January 19, 2014

2013: U.S.-Ukraine relations: more downs than ups


Yaro Bihun

Ambassador William Green Miller (right) presents his “sober and dismal” assessment of the current political and economic developments in Ukraine. Participating along with him in the ambassadorial roundtable on the subject at the Woodrow Wilson Center on January 30 are (from left): Ambassadors Steven Pifer and John Herbst, and moderator Dr. William Pomeranz.

The development of Ukraine’s relationship with Europe and the possibility of its association with the European Union continued to be the dominant issue also in the development of Ukraine’s relationship with the United States in 2013 – much as it had been in the previous few years. But it came to the fore near the end of November, when President Viktor Yanukovych decided against signing the Association Agreement with the EU and followed up with a visit to Moscow, where on December 17 he signed an agreement with President Vladimir Putin which rewarded Ukraine for doing so and for continuing its Moscow alliance with a $15 billion loan and lower prices for the natural gas it imports from Russia.

The 2013 calendar also saw, among other events, the assignment of a new U.S. ambassador to Kyiv and the opening of a Ukrainian consular office in Arizona, a number of official statements and visits, congressional hearings, continuing bilateral cooperation programs, and the groundbreaking ceremony in Washington of the long-awaited Holodomor memorial honoring the millions of Ukrainians who perished during Stalin’s 1932-1933 genocidal famine.

Relations with the EU and Russia

In Washington, Ukraine’s problems were outlined early in the year by three former U.S. ambassadors to Ukraine in a roundtable discussion on January 30 at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. The ambassadors – William Miller, Steven Pifer and John Herbst – in their reflections and recommendations agreed that Ukraine’s road to developing a truly democratic, just and economically viable and fair society has been a difficult one, but that it may well achieve it in the not too distant future.

As Mr. Miller, the second ambassador to serve in Kyiv, noted, Ukraine must reform its political and economic system – now run by a “criminal plutocracy ruled by the few for the benefit of the few” – and imprisons its political opponents, notably former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and former Internal Affairs Minister Yurii Lutsenko.

Ambassador Steven Pifer agreed with Ambassador Miller, his predecessor in Kyiv, stressing that Ukraine must end corruption and promote a wide-based economy and the rule of law – especially in the highly corrupted energy sector, which is exceedingly dependent on Russia. He recommended that the U.S. continue its diplomatic dialogue with Ukraine on the “working” – but not “senior” – level until the Kyiv government changes its course in favor of building a democracy.

Washington’s fifth ambassador to Ukraine, Mr. Herbst, presented an assessment similar to that of his predecessors, adding that there are “reasons to be cautious, reasons to be sober, but no reasons to be pessimistic.” He stressed that it is very important for Washington to maintain a peaceful and constructive relationship with Ukraine, but – unlike Ambassador Pifer – he recommended that it be at the very highest level.

New U.S. ambassador

During this phase of the development of U.S.-Ukraine relations in 2013, the White House on February 26 announced that the president was nominating as the next ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey R. Pyatt, a career Foreign Service officer whose previous experience centered on Asia and Latin America.

During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 19, Mr. Pyatt presented the Obama administration’s policy toward Ukraine and its recommendations for building a stronger and more productive bilateral relationship. He said that his highest goal in this new assignment will be to continue the U.S. effort to advance Ukraine “on the path toward a modern European democracy.”

If confirmed, he said, he will encourage Ukraine “to take advantage of this historic opportunity to pursue Ukraine’s hopes for European integration and to meet the European Union’s conditions for signing the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement.” Those conditions include resolving the issue of the imprisonment of the former prime minister, Ms. Tymoshenko. “This is not about an individual, it’s about a principle,” he stressed. “And the principle is: how a democratic government deals with the political opposition when their leaders are out of power.”

Following his July 9 confirmation by the Senate, Ambassador Pyatt met with representatives of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America and other Ukrainian American organizations on July 17 at the State Department. He thanked the Ukrainian community for its undying commitment in supporting reform efforts in Ukraine. The community representatives, in turn, related their concerns and shared their recommendations for what needs to be done.

Mr. Pyatt was sworn in on July 30, becoming the eighth U.S. ambassador to serve in Kyiv since the U.S. Embassy was established there in 1992. He was preceded by: Roman Popadiuk (1992-1993), William Green Miller (1993-1998), Steven Pifer (1998-2000), Carlos Pascual (2000-2003), John Herbst (2003-2006), William Taylor (2006-2009) and John Tefft (2009-2013).

Statements and actions on Ukraine 

The U.S. government and Congress reacted to events in Ukraine during 2013 on a number of occasions, in addition to those mentioned above.

• On February 25 the State Department released a statement following the fifth meeting of the Political Dialogue /Rule of Law Working Group, congratulating Ukraine for the adoption of a new Criminal Procedure Code. At the same time, however, it expressed concern over politically motivated prosecutions and detention of former government officials and electoral fairness issues.

