March 19, 2021

Advancing U.S.-Ukraine relations in the Biden administration

More

Part 2 / Part 1

Any successful relationship requires both parties to do their part. This maxim applies to the U.S.-Ukraine partnership as it does to any other. While there is still plenty of work ahead, the prospects are encouraging.

The Biden administration is making solid initial efforts to do its part in not only restoring, but strengthening the U.S.-Ukraine relationship. President Biden and his team have made crystal clear – in a way that was sorely absent from the previous president – that Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity matter. Mr. Biden said so directly to Mr. Putin in a phone call, at the Munich Security Conference, and in a statement on the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Crimea. In that statement, he asserted that the United States does not and will never recognize Crimea’s annexation and will stand with Ukraine against Russia’s aggressive acts and hold the Kremlin accountable. Other high-level officials, notably Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have reiterated this and other messages of support for Ukraine in various venues.

The U.S. is clearly committed to fighting Russia’s efforts to destabilize Ukraine. The Ukraine-related sanctions against Russia have been extended and the Pentagon announced earlier this month the provision of a tranche of $125 million for defense assistance under the Ukraine Security Assistance initiative. This includes armed patrol boats to help Ukraine defend its territorial waters, counter-battery systems (which are crucial in increasing the survivability of Ukrainian soldiers), equipment, training and the provision of advice and expertise to help facilitate defense sector reforms.

The Biden administration has stated its opposition to the controversial Russian-German Nord Stream 2 gas-pipeline project. However, there have been legitimate concerns expressed by members of Congress from both parties, and many others. The administration needs to fully implement the Congressionally-mandated Nord Stream 2 sanctions. Senior administration officials have indicated that they intend to do so, and this needs to happen as soon as possible. Yes, while relations with Germany, one of our top bilateral partners, need to be repaired after the last four years, this should not come at the expense of Ukraine’s security, and, for that matter, overall European security. Many within the European Union – indeed, within Germany itself – oppose Nord Stream 2, and the European Parliament has demanded that construction stop. Moreover, other measures are already being taken by the U.S. to improve relations with Germany.

In another development, by sanctioning the notorious oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky earlier this month, the Biden administration is signaling its commitment to help Ukraine combat the scourge of corruption, strengthen the rule of law, and diminish the still unduly large political influence of the oligarchs.

We must recognize that the Biden administration is still in its early days. Key positions still need to be filled, and policies fleshed out to deepen U.S.-Ukraine relations, but the initial indications are encouraging. It is not accidental that – with the notable exception of Moscow’s fifth columnists in the Rada and those bent on obstructing reforms (often, but not always, the same people) – the majority of Ukraine’s political leadership welcomes this administration’s commitment, not to mention the return to normality in our relations.

And what about Ukraine itself? How serious is Ukraine in doing its part to strengthen its partnership with Washing­ton? A compelling case can be made that what Washington wants to see from Ukraine in terms of internal reforms are the things that Ukraine should be doing even if the U.S. were completely out of the picture. Simply put, by working to build relations with its most important strategic partner, the United States, Ukraine is helping itself. Of course, it makes it easier when there is a supportive president in the White House who understands and is ready to help Ukrainians in their efforts to reform the judiciary, strengthen the rule of law, improve governance and fight corruption. It is helpful to have a president who unambiguously understands that these reforms greatly contribute to Ukraine’s democratic development, integration in the Trans-Atlantic community and resilience against Moscow’s ongoing aggression.

Formidable challenges remain. Despite the substantial, if uneven, reform progress since the Revolution of Dignity, Ukraine still has a long way to go. The stalling – and even backtracking – of reforms since the fall of the government of former Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk one year ago did not help matters. Oligarchs still exert far too much of a deleterious impact on Ukraine’s economy, politics, media and society.

We have seen continuing attempts to weaken key anti-corruption institutions, such as the National Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) and the Specialized Anticorruption Prosecutors Office (SAPO). Decisions last year by the Constitutional Court and the problematic Kyiv Pechersk District Court were not helpful in the fight against corruption. Judicial reform in particular remains an urgent – one could even say dire – necessity, given the people’s deep mistrust in the courts. The reform must include the cleaning up of the selection process for judges.

And while important reforms have occurred in Ukraine’s defense sector in recent years, more needs to be done – hence, some U.S. military assistance should continue to be conditional in order to encourage further reforms. And the list could go on and on.
There are, however, some recent signs of promise. The imposing of personal sanctions on the notorious pro-Russian politician and oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk and his wife, as well as banning his Kremlin-linked TV channels, and the opening of criminal cases against three former PryvatBank associates of Mr. Kolomoisky’s, offer the prospect that Ukraine will become more serious in overcoming the influence of the oligarchs.

Oligarchic dominance over Ukraine’s politics and economy since independence has had a profoundly debilitating effect on the country – contributing greatly to its poverty and corruption. It will not be an easy fight, and will require a tremendous amount of political will and determination. But if successful, this fight could finally enable Ukraine to realize its incredible potential.

President Zelenskyy’s recent legislative initiatives on judicial reform also offer some promise. These include strengthening the integrity of the judicial selection process and diminishing the influence of the Pechersk Court. His recent veto of a draft law which would have weakened whistleblower protection is a welcome step. In addition, it appears that Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) may finally be undergoing some long overdue and badly needed reforms. Also, legislation necessary to complete land reform, which begins in earnest on July 1 and which is so vital for Ukraine’s future, appears to be gradually moving forward. So does legislation on privatization and decentralization.

One would hope that having a friend in The White House is emboldening President Zelenskyy to move against the oligarchs, fight corruption and implement rule of law and economic reforms. By so doing, Ukraine will also reduce Russia’s malign influence. Only time will tell if this is a serious effort, but it does have the potential to be truly transformative. While the U.S. can help a lot – and I believe it will – the ball ultimately is in Ukraine’s court.

Click here to read Part 1

Orest Deychakiwsky may be reached at odeychak@gmail.com.