Transatlantic Take

Biden Administration Support for Ukraine Is Strong but Is There a Partner in Kyiv?

7 min read
Photo credit: Sergei Chuzavkov / Shutterstock.com
A year after the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Ukraine remains at a high level of economic, political, and security fragility that is impacting its citizens as well as its relations with the United States and other transatlantic par

A year after the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Ukraine remains at a high level of economic, political, and security fragility that is impacting its citizens as well as its relations with the United States and other transatlantic partners. Unfortunately, the country’s challenges contributing to the stalling of democratic reforms come at a time of renewed support and focus on Ukraine by the administration of President Joe Biden.

Increasingly relevant to Ukraine and this bilateral dynamic is the White House’s global democracy and anti-corruption agenda, which is meant to bolster U.S., European, and transatlantic security, to accelerate post-coronavirus economic recovery, and to pushback against the threats and actions of autocratic regimes, including those in Russia and China. Among other decisive steps, this agenda includes targeting corrupt actors like the Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoisky but also honoring anti-corruption champions in Ukraine, including former prosecutor general Ruslan Ryaboshapka. 

Given that democratic reform efforts started in earnest after the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, Ukraine should be a leading example of democratic transformation. However, old political elites, pro-Kremlin proxies, corrupt oligarchs, and Kremlin aggression are holding back and impeding reform progress—dampening trust in President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government as well as U.S. and Western enthusiasm for greater support.

The Biden administration, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, has placed Ukraine high on its agenda. The United States has stepped up diplomatic and assistance efforts, as well as its unwavering economic and military support, and it is standing firmly with Ukrainians, backing the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as its Euro-Atlantic aspirations. This wholehearted support includes the Pentagon’s move this month to provide $125 million in assistance in the form of “defensive lethal weapons” under the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative. The United States also led efforts at a recent G7 Foreign Ministers meeting to condemn Russia-supported violence in Donbas and human rights violations in Crimea.

The ball is now in Kyiv’s court and it is up to Zelenskyy, the parliament, and the government to respond to these strong U.S. administration and congressional measures of support, including the Ukraine Security Partnership Act recently reintroduced in the U.S. Senate. Zelenskyy and the parliament need to immediately implement critical anti-corruption, judicial, and economic reforms. This also means taking on corrupt oligarchs—some of whom still have a grip on dozens of parliamentarians, including in Zelenskyy’s party. Kyiv needs to create a parallel effort to that of the Biden administration in addressing illicit finance and kleptocracy. A promising tool in this context is the anti-money laundering legislation recently enacted by the U.S. Congress, which has the potential to significantly limit the possibilities for Ukrainian tainted officials and oligarchs to hide illicitly obtained funds in the United States.

The Biden administration could not be clearer that vested interests in Kyiv should completely end legislative pressure and other efforts to cripple anti-corruption bodies, including the National Anti-corruption Bureau and the National Agency for Corruption Prevention, or to undermine the independence of the National Bank of Ukraine.

Equally problematic are the perceived interconnections between Zelenskyy and his administration with the judiciary. The leadership of the president’s office has strong ties with the country’s long-standing “court mafia” and seeks to guarantee the status quo to its bosses. Consequently, judicial reform bills currently considered by parliament cement the existing setup of the court system and block the much-needed reboot of the tainted judicial governance bodies, disregarding the recommendations of civil society, the Venice Commission, the EU, and the G7.

The Zelenskyy government, which is close to entering its third year in power, has a long list of challenges that impact a successful reform agenda. They include the third wave of coronavirus pandemic, which is taking a harsh toll with record numbers of deaths as well as revealing the deep ills and legacy of an unreformed healthcare system and weakened governance. To the dismay of many Ukrainians and the country’s Western partners, anti-corruption reform achievements and needed progress remain under serious threat, while promised judicial reform remains unfulfilled and blocked.

