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Nobody wants Ukraine. Even Russia just wants slivers

While the United States, European Union and Russia battle over whether Ukraine will follow Crimea back into the Russian camp, there is a little secret that none of them dare utter in public: despite all the posturing and hand wringing over Ukraine, none of them wants to be left holding the bag at the end of the day.

But, wouldn’t Ukraine be a great asset for any country lucky enough to have her? It is a large European country of historic significance. For Nazi Germany in World War II, Ukraine was the ultimate prize as “lebensraum.” Ukraine has often been called the bread basket of Europe.

While the great powers proclaim their devotion to Ukraine, all three are frightened of getting what they say they want. 

But Ukraine in 2014 is none of the above. It is rather a country with a Third World economy, massive corruption and an imploding pre-modern political system. Ukraine would be a massive burden for decades for any of the three powers winning it as their prize.

The United States has a first world economy ($52,000 GDP/capita) with strong high tech (Silicon Valley) and many first-rate universities. 

The European Union is led by a phalanx of first world countries (France, Germany, England) with economies of roughly $40,000 GDP/capita. 

Russia, while lagging behind at $15,000 GDP/capita, is the world’s second leading oil exporter and second strongest nuclear power.

But, the World Bank puts Ukraine at a mere $3,900 GDP/capita, 108th in the world behind Mongolia, Albania, and Angola. During the 1990s the Ukrainian economy lost 60 percent of its GDP. Its large budget deficit (5.2 percent of GDP) places it 172nd in the world. Many doctors earn less than $300/month and nurses less than $80/month.

The Global Perceived Corruption Index run by Transparency International puts Ukraine at a dismal 144th in the world, as bad as Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Its authoritarian political system derives from its role in the czarist Empire in both Eastern Ukraine  (late 17th century to 1917) and in Western Ukraine (late 18th century to 1917 except for Galicia).  

After the disintegration of czarist Russia 1917, all of Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union (1920-1991). 

After 1991 Ukraine has enjoyed only limited democracy since the Rose Revolution  of 2004.

Freedom House found that Ukraine’s political system is only partly free, well behind comparable countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic.

The migration since 1991 of almost two million people (half of them to Europe) shows the local desperation. 

The Jewish community, leaving behind only its elderly, largely decamped for Israel and the United States. 

Since 1991 Ukraine’s population has declined by almost six million people through migration and low birth rate.

The United States and European Union are loath to take on a large, economically and politically dysfunctional economy in a downward spiral or face a rising Russia. Both have serious internal and external issues that take priority over Ukraine. 

The United States, with large budget deficits, slow economic recovery from the 2008 Great Recession and an aging population, has been withdrawing from extensive foreign intervention.

Ukraine, which might require $50-100 billion dollars for a temporary fix, is not on the political agenda of either the Obama administration or the American public. This accounts for the minimal American offer of $1 to 2 billion dollars in aid, $50 million dollars to fight corruption and 600 troops deployed to Europe.

The European Union is even in worse shape. Its unemployment rate is 12 percent, its economic growth rate is under one percent and it is also dealing with the weak economies of Spain, Portugal, Greece, Romania and Bulgaria. 

Getting 28 countries to agree on a serious approach to Ukraine is highly problematic and unlikely. 

Furthermore, Germany, the leading power in the EU, for historical (World War I and World War II) and pragmatic reasons, hesitates to alienate a Russia that is militarily stronger with massive gas exports to Europe.

Russia, with an economy the size of Canada (13 percent of the U.S. GNP), a trade profile of a Third World country, demographic decline and weak agricultural and consumer sectors, does not want responsibility for all of Ukraine. 

Putin knows that even in Eastern Ukraine less than 20 percent of the population wants Russia to annex their territory. 

After much posturing, Russia -- at best -- wants to replicate the Georgian and Crimean examples of taking over a small slice of Eastern Ukraine near its border and then declare victory.

While the great powers proclaim their devotion to Ukraine, all three are frightened of getting what they say they want.  They well remember the famous words of Pyrrhus, the King of Epirus, “one more such victory and we are lost.”

Jonathan Adelman is a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.  Adelman has written several books on Russia and was Condoleezza Rice’s doctoral adviser.