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May 16, 2014 | Commentary

Among the pressing security concerns of the day (Nigeria, Syria, Afghanistan, and the South China Sea stand out most prominently), Ukraine continues to dominate discussions across the North Atlantic. This attention is due in large part to concerns over a resurgent Russia and the unease over what Russia’s latest actions might spell for other East European states with large ethnic Russian populations. As relevant as these concerns are, however, equally important are the opportunities for change within Ukraine itself. In other words, with continuous Russian pressure and Ukraine’s internal problems in its east, what institutional changes might be possible within the Ukrainian government, and within the security apparatus more specifically?

My intent is not to focus on current events, but instead on the opportunities that might arise in the aftermath of the Yanukovych regime’s removal and Russia’s abrupt annexation of Crimea. Unlike other political changes, the chronic threat from abroad and within Ukraine itself forces acute attention to institutional changes in the Ukrainian military and the country’s civil-military relationship. What does the shock from Russian annexation present to Ukraine and the international community?

That shocks create “critical junctures” where policymakers can effect institutional change is broadly accepted, with roots in economic theory and established credentials in political science and other social sciences. However, convincingly, shocks can only go so far in promoting changes, facing institutional inertia and path dependence. (Think of the glacial and superficial changes within many countries in the wake of the 2008 global financial crises.) Simply put, real and lasting change is achieved far more rarely than is commonly thought. Shocks can create the necessary, but insufficient, conditions for institutional change, but lasting change can only come from thoughtful institutional design followed by sustained commitment.

As such, this is an excellent time for domestic reformers and others interested in the democratic project in Ukraine. Whereas theory warns us that changes provide the opportunity, this window of opportunity is ephemeral. However, I believe that the current circumstance facing in Ukraine is sui generis, where internal political change prompted strong-arm annexation of territory and now threats of annexation of other regions as well. This has created a concurrent and unique opportunity for lasting political change. What does this mean for durable and effective change in Ukraine’s security architecture?

Within the Security Structure: Ukrainian scholars and practitioners have enumerated some of the major concerns within the security sector, from doctrinal malaise to corruption and acquisition concerns. Though not a tabula rasa, Ukraine’s military and police forces have an opportunity to enact significant reforms doctrinally, structurally, in personnel matters, and in procurement.

A key initiative is the re-creation of a National Guard, based not on the US force of the same name (which is predicated on state-by-state participation, unique to the US’s federal system), but rather something akin to the French gendarmerie, the paramilitary body. Ukraine’s new National Guard, as outlined by acting President O. Turchynov, offers the most attractive aspects of this latter approach: a professionalized body with a clean operational chain of command, loyalty to a central state, and less potential for corruption. Combined, taking a fresh look at the existing security forces as well as developing a unique paramilitary force holds promise for setting Ukraine toward a healthy security sector dynamic.

Security Governance: Ukraine’s military cannot and should not make decisions on its own, but rather in concert with elected officials, knowledgeable civil servants, and members of the international community. Ukraine does enjoy a viable civil-military dynamic, in the sense that there is widespread domestic recognition on the need for a well-functioning and professionalized service. However, in addition to malaise within the Ukrainian security sector (due in large part to the years of official malfeasance and neglect), Ukraine still lacks a large body of non-military professionals who can provide oversight and assistance to ensure governance of the security sector consistent with established democratic states. This should be a clear priority for Ukraine.

Internationally: Ukraine’s desire (at least for a large segment of the country), to integrate further with the West creates a positive environment for international assistance. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) clearly has a role, especially promoting the ties already established through its decades-long Partnership for Peace program, as well as bilateral military relations, such as Ukraine’s recent partnering with the California’s National Guard. Most important, investments made in security governance will likely yield a positive return. As Ukraine strives to make lasting institutional change, in spite of its comparative lack of security governance capacity, the international community can play an oversized role in promoting principles of democratic oversight and involvement.

This unique dynamic in Ukraine must be considered for what it is: fraught with pitfalls but, paradoxically, potentially beneficial as well. Whereas the shocks of the past months might have created space for institutional reforms, the tendency toward path dependence creates tremendous hurdles against change. Any changes within the Ukrainian security sector and civil-military dynamic more broadly are likely to be incremental. After all, Ukraine’s military policies and structures still reflect Cold War antecedents and the Soviet-style of force structure and manning.  This current environment, this juncture, requires mainly domestic attention, as the decisions that domestic leaders make in the coming months are the primary drivers for lasting change. This leaves open an opportunity for outsiders: NATO, and the greater European, transatlantic, and international epistemic communities.

I recognize that a “glass half full” spirit runs throughout this post. But much of what has happened and what will happen is predicated on actions outside of Ukraine’s control. As events in the country’s east and actions from the international community continue to evolve, Ukraine might very well have its future dictated in unforeseen (and less fortuitous) ways.


Joe Derdzinski is a Senior Associate at the Security Governance Group, and a Visiting Associate Professor of Political Science at Colorado College.