Adding to these difficulties, the security situation in the east of the country is escalating, while the new peace plan developed by Ukraine, Germany, and France remains up in the air—not surprisingly without a response from Russia. Furthermore, economic stability is hanging in the balance as a result of questionable policies and lack of access to foreign funding, including from the International Monetary Fund, that is contingent on reform progress.

After a brief window of fast-paced “turbo-mode” reform efforts in the fall of 2019, Zelenskyy’s Ukraine is again stuck in another cycle of endemic corruption and watering down of post-Maidan democratic achievements by vested interests, including in parliament. Yet, despite these major setbacks, the demand for change in reform-minded political circles, civil society, and the citizenry at large remains very high. In one recent poll, nearly 70 percent of respondents said the country is moving in the wrong direction. However, many observers have deep reservations about Zelenskyy’s willingness—and that of members of parliament—to take on oligarchs, implement judicial reforms, and complete anti-corruption ones.

Right now, the U.S.-Ukrainian relationship is deeply out of balance. Facing severe difficulties on many fronts, Kyiv must meet its democratic commitments—which are key guarantors of the country’s security—to the people of Ukraine and the international community, including the United States. It would be a tragedy and a failure of the leadership if Ukraine is on the outside looking in when the United States, Europe, and other democratic countries sit down at the global democracy summit proposed by the Biden administration for later this year.

Given Ukraine’s place as a nation on the frontlines of the global—and U.S.-focused—fight for democracy, countering Russian aggression in Donbas and Crimea, and striving to break free from its Soviet legacy, it is in its immediate security, economic, energy, and political interest to meet the United States’ overtures and take steps that lead to a lasting strategic partnership, which was highlighted by Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba call with Blinken in February. Today, Ukraine needs the United States and the West more than ever, but Washington and Brussels need to recalibrate their strategies based on what is realistic and who in Kyiv is committed to the democratic agenda.

The United States and its partners should continue efforts to support Ukraine and its people on all fronts, including making coronavirus support an immediate priority. But Washington should also be firm on the democratic backsliding that is crippling Ukraine’s progress as well as its economic and energy security and dimming support for the country in the United States and Europe. Building on IMF conditionalities, the United States should seriously consider placing its own conditionality on all types of assistance, including macroeconomic support, to make sure that Ukraine’s democratic gains are not lost but accelerated.

The Biden administration’s renewed focus on Ukraine’s democratic transformation is an effort to remedy the effects of the harmful neglect from the Trump administration over the past four years, which gave little visibility or constructive high-level attention to the country on the reform front. One step the administration could take is to quickly reinvigorate the U.S.-Ukraine Strategic Partnership, focusing on clear benchmarks, particularly for judicial and rule-of-law reforms.

On top of bilateral efforts, much deeper U.S.-EU cooperation will be needed to support a sustainable democratic transition in Ukraine. The Biden administration is already working with EU, NATO, and transatlantic partners to boost Ukraine’s security, democracy, and further its Euro-Atlantic integration. Washington’s pledge to work more closely with transatlantic partners on Ukraine and the EU’s eastern neighborhood is a welcome departure from Trump’s reluctance to partner with the EU. The signals that Washington and Brussels are again in sync to advance democratic aspirations in Ukraine and across Eastern Europe is encouraging and presents an opportunity for Ukrainians and Zelenskyy to advance democratic reforms, enhance security and deepen integration.

Outside of the coronavirus pandemic, Ukraine’s chronic internal problems—including reform backsliding, grand corruption, and oligarchs’ disproportional influence on the economy and governance—remain the biggest threat to its security and democratic progress. Zelenskyy and his government must exercise immediate leadership to deliver on the expectations of Ukraine’s society and international partners, including the United States.

President Biden and his administration know full well the challenges facing Ukraine as well as the opportunities for Ukrainians to achieve their democratic and Euro-Atlantic future, but they need trusted interlocutors in Ukraine who are ready to implement reform commitments. Right now, policymakers in Washington are wondering if they have a real partner in Kyiv.