November 10, 2020
As Joseph Biden prepares to become the 46th president on Jan. 20, 2021, Ukraine by and large seems happy with the choice of the American voter. If nothing else, he’s a familiar face because of his six visits to the nation as Barack Obama’s vice president and point man on Ukraine policy. Facebook boomed with old photographs of Biden posing with Ukrainian politicians, analysts, economists, and civic activists on his visits immediately after the news about his victory broke.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky congratulated Biden, a stark contrast to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s non-recognition thus far of Biden’s win over Donald J. Trump. But for Kyiv, it’s more than familiarity. Biden is seen as a genuine friend of Ukraine, a politician with a good understanding of the nation’s strengths and weaknesses. Biden led the strong U.S. drive to coordinate sanctions with Western democracies when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, seizing Crimea and settling into a long and continuing war in the eastern Donbas.
Biden also held Ukrainian leaders’ feet to the fire when they moved too slowly in fighting corruption and setting up new anti-corruption institutions that remain under renewed threat from the controversial Constitutional Court. He takes office with neither victory — against Russia’s military adventurism or against domestic corruption — assured for Ukraine. But he’s still a welcome contrast to Trump, who reportedly denigrated Ukrainians as “terrible people” who are all corrupt and who often took the Kremlin’s side.
Trump showed little knowledge of Ukraine and almost lost his presidency because of his interactions with Kyiv. He tried to use Zelensky to open a criminal investigation into Biden and his son, Hunter, who cashed in on his father’s fame with a $50,000 a month job on the board of directors of Ukrainian energy firm Burisma. That company is owned by former ecology minister Mykola Zlochevsky, who served during President Viktor Yanukovych’s time in power from 2010-2014, and walked away with lucrative oil and gas exploration licenses. Zlochesky has been the target of investigations into whether he offered a $6 million bribe to close criminal cases against him.
The shakedown and attempted extortion of a foreign leader got Trump impeached by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and acquitted by the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate.
‘Tough love’ ahead
“This will likely be relationships with the elements of tough love. Strict dialogue on reforms for a more resilient and successful Ukraine in a long-term perspective,” Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the New Europe Center policy center in Kyiv, said.
Biden is likely to take a similar “tough love” approach with Zelensky as he did with ex-President Petro Poroshenko, even to the point of threatening to withhold aid — as he did with Poroshenko — in a standoff over Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin. Biden won and got the ineffectual, corruption-tainted Shokin fired. Biden details his frustrations with Poroshenko and Ukraine’s feeble anti-corruption drive in his 2017 book “Promise Me, Dad.”
He also followed up in 2018 with his disappointment in Ukraine’s backsliding on unchecked corruption. “The corruption is so endemic and deep and consequential that it is really, really hard to get it out of the system,” Biden said, speaking not just of Ukraine but also of Russia and the rest of the Soviet Union where, instead of democratic institutions, people have been governed by dictators, oligarchs, and kleptocrats.
Biden will try to keep Ukraine on track on reforms while looking for allies in the President’s Office, parliament, government, and state institutions, said Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center.
But there’s also a question of how Ukraine will rank among Biden’s pressing priorities, which include COVID-19, America’s economic woes and rising debt, climate change, the growing threats from Russia and China, trade agreements, restoring America’s relationships with the European Union and NATO that were frayed during Trump’s scandalous term. “Biden will not be able to invest as much time and political capital in Ukraine as he did as vice president of the United States. He will spend a lot of time on domestic policy issues,” Getmanchuk said.
The change of power in the U.S. coincides with Ukraine’s Constitutional Court crisis. The unaccountable 15-member judges look set to issue rulings that gut many of Ukraine’s anti-corruption institutions while rolling back reforms in the banking sector and agricultural land market.
Biden’s presidency is “bad news” for these judges, according to Anders Åslund, a Swedish economist and a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, an American think tank. “The 11 Ukrainian Constitutional Court judges implicated in attempts to derail anti-corruption efforts had better reconsider. They might otherwise find themselves subject to US sanctions, including visa bans and asset freezes,” Åslund wrote in his article for the Atlantic Council.