• On March 5 the State Department expressed deep concern about steps in Ukraine to deprive Serhiy Vlasenko, who served as the defense counsel for Yulia Tymoshenko, of his seat in the Verkhovna Rada, his immunity from prosecution and his right to travel outside Ukraine. “These actions appear to be politically motivated,” the State Department said – as does the decision to annul the mandates of independent members of the Verkhovna Rada Pavlo Baloha and Oleksander Dombrovsky.

• On March 20 U.S. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman met with President Yanukovych in Kyiv, with the jailing of Ms. Tymoshenko reportedly at the top her discussion agenda. With Ms. Tymoshenko now facing a new trial on tax evasion and embezzlement charges, her case continues to sour Ukraine’s ties with the West, she said and urged Kyiv to “step back from this very dangerous moment.”

• On April 8, the day after President Yanukovych signed a decree pardoning former Internal Affairs Minister Yurii Lutsenko and former Environment Minister Heorhii Filipchuk, the White House released a statement by National Security Council Spokesperson Caitlin Hayden, stating that the United States was encouraged by this decision, seeing it as an “important step toward addressing concerns about democracy and the rule of law in Ukraine.” However, she added, “much remains to be done,” and urged Ukrainian authorities to “end all politically motivated prosecution, undertake comprehensive judicial reform to ensure such selective justice does not recur.”

• Secretary of State John Kerry on April 19 presented to the press the State Department’s 2012 “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” in which the State Department noted that one of the most serious human rights problems in Ukraine is the “politically motivated” imprisonment of Ms. Tymoshenko. Another major problem cited was the failure of the October 2012 parliamentary election to meet international standards of fairness and transparency. Among other issues noted was government pressure on the media, an “inefficient and corrupt” judicial system, “pervasive corruption” in all branches of government and government pressure on non-governmental organizations. The report also cited a “rise in discrimination and violence” against lesbians, bisexual and transgendered people, as well as the non-prosecution of security officials who committed abuses.

• Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Leonid Kozhara visited Washington for three days in early May, where on May 10 at the State Department he met and discussed bilateral issues with his American counterpart, Secretary of State Kerry. While neither side divulged to the press what was discussed during their meeting, their comments prior to the meeting pointed to some of the topics that were uppermost on their minds.

Secretary Kerry spoke about improving the bilateral relationship in proliferation and security matters and Washington’s commitment “to helping Ukraine become a prosperous European democracy” and an associate member of the European community. “We’re particularly anxious and hopeful that the leaders will work through some of the difficult issues with respect to that transition, including, hopefully, the ending of the prosecution of some people, and particularly former Prime Minister Tymoshenko,” he said.

In his brief statement, Minister Kozhara did not mention Ms. Tymoshenko or any other specific issue that he planned or expected to discuss. However, on the previous day at the National Democratic Institute, according to press reports, he said he would urge Secretary of State Kerry to look beyond the Tymoshenko case and focus on the potential areas of cooperation between the two countries.

Mr. Kozhara also discussed the Tymoshenko case and other Ukrainian issues May 8 during a hearing of the U.S. Helsinki Commission.

• One day before the Kozhara visit, an outspoken independent member of the opposition to the Yanukovych government in the Ukrainian Parliament, Oles Doniy, came to Washington to express his views on developments in Ukraine. Speaking at the National Endowment for Democracy on May 7, he presented a negative assessment of the current political situation in his country, castigated President Yanukovych for his political persecution of Ms. Tymoshenko and suggested ways the opposition should organize its political forces and the Ukrainian community to help return the country on the road to becoming a true democracy.

Mr. Doniy’s week-long U.S. visit, sponsored by the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, also included meetings with representatives of Ukrainian American communities in New York, Cleveland and Chicago.

• In late June, still another leader of the opposition in the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, of the Batkivshchyna party, discussed the situation in Ukraine with foreign policy experts at the Brookings Institution think tank on June 24, the day after his meeting with representatives of the Ukrainian American community and his laying of a floral wreath at the Taras Shevchenko monument.

• On August 22 the State Department released a statement by Secretary of State Kerry marking the 22nd anniversary of Ukraine’s independence, in which he reiterated the U.S. commitment “to helping our Ukrainian partners as you work to become a prosperous European democracy with a free and open economy,” strongly supporting its fulfillment of EU conditions for signing the EU Association Agreement, and applauding Ukraine’s efforts to advance global peace and security.

• On October 25, before departing Kyiv after his talks with Ukrainian officials there, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Thomas Melia released a statement “to set the record straight on some inaccurate press report” that misrepresented the U.S. government’s position on Ms. Tymoshenko. The U.S. supports the efforts to allow Ms. Tymoshenko to go to Germany for medical treatment and is concerned about politically motivated prosecutions of opposition leaders in Ukraine, he said, adding that her political future should be for the Ukrainian courts and voters to decide. The U.S. also supports Ukraine in signing the EU Association Agreement, fulfilling all the necessary conditions, he said.

• Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on November 14, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland said the United States was working “in lock-step” with its European partners to help Ukraine meet the conditions for receiving a “yes” vote to sign the EU Association Agreement in Vilnius later that month. But Ukraine still had to take three important reform steps, among them reforming the Procurator General’s Office and the parliamentary election code, and the release of Ms. Tymoshenko for medical treatment. And, in light of the hard economic pressure Moscow was putting on Kyiv not to go in that direction, Washington has working with the EU on options for Ukraine to make the difficult but necessary trade adjustments, as well as encouraging Moscow to abide by its international commitments, including to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), to honor “their neighbors’ rights to pursue any political and economic arrangements they choose.”

That same day, Sen. Chris Murphy, who heads the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs also criticized Moscow for its pressures, including the banning of imports from Ukraine and other neighboring countries that were considering association with the EU. Four days later, on November 18, the Senate passed a resolution calling on Ukraine to release Ms. Tymoshenko from prison and on the EU to retain her release as a criterion for Ukraine signing the Association Agreement.

Meeting with the new U.S. ambassador to Ukraine on July 17 (from left) are: Kvitka Semanyshyn, Providence Association vice-president; Stefan Kaczaraj, UCCA National Board chairman and Ukrainian National Association president; Bishop Daniel, Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the U.S.A.; Tamara Olexy, UCCA president; Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt; Bishop Paul Chomnycky, Ukrainian Catholic Church; Marie Duplak, UCCA executive secretary; Bohdan Futey; the Rev. Robert Hitchens, Ukrainian Catholic Church; and Michael Sawkiw Jr., Ukrainian National Information Service.


Meeting with the new U.S. ambassador to Ukraine on July 17 (from left) are: Kvitka Semanyshyn, Providence Association vice-president; Stefan Kaczaraj, UCCA National Board chairman and Ukrainian National Association president; Bishop Daniel, Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the U.S.A.; Tamara Olexy, UCCA president; Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt; Bishop Paul Chomnycky, Ukrainian Catholic Church; Marie Duplak, UCCA executive secretary; Bohdan Futey; the Rev. Robert Hitchens, Ukrainian Catholic Church; and Michael Sawkiw Jr., Ukrainian National Information Service.

U.S. reaction to Ukraine’s EU decision

Reacting to the Yanukovych administration’s decision in November not to pursue the signing of the Association Agreement with the EU, the State Department released a statement on November 21 expressing Washington’s disappointment. “We stand with the vast majority of Ukrainians who want to see this future for their country, and we commend the EU for keeping the door open,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said, adding that the United States is convinced that Ukraine’s integration with Europe “is the surest course to economic prosperity and democracy.”

With the mass protests against this decision growing on Kyiv’s maidan and in elsewhere in Ukraine, Vice-President Joe Biden telephoned President Yanukovych on December 9, expressing his deep concern about the growing potential for violence. According to a White House report on the conversation, Mr. Biden underscored the need to de-escalate the situation and develop a dialogue with Ukraine’s opposition leaders.

In a statement released by the State Department the following day, Secretary of State Kerry expressed America’s “disgust” over the Ukrainian government’s response to the peaceful Euro-Maidan protests with riot police, bulldozers and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights. “This response is neither acceptable nor does it befit a democracy,” he said, adding: “As church bells ring tonight amidst the smoke in the streets of Kyiv, the United States stands with the people of Ukraine. They deserve better.”

The crowd of Ukrainian Americans and others who came to Washington on December 4 to witness the groundbreaking ceremony of the Ukrainian Holodomor Memorial listen to one of the dignitaries speak.

Yaro Bihun

The crowd of Ukrainian Americans and others who came to Washington on December 4 to witness the groundbreaking ceremony of the Ukrainian Holodomor Memorial listen to one of the dignitaries speak.

Members of the U.S. Congress reacted as well. Rep. William Keating and four of his colleagues in the House of Representatives sent a letter to President Yanukovych on December 12 condemning “in the strongest possible terms” his government’s use of force against the peaceful demonstrators.

A number of senators – Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) among them – also condemned the violent crackdown on the peaceful protesters, and the chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs, Sen. Murphy (D-Conn.) on December 13 introduced a resolution expressing the sense of the Senate that it stands with the people of Ukraine in their peaceful call for a closer alignment with the European Union in the face of “unacceptable violence” from their government. The resolution, co-sponsored by ten of his colleagues, is expected to be passed when the Senate reconvenes after its Christmas holiday break, as is a similar resolution introduced in the House of Representatives.

