At first glance there is little that two countries so far away as Ukraine and Pakistan may have in common. Ukraine is a continental European country at the gates of the European Union, one of the most prosperous areas of the world, ardently striving to become part of and share at least a bit of its riches. Pakistan is almost 4 thousand kilometres away, literally a world apart, caught between Iran, Afghanistan and India, an Asian country with a semitropical climate – and with a GDP per capita of 5,680 $, among the poorest countries in the world. Yet in spite of the physical distance, the similarities between Pakistan and Ukraine are many and striking, and may even help one understand what sort of future expects Ukraine, a country that has been feverishly consumed by a desire for radical change and integration with the West for at least 15 years.

Both Ukraine and Pakistan have two very powerful neighbours to which they have a very troubled relationship, Russia and India. India has been perceived by Pakistan as a existential threat from the very first day of the partition of British Raj, the former Indian Empire. Ever since, India and Pakistan have been in conflict over the Kashmir, which lead to short wars between the two countries at least four times since 1947. Most of these wars ended badly for Pakistan, which did not make any territorial gains in the Kashmir instead brought to the loss a large part of its territory as a result of the war with India of 1971, when East Pakistan became Bangladesh.

Pakistan, which emerged as a country following the division of Indian Dominion along religious lines and became the Muslim part of India, has developed an acute form of obsession with India, which regards a mortal enemy ever longing for Pakistan’s destruction. The fact that it is generally considered beyond dispute that none of the wars between Pakistan and India have actually been started by India does not seem to make this obsession any less overbearing. Pakistan’s establishment has developed a tradition of seeing the hand of India, and in particular of the Indian security services, behind every evil of the world. This obsession did not exactly help making Pakistan a trusted and respected partner but was rather the source of ridicule in US government quarters. A great power, however, does not necessarily have to respect anyone: the best ally is a useful ally – all the rest is not so important.

Russia and India are global players in the international area. Ukraine and Pakistan are not. Both have tried to compensate for this by becoming the staunchest allies of the most powerful global power, the USA. Pakistan has been a strong US ally since the Cold War era against the Soviet Union, whereas India stood out of the confrontation, becoming one of the leading countries of what was called the Third World (which originally simply meant that a country was neither with the West, nor with the Communists). During the Soviet-Afghanistan war Pakistan cemented its role as an US ally functioning as a logistical and training hub for the mujahideen who carried the burden of the fight against the Soviet Union. That continued with the Afghanistan war that followed 9/11, after a decade of tense relations between the US and Pakistan, when the US even applied sanctions against Pakistan for its pursuit and acquisition of nuclear weapons. But the fight with the Taliban made Pakistan’s position of crucial importance and sanctions were lifted. The fact that the Taliban were enjoying a considerable level of support by Pakistan’s intelligence and military was conveniently ignored.

“Ukraine has a unique opportunity to either solidify its trajectory toward becoming a prosperous, democratic state governed by Western values or backslide into a corrupt, failed state. With sustained, focused U.S. and international support, Ukraine can make the hard pivot towards genuine democracy and bring even closer the long-held U.S. goal of realizing a Europe whole, free, and at peace”

Ukraine expects a lot from its alliance with the West. Over the last 15 years and in particular following the second Maidan revolution and the conflict in the Donbass, which in Ukraine it is portrayed by many as a “war with Russia”, it has joined the alliance with the United States with the enthusiasm and the energy of a teenager who has just read a motivational book on how to get rich in a month. Young Ukrainians, more than other Europeans, look at the US as a source of salvation and redemption. However unbelievable it may sound now, the level of admiration for America among young Ukrainians today can be matched only by the American love affair young Russians experienced in the 1990s, when Russia forgot about it rivalry with the US that had lasted for half a century and opened herself up to the world. Russia, however, was in for a disappointment, and that’s not because Vladimir Putin came to power. But that’s another story.

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US soldiers marching in Kyiv on Ukraine’s Independence Day – 23 August 2018

The US has been a supporter of Ukrainian sovereignty ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the birth of Ukrainian statehood in 1991. Clearly Ukraine had a special place in the hierarchy of US national interests half a world away. At some point Ukraine was the third receiver of US aid after Israel and Egypt. “Ukraine has a unique opportunity to either solidify its trajectory toward becoming a prosperous, democratic state governed by Western values or backslide into a corrupt, failed state. With sustained, focused U.S. and international support, Ukraine can make the hard pivot towards genuine democracy and bring even closer the long-held U.S. goal of realizing a Europe whole, free, and at peace”, states the US federal portal on US foreign assistance. This vision is very clear and simple: prosperity goes hand in hand with democracy, democracy means being governed by Western values and being a faithful Western ally in all key geostrategic questions – the alternative is becoming a failed, corrupt state, left to itself to rotten in anarchy. It is not a vision that, however optimistic it may be, expresses a lot of trust for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people in general.

28 years after independence and at least 15 years (since the first Maidan revolution of 2004) since it decidedly oriented herself towards the West and Transatlantic integration, Ukraine today is still poorer than it was in Soviet times. US aid for be vital for the fortunes of some people and some organisations who are the direct beneficiaries of grants and investment. But after almost a generation to expect that solely US aid will make a country richer and juster strikes one as bordering on the bipolar end of utopian naivety. Foreign investment and aid can make countries rich, sometimes, but more often than not the money accrues to a very small number of people: the rest is left struggling for survival in a purifying transition process towards the free market. Sometimes this transition lasts decades. But the promise of better, more prospesperous future, together with the leading nations of the time, never dies.

“Ukraine can choose: it can become an outpost of the US military might on the soft underbelly of Russia and hope it will profit from whatever sort of assistance it can get for immolating herself to save Europe from the ever present threat of Russina aggression – or come to terms with her geography, start acting in her own national interests and not serving someone else’s goals”

Pakistan has been one of the strongest US allies and the two countries have been cooperating military for many decades. Has the country become more prosperous or less corrupt as a result of unshakeable alliance with the US? Is Pakistan more democratic than it would be without the US support? Hardly. On the contrary: foreign interference entrenches internal divisions. The country is divided between a cosmopolitan elite, which sends its children to study to the UK and the US and an impoverished population, where a strong sentiment of conspirational anti-Americanism is prevailing. Only a few days ago a Pakistani court sentenced its former President and military dictator Pervez Musharraf, who ruled the country between 1999 and 2008, to death in absentia. The Pakistani leader, who had come to power in a military coup and had very questionable democratic credentials, was nonetheless one of the closest US client states. Did Pakistan as a whole profit from the alliance? Probably not much: for the welfare of populations, geopolitical affiliations matter less than one would expect.

Great alliances have a strong symbolism and a promising appeal (the free world, European values, democracy and liberty and so on), but generally these grand schemes affect little the destinies and fortunes of the bulk of the population. If a country is stable and has developed a strong system of legal accountability, capital will find its way into it anyway; the talents of its people may come to serve the cause of peaceful economic growth. But a country on the front line of a perennial conflict it cannot possibly win has little time for the sort of long term planning that is necessary for the improvement of the well being of its people. Ukraine can choose: it can become an outpost of the US military might on the soft underbelly of Russia and hope it will profit from whatever sort of assistance it can get for immolating herself to save Europe from the ever present threat of Russian aggression – or come to terms with her geography, start acting in her own national interests and not serving someone else’s goals and finally, quietly, boringly and predictably work and thrive.

Stefano Di Lorenzo