Under Biden, the U.S. is likely to impose sanctions against yet another batch of notorious Ukrainians in a bid to toughen up its policy against oligarchs, experts say. Some have been investigated for years now, including billionaire oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, the former co-owner of PrivatBank, whose collapse cost Ukrainian taxpayers $5.5 billion.
Long under criminal indictment for bribery charges that he denies is Dmytro Firtash, who controls regional gas distribution companies and fertilizer factories. He’s also been called a Kremlin agent, a charge — like all the other accusations of wrongdoing — that he denies. “The FBI has reportedly been investigating Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskiy since 2016 for alleged money laundering in Cleveland. Strong rumors suggest that Trump blocked his prosecution in the United States. Kolomoisky is another obvious target for the Global Magnitsky Act,” Åslund wrote implying Kolomoisky can fall under the U.S. sanctions.
Another oligarch who can soon face the music is Firtash. The U.S. has been trying to extradite him from Vienna, Austria, since 2014. But Åslund predicted that Firtash will be extradited to the United States. Firtash was also among those linked to Trump’s political war against Biden, with associates of the oligarch reportedly helping Guiliani to find dirt on Biden. Another oligarch who has to “rethink” his actions is Viktor Medvedchuk, Putin’s friend who faces U.S. sanctions for undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty and statehood. He, however, found a way to bypass the sanctions by setting up new companies under his wife’s name.
He now sits in parliament and has long held great political power, serving as chief of staff of ex-President Leonid Kuchma after making a fortune in the wild 1990s. “Biden must implement those sanctions against Medvedchuk and add his wife, Oksana Marchenko, along with all the offshore companies to the sanctions list,” said Kaleniuk.
In September, the U.S. Department of the Treasury added controversial Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Derkach to its sanctions list for serving Russia’s interests and threatening the 2020 presidential election in the U.S. Kaleniuk expects the U.S. to sanction more Russian agents like Derkach during Biden’s presidency.
Tougher policy towards Russia
Biden has often cited Russia’s global threat, making it likely that he will consider a policy known as “deterrence and dialogue,” Getmanchuk said. “Unlike Trump, Biden is perceiving Russia as a threat,” she said.
The Obama administration did not provide Ukraine with lethal weapons in its fight against Russia. Biden favored such a step, but remained loyal to Obama. Now, after six years of Russia’s war with no end in sight, Biden may even adopt a tougher stance. “The geopolitical situation has changed. Russia does not compromise, does not shift its position. The context has changed, because Russia takes an aggressive position not only against Ukraine but also against other countries, uses chemical weapons in Europe and interferes in elections in other countries. Under such conditions, Biden is unlikely to deviate from this course,” said Olexiy Haran, a professor of comparative politics at Kyiv Mohyla Academy. Biden campaigned on a pledge to provide Kyiv with more military assistance.
Biden, who was among the originators of the current U.S. sanctions regime against Russia, will keep these measures on track, Åslund believes. Moreover, the U.S. is expected to get more involved in attempts to end the war in the Donbas. “Inevitably, a Biden administration will make sure it plays a major role in Ukraine’s negotiations with Russia over the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine. This means that the likelihood of Russia seriously considering a withdrawal from eastern Ukraine has suddenly increased. The Kremlin knows and respects Biden, who has nurtured a reputation as a hardliner on Putin,” Åslund wrote.
New U.S. ambassador to Ukraine
Finally, Ukraine will likely get a new ambassador in Kyiv by early next year. The position has been vacant for a year and a half since Trump abruptly removed then-Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch from office in 2019. He alleged Yovanovitch was disloyal, while she countered that she was a victim of a smear campaign. “Marie Yovanovich was revoked for far-fetched reasons and I think Joe Biden should be able to renew the reputation of the State Department and of the American Embassy in Ukraine,” Kaleniuk told the Kyiv Post.
Chargé d’Affaires Kristina Kvien has been in charge of the U.S. mission since acting Ambassador U.S. William Taylor departed in January ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Kyiv.
Trump nominated Keith W. Dayton, but Biden may want someone else. Aslund wrote that Biden “has an excellent staff that knows Ukraine very well,” including Michael Carpenter, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Obama administration.
Ukraine “will now get a high-profile ambassador again and its policy will be more active than ever because Ukraine is critical to US interests in many regards,” Åslund said.