What Will Ukraine Do Without Uncle Joe?
Vice President Joe Biden led the administration’s support of Ukraine. But Kiev worries whether the next White House will have its back as Putin looks to ramp up pressure.
The Battle to Reform A Country
Biden’s connection with the Ukrainians began shortly after the ouster of former President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. After Yanukovych failed to sign a long-awaited trade association agreement with the European Union, and instead accepted an offer of $15 billion in government bond purchases and discounted gas from the Kremlin, massive protests erupted in Kiev. After months of protests and deadly clashes between protesters and police, Yanukovych fled the capital on Feb. 22, 2014, making his way to Russia, where he lives today.
Washington’s immediate problem was to ensure a new government in Kiev was credible enough to handle the difficult political transition and salvage the country’s tanking economy. But Ukraine’s political culture had become dysfunctional and its institutions hollowed out, with the country run by a partnership between politicians and oligarchs.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk — a former foreign minister, economy minister, and presidential candidate — emerged from the fray and won Western support, becoming prime minister after the Maidan revolution. Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire politician who had served in several cabinet posts over the previous decade and made his money in the confectionary business, also emerged on the post-Maidan political scene as a key player. Poroshenko would be elected president on May 25, 2014.
Biden developed a personal bond with the governing duo and would go on to champion various reforms in Ukraine. He helped the fledgling government gain a $17.5 billion International Monetary Fund package, supported the overhaul of the country’s inefficient and corrupt gas sector, assisted in a high-profile move to reform Ukraine’s notoriously dishonest police force, and pushed for the creation of an independent anti-corruption bureau to combat graft. The vice president’s attention to Kiev’s precarious situation was also backed up by Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, who worked closely with Ukraine’s new cabinet of pro-Western technocrats, and by Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, who helped push market reforms.
“The most important thing has been the timing. Biden came when Ukraine desperately needed attention from the international community, and he gave it,” said Balazs Jarabik, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
But it was the vice president’s personal signature on diplomacy that pushed his advocacy further and allowed him to build a strong relationship with Ukrainian politicians.
“[Biden] is the real man. He does what he believes in. He has the vision; he has guts,” Yatsenyuk, who resigned in April, told FP.
Yatsenyuk credited Biden’s drive in cementing U.S. credibility with Ukrainian lawmakers strongly enough for Washington’s criticism to be heeded as Kiev began to stall on reforms. One such example came in December 2015, when the vice president in a fiery speech urged the Ukrainian parliament to curb the power of the country’s oligarchs and to fulfill the promise of the Maidan revolution.
Biden’s brand of tough love became more pronounced as the old ways of Ukrainian politics resumed. Despite a series of measures to increase government transparency and salvage the country’s teetering economy, Kiev began to slow — and in some cases completely halt — carrying out anti-corruption reforms.
Public dissatisfaction was growing in late 2015 with Poroshenko’s choice for general prosecutor: Viktor Shokin, a veteran of Ukrainian politics and a close associate of the president. Shokin fumbled the corruption case of a former Yanukovych crony and let him flee the country.
The position of general prosecutor, who is appointed by the president, enjoys outsized importance in Ukraine and is often used to exert pressure on rivals and cut deals for political and commercial gains. The Maidan revolution was supposed to bring an end to this type of horse-trading, but Shokin served as a reminder that little had changed. He reinforced that perception by hindering an investigation into two high-ranking state prosecutors arrested on corruption charges and after Economy Minister Aivaras Abromavicius cited him by name before quitting in protest over the delayed reforms.
Dismayed by Poroshenko’s backtracking, the White House withheld $1 billion in loan guarantees until Shokin was fired. Biden delivered that message directly to Poroshenko over the phone.
“‘Petro, you’re not getting your billion dollars,’” Biden recalled telling the president in an interview with the Atlantic. “‘It’s OK, you can keep the [prosecutor] general. Just understand—we’re not paying if you do.’”
Poroshenko eventually sacked Shokin. But the Ukrainian leader’s reputation in Washington — and in Ukraine — soured as a result, and his approval ratings have hovered close to a dismal 10 percent ever since.
“It’s hard to root out corruption in your system if the equivalent of the attorney general is not only corrupt but has a bunch of corrupt cronies in other positions and is actively thwarting investigations of oligarchs and government officials,” the senior U.S. administration official said. “Removing Shokin was a necessary — if not wholly sufficient — factor in continuing Ukraine on the reform path.”
Following the incident with Shokin, the pro-Western coalition of Yatsenyuk and Poroshenko was also thrown into peril as the two men began to clash, smearing each other in local media. Yatsenyuk narrowly survived a no-confidence vote brought against him by Poroshenko’s party, sparking a tense political crisis. After months of infighting and lost confidence by Ukraine’s Western partners, Yatsenyuk resigned as prime minister in April.
Since then, Kiev has continued to sputter on reforms, as the vested interests of the past have been confronted by a new wave of politicians and activists trying to take the country in a Western direction.
The latest clash was illustrated in an ongoing feud between the Office of the General Prosecutor and the recently established National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU). The new bureau was created to tackle high-profile corruption cases, but NABU has directly conflicted with the prosecutor’s office, which sees it as a political rival. In a dramatic incident in August, agents from the prosecutor’s office raided NABU’s offices on a charge of illegal surveillance and later detained two of its investigators and beat them while in custody.