a Breath As Putin Briefly Looks to Syria

Perhaps the only thing one might favorably say of being invaded by Russia these days is that the great bear can no longer walk and chew gum at the same time so well as it once did. So it is that Kyiv is taking a much-needed breather. While some are suggesting that this is the perfect time to tackle endemic corruption, that’s more a matter of Western wishful thinking than a realistic assessment of Ukraine’s environment.

This is very simple: Ukraine is facing a ruthless, well-armed, strategically and tactically clever opponent who is too smart to engage in a classic war for territory. Instead, Vladimir Putin wants Kyiv to live in constant fear of even more of (what’s left of) the country’s industrial heartland disappearing overnight, and knows that as long as his infantry and special operators remain plausibly hidden, he can continue his game more or less indefinitely. He is currently gearing up similar operations throughout Eastern Europe, and the Balkans look like the next likely target. Just days ago, an ammunition depot was demolished in a terror attack, a likely asymmetric warfare tactic courtesy of Moscow.

The question is not whether Ukraine faces endemic corruption. Much as Western media try to pretend that corruption only came with the prior presidential administration and disappeared after, corruption has been a plague at every level of Ukrainian society for decades, back into the Soviet days. You cannot even send a child to a secondary school without expecting graft and frequently demands for bribes. To run a business in downtown Kyiv is to understand that sometimes police must be paid protection money, and an influential politician might decide he wants your business for one of his sponsors.

These are undeniably bad things. However, being shelled by Russian artillery is significantly worse. Now is not the time for what will ultimately be a futile quest to eliminate corruption (if it is like the last drive run by the same people now pushing it, it will simply redirect the flows of bribery). Now, today, Ukraine should be working on getting a functioning military in place; obtaining cutting-edge weaponry from the United States, Europe, or Israel; and at any rate, preparing for a nastier war once Putin returns.

Because he will; and when he does, he will be intent on reminding Kyiv that there are costs to disobedience, costs he first leveled at President Yanukovych’s defiance, and then escalated. He will escalate again, and a quixotic quest to end corruption will not aid that.

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