STOCKHOLM -- When Ukraine's voters go to the polls on Oct. 26, not only the fate of their country will be at stake; so will the future of a significant part of Europe. To put it simply: the future of Ukraine will decide the future of Russia, and the future of Russia will have a substantial impact on the future of Europe.
When the Soviet Union collapsed more than two decades ago, and Ukraine opted for independence, many expected the country to do better than Russia in the years to come. But events turned out differently.
During the first decade of the new century, Russia benefited from the combined effect of an old hydrocarbon industry that privatization in the 1990s had made more efficient and high oil prices. The reversal of sought-after economic diversification, and the reduction of "modernization" to little more than a slogan, caused no immediate concern.
By contrast, Ukraine became the worst managed of all the post-Soviet states, with cronyism and corruption thwarting productive capacity, and causing the country to fall further and further behind other post-communist countries in transition. Most notable is the comparison with Poland: at independence, the two countries had roughly the same GDP per capita; today, Poland's is more than three times higher.
The Orange Revolution in 2004 was a failure for most Ukrainians. They hoped for a break with the past did not occur, as political infighting among the country's new leaders blocked the implementation of any serious reform agenda.
But 2004 was also a bitter failure for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who tried to bring his favored presidential candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, to power in Kiev by supporting massive vote manipulation. The failure was a bitter blow to the Kremlin, one that was neither forgiven nor forgotten.
Then, in 2010, the Orange Revolution's failure brought Yanukovych to power in a free and fair election, and in 2012 Putin selected himself for a third presidential term in Russia. The creation of a new Eurasia Union was a key part of his platform.
In the meantime, Ukraine had been negotiating with the European Union for a free trade and association agreement since 2007, and these talks were completed in early 2012. Though entirely compatible with the existing free trade agreement between Ukraine and Russia, the proposed pact with the EU certainly was not compatible with Putin's Eurasia project.
A little more than a year ago, the Kremlin began its offensive to turn Ukraine away from an EU agreement that was supported even by Yanukovych and his Party of Regions. The rest -- Yanukovych's renunciation of the EU agreement, the popular uprising that ousted him in response, two invasions by Russia, and thousands of people killed in the country's eastern Donbas region -- is history.
The Kremlin is seeking more than the annexation of Crimea and control over the Donbas rust belt; its aim is to prevent Ukraine from going West, force it to turn East, and quash any risk within Russia's wider orbit of further revolutions like the one that brought down Yanukovych.
Western sanctions against Russia have certainly highlighted the seriousness with which the EU and the United States view Putin's efforts to challenge and undermine the core principles of European security and international law. But even a weakened Russia will still be a strong power in its immediate neighborhood. At the end of the day, it is only the strength and determination of Ukraine that can block Russia's revisionist ambitions.
But to strengthen a Ukraine plagued by corruption and cronyism, and heavily burdened by Russian aggression and destabilization, is no easy task. The election on Sunday must give rise to a government that is truly determined to bring radical reform to the country.
Such a government must be able to count on the strong and determined support of the wider international community. A revised and reinforced International Monetary Fund package is imperative if the necessary reforms are to be enacted. The country's irrational energy policy, based on immensely wasteful subsidies to consumers, must be fundamentally altered. And the agreement with the EU must be used to drive the reform process forward.
If this agenda succeeds, the Kremlin's revisionist bid will be blocked; as this becomes apparent, there might even be an opening for a new and urgently needed wave of reform in Russia itself. But if reform fails, there is little doubt that the Kremlin will continue its policies until it reaches its aims in Kiev. Putin is in no hurry, but he clearly knows what he wants.
Then, set on a course of continued confrontation with the West, Russia might hunker down into a siege mentality, with the risk that the Kremlin might seek to compensate for economic failure with further revisionist behavior. Anyone familiar with the aggressively nationalist posturing of Russian state-controlled media nowadays knows the danger of this.
It is in these circumstances that the real danger for Europe could arise. The ambitions of such a Russia will not stop at the Dnieper River. Revisionism might turn into outright revanchism as the Kremlin seeks to counter-balance internal weakness with demonstrations of external strength.
By that time, it might be too late to stop a slide toward a wider confrontation. That is why the emergence of a strong and democratic Ukraine from decades of failure is needed now. The election this Sunday is crucial for Ukraine, but it also holds the key to encouraging the transformation of Russia into a true member of the democratic European family.
This piece also appeared on Project Syndicate.
© Project Syndicate, 2014