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News Analysis: How Best To Help Ukraine Is The $50 Billion Question

  • Robert Coalson

A beggar asks for alms near a torn poster depicting a Ukrainian 200-hryvnya banknote in Kyiv. Economists disagree on the best way to help Ukraine tackle its escalating economic crisis.

A beggar asks for alms near a torn poster depicting a Ukrainian 200-hryvnya banknote in Kyiv. Economists disagree on the best way to help Ukraine tackle its escalating economic crisis.

The one thing it seems that everyone can agree on is that Ukraine is in a lot of trouble.

Economic output is expected to decline by 10 percent in 2015, public debt will rise to 100 percent of GDP, and the currency has been devalued by over 60 percent.

The problem is what to do about it. Can a weary Europe muster the unity and political will necessary for a massive Ukraine bailout? And, even more importantly, can Kyiv attain a level of good governance that has never been achieved in post-Soviet Ukraine?

Getting the answers right will be crucial not just for Ukraine, but for all of Europe. A successful Ukraine would serve as a powerful rebuke to Russia, which has annexed Crimea and staged a bloody proxy war in the country's east to prevent it from moving closer to the European Union.

A New Marshall Plan?

In recent piece in The New York Review Of Books, financier and philanthropist George Soros made the case for a comprehensive international assistance "package of $50 billion or more."

"Instead of scraping together the minimum, the official lenders would hold out the promise of the maximum," Soros wrote. "That would be a game-changer."

Soros argued that the West's stingy policies on assistance so far have "kept Ukraine on a short leash and the [Prime Minister] Arseniy Yatsenyuk government did not dare to embark on radical structural reforms."

Daniel Bilak, managing partner of an international law firm in Kyiv and a former adviser to the Justice Ministry, has also endorsed the idea of an aid package to Ukraine that is on a par with the Marshall Plan, the huge U.S. assistance program that helped Europe's economies recover after World War II.

"We have massive structural and institutional issues that we've got to deal with and it is going to take years," Bilak says. "But I think that the bona fides of this government have been shown by the new budget they just passed, by some of the reforms that they've already implemented, and by the ones that are on the table. To wait for a fully reformed Ukraine means that this country will collapse."

Others advocating a Marshall Plan-style bailout include Anders Aslund, an economist with the Peterson Institute in Washington, and Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius.

Aslund argues that Ukraine needs a "Marshall Plan" in the form of both credits and "ample grants," while Kubilius has proposed that the EU devote 3 percent of its budget over the next six years -- $30 billion -- to Ukraine grants.

However, not everybody agrees that such a plan is possible -- or even the best way for Ukraine to overcome its current crisis. Russian financial journalist Leonid Bershidsky, a columnist for Bloomberg News, has argued that the new Ukrainian government has "dragged its feet on reform and taken a gradualist approach to urgently needed change."

"Carpet-bombing Ukraine with money for ideological and geopolitical reasons, as Soros seems to suggest, would create enormous moral hazard for [Ukraine's] politicians and bureaucrats," Bershidsky wrote

Geopolitics Vs. Economics

Proponents of massive aid to Ukraine do indeed proceed, at least partly, from geopolitical arguments. Aslund wrote that "the West will have to come together to stop [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and they should do so now in Ukraine."

Lawyer Bilak speaks in similar terms. "Europe, I think, is starting to wake up, but it really needs to wake up to the fact that this is a struggle and a conflict between Russia and the West, not between Russia and Ukraine," he says. "We are on the front line of Russia's war with Europe. And the sooner everybody starts to talk in those terms -- perhaps, we can have a more sensible policy discussion."

The problem with such an approach, argues Balazs Jarabik, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is that it is not based "on the economic merits of bailing out Ukraine."

Russian aggression against Ukraine, he says, "does not relieve the Ukrainian government of the responsibility" for reforms.

One's position on a Marshall Plan depends to a considerable extent on the view one takes of Ukraine's current government and its commitment to reform. Like Bershidsky, Jarabik is skeptical about what he has seen from Kyiv so far. He has written that "Kyiv to date has mostly only muddled through."

"The oligarchs are still ruling the game and framing the game," he told RFE/RL, noting that President Petro Poroshenko is himself an oligarch and that Prime Minister Yatsenyuk has been connected with oligarchic interests.

"Soros is saying that the government has a commitment to reform and that is partly true," Jarabik says. "The presidential administration seems to be the most motivated and the real force for reforms, but the presidential administration is facing the other power centers. Most particularly, the prime minister and the government might be committed on paper, but I'm not sure they are technically capable."

He argues that the austerity budget the government has adopted for 2015 actually increased state involvement in the economy -- albeit largely through boosted military spending prompted by the conflict in the east -- and that it protects the interests of oligarchs.

"The government is trying to outsource the costs [of austerity] to ordinary citizens and small and medium Ukrainian businesses -- and not [to] the big businesses or foreigners, because of the bailout," he says.

People Power

Advocates of a major aid push are encouraged by what Kyiv has done so far and stress that assistance will be given in increments and tied to real reforms. Aslund says the key areas of reform are anticorruption, fiscal tightening, and deregulation.

"Ukraine has now so many more resources -- it has a lot of well-educated people. It has strong international links. It has the European Association Agreement. It has good policymakers. It has had two important democratic elections in the last year," Aslund says. "There are so many preconditions for getting something done now that haven't existed before."

Likewise, Bilak, argues that there has been "a wholesale institutional and systemic approach" to reforms by the Kyiv authorities that is driven from the bottom up. "The big game-changer here has been the people," he says.

"I think that frustration with the slow pace of reforms -- if that's what is going to happen -- is going to lead to a change in government," Bilak says. "If these guys can't do the job, then somebody else will -- I think that is the general sentiment here."

A big question mark in this debate is the role of Russia, which still has considerable levers of influence among Ukraine's economic, political, and security elites.

Bilak says that Russia's leverage in Ukraine increased massively under former President Viktor Yanukovych "with the full connivance of the Ukrainian government."

"Reversing that is a matter of policy," he argues. "You can do it."

Aslund, for his part, stresses that any serious anticorruption program in Ukraine will already dramatically reduce Russia's leverage and that this is a key argument in favor of aggressive assistance.

"If we look at what has happened in the gas sphere, it is obvious that Russia has used the gas trade to corrupt the Ukrainian elite, to buy the Ukrainian elite," Aslund says.

"And the best way of dealing with the Russian problem economically is to minimize the [interaction]."

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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to