Despite the country’s toxic role in the Trump administration, Washington has good reason to stay engaged.
Nov 16, 2020
KYIV, Ukraine—If you’d even casually followed the twists and turns of President Donald Trump’s scandalous administration, you’d be forgiven for never wanting to hear about this perennially troubled former Soviet republic again.
During Trump’s impeachment, Ukraine loomed over Washington like a noxious cloud. On Capitol Hill, countless hours of testimony described Trump’s apparent extortion of his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, for help discrediting his rival Joe Biden. On Twitter and conservative airwaves, Trump and his allies ceaselessly hawked baseless claims that Biden tried to block Ukrainian efforts to investigate his supposedly crooked son.
Already associated with political turmoil, corruption and bad governance, Ukraine provided an ideal playground for Trump henchman Rudy Giuliani to chase damning leads in service of his employer. As a result, it was reduced in U.S. media coverage to the image of an East European backwater bullied by a wayward American president. No wonder, then, that a coterie of Ukrainian officials and reformers have breathed a collective sigh of relief at Biden’s election victory.
Yet despite Ukraine’s unwitting, toxic role in Trump’s White House, the incoming administration would do well to stay as involved as ever in the country’s affairs. Legally, of course.
For one, Ukraine badly needs the help. While it has made significant strides since its 2014 democratic revolution, it is currently struggling to fend off state capture by predatory tycoons threatening to derail the country’s reform efforts and compromise its drift westward. Most recently, the Constitutional Court has sought, allegedly under their influence, to dismember the agencies responsible for monitoring graft or investigating corrupt officials. Meanwhile, the war against Moscow-backed separatists in the east has quieted down but is nowhere near resolution.
Despite soaring to an electoral victory last year on an anti-corruption platform, Zelensky has proven either poorly equipped or simply unwilling to follow through on his campaign pledges. Even if he did, it’s unlikely his administration’s efforts alone would be enough. Consider the current dilemma: Efforts by lawmakers to stop the highest court in the land, which is heavily protected by law, are threatening to push Ukraine into a constitutional crisis. What Kyiv needs, experts here say, is the kind of support it can’t find anywhere else: the muscle of American enforcement.
According to Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Kyiv, the court’s rulings lead straight to two oligarchs with an unsavory reputation. One of them, Ihor Kolomoisky, is already on the Justice Department’s radar; the other, Viktor Medvedchuk, a close ally of Vladimir Putin whose Ukrainian media empire is often accused of spewing anti-Western propaganda, has even been sanctioned by the United States for “actions or policies that undermine democratic processes or institutions.”
Yet Medvedchuk has skirted that measure by allegedly running dozens of businesses, including shell companies around the world, owned by his wife (a TV personality). Sanctioning her, thereby cutting him off from the international financial system, would deliver a crucial blow to Russian-friendly interests in Ukraine, according to Kaleniuk. While ending the war in the east is a tall order, piling on financial pressure is far more realistic. “If you want to fight Kremlin and oligarchic influence in Ukraine, you have to follow the money,” Kaleniuk says.
There’s ample reason to believe a Biden administration will keep a close eye on Ukraine. As vice-president, Biden visited the country half a dozen times, and was widely seen as President Barack Obama’s emissary following the pro-democratic revolution against kleptocrat Viktor Yanukovych. In fact, the only part of Trump’s anti-Biden conspiracy that holds any water was that he did, indeed, push for the dismissal of a top prosecutor—joining Ukraine’s other international partners in doing so, a move celebrated here as an example of positive foreign influence on a corrupt political elite. Already, in calls with French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Biden has indicated that Ukraine will be on the agenda for cooperation with both countries.
Zelensky, for his part, may have earned some good will by keeping largely quiet amid the impeachment scandal, according to Mykhailo Pashkov, a foreign policy expert at the Razumkov Center think tank in Kyiv. “Despite problematic moments, attempts to foment scandals and secret games, he was able to pull it off,” he says.
For the incoming administration, staying actively engaged with Kyiv would pay serious dividends. As it launches a global effort to restore trust in the United States, a visible success in Ukraine—primarily in the form of reestablishing healthy diplomatic relations and encouraging reform—may be a relatively straightforward deliverable, given Biden’s experience and familiarity with the country.
In return, Washington would boast something of a showcase for democratic success in a region still blighted by autocracy and corruption. In Belarus, months-long popular protests continue to rattle strongman Alexander Lukashenko, who has stopped at nothing to smother the movement. Ukraine has already proven itself to be a pillar of support for democratic and progressive-minded Belarusians: Besides throwing its political weight behind the opposition, for example, Kyiv is attracting Belarusian IT specialists through favorable conditions. Meanwhile, neighboring Moldova, whose politics is also afflicted by geopolitical tension, elected a pro-Western president on Sunday, but it, too, is struggling to shake the influence of its own venal oligarchy.
Then, of course, there’s Russia. By fueling the insurgency in eastern Ukraine, as well as waging a hybrid war through the airwaves, the Kremlin’s primary aim has long been to ensure its onetime subject remains destabilized. While that serves Moscow’s geopolitical interests by keeping its so-called “near abroad” intact, it also fulfills a domestic function: to prove why attempting democracy (and cooperating with the West) is dangerous. In reality, one of Moscow’s greatest fears is that Ukraine finally finds its footing, according to Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “A Ukraine that’s successful, with a growing economy, where you’ve got corruption contained, where the public is pretty satisfied that they’re moving in the right direction is going to be much more enabling for Zelensky to push back against the Russians,” he says.
None of this means the Ukrainian president should expect unconditional support. In fact, just the opposite: Having already proven his willingness to get tough on Kyiv when necessary, Biden likely wouldn’t hesitate to wield a stick—just as the European Union is currently doing by threatening to suspend visa-free travel for Ukrainians in response to Kyiv’s recent democratic backslide. “He’s prepared to do tough love,” says Pifer. “And sadly, one of the things that’s necessary with Ukraine sometimes is tough love.”
Either way, timing is of the essence. “It’s not a coincidence the Constitutional Court decided to demolish anti-corruption reform right in the middle of an American election,” says Kaleniuk. The goal, she adds, is to “make Ukraine truly look like a failed state” before Biden even settles in. With Trump’s toxic presence now out of the picture, there are few excuses not to get to work.