Meanwhile, Sens. John McCain (R.-Ariz) and Murphy traveled to Kyiv to discuss the situation with Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Minister Kozhara, as well as with the head of the opposition UDAR party, boxing great Vitali Klitschko, and other protest organizers and religious leaders. On December 14, the two senators joined in with the several hundred thousand Ukrainians protesting on the maidan. In his remarks to them from the podium, Sen. McCain called their protest “inspiring” to Ukraine and the world, and assured them that the U.S. and the rest of the free world stands with them.

Also visiting Kyiv at that time and talking with the Euro-Maidan demonstrators and passing out some food to them was U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Nuland.


Yaro Bihun

Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland testifies on November 14 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee con- cerning the possibility of Ukraine and other East European countries signing on to European Union Association Agreements in Vilnius.

With the new year approaching, U.S. Ambassador Pyatt summarized the official American view of how things have and should develop in Ukraine in a statement released on December 20 on the U.S. Embassy’s website. He said it was clear that many Ukrainians are eager for change, and that President Yanukovych has the opportunity to address their concerns, to implement real reforms and lead the country toward close integration with Europe. And this course does not have to conflict with Ukraine’s robust trade relationship with Russia. “This is not a zero-sum game,” he said, adding, “In 2014, I hope the Ukrainian government will listen to its people and find a path forward to the democratic, economically prosperous, European future its citizens desire.”

Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Leonid Kozhara (right) in discussion with Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), the co-chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, at the conclusion of his testimony before the commission on May 8. Standing next to him is Ukraine’s Ambassador to the U.S. Olexander Motsyk.

Yaro Bihun

Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Leonid Kozhara (right) in discussion with Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), the co-chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, at the conclusion of his testimony before the commission on May 8. Standing next to him is Ukraine’s Ambassador to the U.S. Olexander Motsyk.

Other bilateral developments

• Ukrainian Ambassador Olexander Motsyk on February 23 formally opened a Ukrainian Consular Office in Tucson, Ariz., and appointed Taras Warvariv as the honorary consul. In addition to other Ukrainian diplomats, participating in the event were members of Arizona’s growing Ukrainian community, which had the opportunity to discuss various issues with the ambassador.

• The Ukrainian president’s commissioner for children’s rights Yuriy Pavlenko, came to Washington in early April to discuss with U.S. officials possible ways of improving the process of gathering and forwarding information about the well-being of Ukrainian orphans now living in the United States. Afterwards, during an April 4 briefing at the Ukrainian Embassy, he spoke about some of the problems involved in the adoption process and how they could be resolved. He noted that in 2012, 480 Ukrainian orphans were adopted in the United States – more than any other country in the world.

• On June 19, the State Department released the “Trafficking in Persons Report 2013,” in which Ukraine is listed on the “Tier 2 Watch List.” This places Ukraine among those countries that do not fully comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to do so. The report notes that children in Ukrainian orphanages and crisis centers are particularly vulnerable to trafficking.

• The U.S. State Department’s Office of the Inspector General reported on October 25 that organized fraud rings have taken control of the Diversity Visa program in Ukraine. The report says the fraud scheme is pervasive and sophisticated, affecting the U.S. visa lottery program, and it intimidates and extorts Ukrainian citizens by buying, stealing and obtaining personal information about Ukrainian citizens from public sources. The extortion continues when the Ukrainian visa holders move to the U.S., when the criminal groups take control of their Social Security numbers and cards for further exploitation. Efforts are under way to combat this fraud.

• U.S.-Ukrainian cooperation in education was advanced November 1 in Kyiv when U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt and Ukrainian Minister of Education and Science Dmytro Tabachnyk signed a memorandum of understanding launching the first jointly funded Fulbright Science and Technology Education Program. This pilot project will fully fund the travel and studies expenses for up to 10 Ukrainian graduate students at U.S. universities in 2014.

• While under the cloud of the Yanukovych government’s decision vis-a-vis relations the European Union and Moscow, U.S.-Ukraine relations in the year 2013 had an uplifting moment on December 4 at the solemn groundbreaking ceremony for the Ukrainian Holodomor Memorial on a small triangular site not far from the U.S. Capitol with more than 200 people who came to remember and honor the millions of Ukrainian who perished during Stalin’s 1932-1333 Famine-Genocide in Ukraine.

Among those participating were representatives of the U.S. Congress and government instrumental in having the monument approved on National Park land, Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic metropolitans and clergy, Ambassador Motsyk of Ukraine and ambassadors of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Lithuania; Anthony Fisher, the trustee of the Dmytro Firtash Foundation, which provided the $2.5 million necessary to build the memorial; and its designer-sculptor, Larysa Kurylas. Also participating in the event was a 91-year-old survivor of the Holodomor, Oleksandr Severyn of the Bronx, who joined in with seven other key participants in shoveling the dirt in the symbolic groundbreaking.

The monument is expected to be completed by the end of 2014.