Ukraine Is Going to Be a Big Problem for the Next U.S. President

Ukraine Is Going to Be a Big Problem for the Next U.S. President

Of the many neglected foreign-policy pots and pans that will be waiting on the next U.S. president’s stove, the one marked “Ukraine” may be ready to boil over. The country’s problems are a hearty borscht of bribery, theft, official corruption, and even murder — and nothing is as it first appears.

Ukraine has faded from the American national consciousness as other, even more recent and far more spectacular foreign-policy fiascoes — Syria, Libya, and the Islamic State — overwhelm our capacity to catalog them.

Most Americans have all but forgotten Russia’s invasion of the Crimea in 2014, and at least one U.S. Presidential candidate seems willing to pardon it altogether. Nevertheless, Russians still occupy Crimea, and pro-Russian rebels, supported by the Russian military, control much of the country’s two eastern provinces: Donetsk and Lugansk. 

Russia is deploying a massive military force along Ukraine’s borders, which will be capable of invasion by 2018. The ongoing fighting in Donbass strains the Ukrainian society and undermines people’s trust in the government.

Pro-Russian politicians, such as Viktor Medvedchuk, whose daughter Darya is the goddaughter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, are still occupying positions of power in Kiev. Super-rich oligarchs, like East Ukraine energy king Rinat Akhmetov, who has been connected to both Moscow and Viktor Yanukovych, finance pro-Russian political parties. 

And then there is corruption, of the most systemic and ubiquitous kind, corruption that President Barack Obama’s administration singled out as one of the main threats to Ukrainian state. It would be difficult to fight corruption at the best of times, but during the Russian military engagement and pervasive subversion sponsored by the Kremlin this is all but mission impossible.

Yet the Obama administration — especially Joe Biden — has emphasized corruption fighting, while its reaction to Putin’s aggression has been tepid. President Obama prefers a cautious combination of economic sanctions against Russia and economic support for the Ukrainian government in Kiev.

Obama’s delicate carrot-and-stick approach hasn’t worked, and the long-simmering Ukrainian kettle threatens to boil into the worst crisis in relations between Moscow and Washington since the Cold War.

Despite all the best efforts of the West since its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine is a kleptocracy. Its political history amounts to little more than a nonstop perp-walk, with one popularly elected leader kicked out of the country in a popular uprising, another suspected of murder, and the third blamed for the weakened institutions and lost opportunities.

The optimism created by the 2013-2014 “EuroMaidan” street demonstrations was short-lived. Prime Minister Arseniy Petrovych Yatsenyuk was forced to resign in April against a backdrop of permanent political crisis and high-profile charges of corruption.

The Russia-inspired war killed thousands of Ukrainians and displaced a million more, but when asked which is more urgent — the war against the pro-Russian rebels or the war against corruption — Ukrainians believe corruption is more important, by a margin of more than two-to-one.

The so-called “Panama Papers” — the millions of leaked documents from the Panamanian corporate law firm Mossack Fonseca — also proved last April that President Petro Poroshenko was busy registering offshore accounts even as his own troops were retreating from one of the bloodiest defeats of the war.

Poroshenko is Europe’s richest leader according to Forbes, and despite his promises to “embed new traditions” by selling off his assets, he has sold nothing. In fact, he was the only one of Ukraine’s wealthy businessmen to see his net worth actually increase in 2015, to $858 million. Like his predecessor Yanukovych, he has erased the thin line once existed between business and politics in Ukraine and he is profiting richly, even as his country struggles through the worst economic and political crisis since the 1991 independence. 

Perhaps most dispiriting of all, even those Ukrainian activists, politicians, and journalists who are portrayed as true reformers appear likewise unable to resist the temptation to engage in the systemic looting of the Ukrainian economy.

In early September, the New Yorker magazine dedicated several thousand words to three citizen-journalists who now serve in the Ukrainian Parliament. Like other western media outlets, the New Yorker portrayed Sergei Leshchenko, Svitlana Zalishchuk, and Mustafa Nayem as dedicated journalists — new faces who sought election to parliament as part of President Poroshenko’s bloc in the wake of the Maidan street protests, which Nayem helped organize.

Now, however, Leshchenko’s post-election acquisition of high-end housing has attracted the attention of the Anti-Corruption Agency of Ukraine, an investigatory body that was established at the urging of the United States. Last week, the Anti-Corruption Agency forwarded the Leshchenko file to the special prosecutor’s office tasked with corruption fighting. Leshchenko could not explain the source of the income that allowed him to buy the residence, loan documents are missing, and the purchase price was allegedly below market

The owner of the building, according to Ukrainian media accounts, is Ivan Fursin, the partner of mega-oligarch Dmytro Firtash.

Recent reports have revealed that Leshchenko’s expenses for attending international forums were paid for by the oligarch Viktor Pinchuk who also contributed $8,6 million to the Clinton Foundation While Leshchenko remains the toast of the Western media and Washington think tanks, back at home, his fellow reformers in the Ukrainian Parliament are calling on him to resign until his name is cleared.

Meanwhile, the next president is sure to find Ukraine besieged on all sides: With Russian troops and pro-Russian rebels at its throat and corruption destroying it from within — and as the Leshchenko scandal suggests — not all in Ukraine is what it appears to be. 

The new president must learn to discern Ukraine’s true reformers from those who made anti-corruption crusades into a lucrative business, and be able to distinguish real action from empty words. 

If not, the two-and-a-half-decade-long Ukrainian experiment with independence may boil over completely.

Photo credit: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

Corrections, Oct. 12, 2016: Viktor Medvedchuk is a pro-Russian politician who leads the civil society group Ukrainian Choice. A previous version of this article mistakenly called him “Alexander Medvedchuk.” Also, his daughter Darya is the goddaughter of Vladimir Putin. A previous version of this article said both of his daughters were the goddaughters of the Russian president.