Ukraine's Commitment to Values Ensures Its Independence
At the moment, Russia has lots of hard power and very little soft power, while Ukraine has lots of soft power and little hard power. Russia’s determination to exclude soft power will ultimately be suicidal. In contrast, Ukraine’s future is bright, but only if it manages to hold on to its soft power while building up its reserves of hard power.
Power is generally understood as the capacity to induce others to do your bidding. The central components of hard power—armies and economies—either coerce others to bow to your will (by force or the threat of economic sanctions) or encourage them to accept it (by the promise of economic rewards). Soft power, a fuzzy concept first developed by Harvard University’s Joseph Nye, is about your attractiveness and the attractiveness of your policy goals. Realist international relations analysts who live in a world of money and bombs don’t quite know what to do with soft power thus defined, but its utility is obvious to any other political scientist or analyst. If other countries view you as worthy of emulation, respect, and trust, you’ll need to expend far less hard power to get them to do your bidding. They’ll want to be on your side. By the same token, if other countries view your policy goals as attractive—to them, that is—you’ll also need to expend less hard power to get them to do your bidding. Once again, they’ll want to be on your side—not because they “like” you, but because they view your behavior as reassuring and your policy goals as advantageous. In a word, soft power is cheaper than hard power.
These considerations matter, both domestically and internationally, since all states have limited amounts of resources. Machiavelli suggested that it’s better for a prince to be feared then to be loved, but that may be true only if the prince is absolutely certain that he has and always will have the requisite means to induce fear and suppress rebellion. You can’t be a great power without hard power, but you can’t be a great power for long without soft power. The European Union has tons of soft power, but little hard power: it is, as a result, no great power. The United States is a superpower that recently squandered much of its soft power: it’s still a great power, but it’s clearly struggling, as the hard-power costs of remaining a great power have grown relative to its diminished soft-power reserves.
Back in 1991, Russia had lost most of its hard power, while possessing, as a new democracy committed to joining the international community, a fair amount of soft power. Under Putin, Russia’s reserves of hard power have grown considerably; its soft power probably peaked during the 2014 Winter Olympics. Since invading Ukraine, Russia’s soft power has pretty much evaporated: no one, except perhaps for North Korea, admires Russia, and no one, except perhaps for Western European neo-fascists and American leftists, shares Putin’s policy goals or is persuaded by his propaganda. For much of the world, Russia has become a rogue state.
The United States got into trouble in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though its economy and military were significantly larger than Russia’s and its soft-power attractiveness as a “beacon of democracy” and the site of the “American dream” has always been, and remains, strong. Putin’s Russia is slated for far greater trouble, possibly even collapse, especially as it’s decided to take on the entire developed world. Putin must now hope to compel compliance with a military that is no match for America’s, China’s, Britain’s, France’s, and Turkey’s and with a petro-state economy that is comparatively small and doomed to secular decline for the foreseeable future. You don’t need to be a realist geostrategist to see that this is a losing proposition. A country with relatively modest reserves of hard power such as Russia can only throw its weight around if it begins to experience phenomenal economic growth rates (which, as a corrupt petro-state, it can’t and won’t) or if it decides to build up its reserves of soft power (which Putin has precluded). Most states and most policymakers realize that Russia is acting like a bully; most also know that its chest-beating is mostly unsustainable bluster. What looks like success is just the shock felt by Europeans and Americans at the brutish stupidity of Russian policymakers.
Contrast Russia with Ukraine. Ukraine’s people elicit admiration from much of the world; their dedication to freedom and democracy and their government’s commitment to democratic procedure and human rights draw accolades from the international community. Its policy goals—independence, stability, security, integration with the West and the world—are shared by many other countries. Ukraine arguably has never had this much soft power in the 24 years of its independent existence.
Hard power is another thing. The army and economy are a mess. But the former is improving, while the latter may be on the verge of a major breakthrough if the pro-reform president, parliament, and government adopt the radical reforms they say they will adopt. The challenge before Ukraine is to pull off radical reform and still remain attractive. That means following in the footsteps of the Baltic states, Poland, and other East Central European countries. The precedent is there. The Poroshenko-Yatseniuk government need only mimic its western neighbors. But the West has an important stopgap role to play, too. The United States and the European Union—along with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank—must increase Ukraine’s reserves of hard power in the short term. And that means military assistance and financial aid, preferably of a massive kind, to enable Ukraine to make that great leap forward toward democracy, rule of law, and the market.
If Ukraine succeeds—and all indicators suggest that it will—watch its relationship with Russia change. Russia’s bullying will only dry up its hard-power reserves. Sooner or later, it’ll degenerate to the level of a North Korea—an impoverished pariah state with lots of guns and bombs. With some luck and Western assistance, Ukraine could become the next Poland