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.

No one in the U.S. government has wielded more influence over Ukraine than Vice President Joe Biden. As the Obama administration’s point person on Ukraine policy, he has rallied support for Kiev in the face of Russian military intervention and cultivated a personal rapport with its leaders. But he has delivered tough love as well, delaying financial aid more than once over concerns about rampant corruption.

With Biden’s tenure as vice president about to expire, the next U.S. president will have to decide who will take up his unique role as Kiev’s go-to guy. The transition comes at a pivotal moment for the festering war in Ukraine, America’s increasingly tense rivalry with Russia, and Europe’s growing fatigue with Kiev’s incessant corruption.

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The new commander in chief will take the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2017, against mounting alarm at the State Department, the Defense Department, and Congress over Russian behavior in Ukraine and elsewhere. From Russia’s indiscriminate bombing of the Syrian city of Aleppo to its hacking of the Democratic National Committee to its support for armed separatists in eastern Ukraine to its nuclear saber rattling, U.S. diplomats, senior military officers, and lawmakers are increasingly arguing for an aggressive tack against Moscow.

“There’s an appetite for a more assertive approach,” said one congressional staffer who works on Ukraine and Russia policy.

It’s widely believed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is better prepared to take on Russia on behalf of Ukraine and walk a more hawkish line on foreign policy than the Obama administration. But Ukrainian officials are extremely apprehensive about her Republican counterpart, Donald Trump, who has spoken warmly of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Even President Barack Obama, a Democrat, has been reluctant to help shoulder the complete burden of Ukraine’s woes, in part out of fear of provoking a direct confrontation with Moscow. In 2014, Russian troops seized and annexed the Crimean Peninsula and then reportedly deployed Moscow’s own soldiers to eastern Ukraine to back separatists there. At the time, Obama overruled Biden and most of his advisors in deciding against arming Ukrainian soldiers.

Obama was worried about triggering an escalating military standoff between Kiev and Moscow that Russia probably would win and was mindful of European capitals’ strong opposition to the move. Instead, Obama pushed for economic sanctions against Russia and agreed to have Germany and France lead diplomatic efforts with Kiev and Moscow to resolve the conflict.

But the fighting has continued, and patience for Russia is running out in Congress, where some lawmakers now favor slapping fresh economic sanctions on Moscow. Senior diplomats are also frustrated at the state of the fraying Minsk peace agreement and believe the time has come for the United States to take a leading role in the talks, instead of deferring to Berlin and Paris.

The internationally brokered Minsk deal has helped reduce fighting from a peak in 2014. But it has failed to secure a lasting cease-fire or the reintegration of separatist-controlled areas in Ukraine’s east. According to the United Nations, the conflict has killed nearly 10,000 people since it began in April 2014.

Obama administration officials said there is a remote chance that the roughly 10 weeks between the U.S. election on Nov. 8 and when the next president enters office could serve as a window of opportunity for progress on the Minsk arrangements. But that will depend on Putin’s unlikely willingness to move away from Ukraine’s current low-level conflict, in which Moscow regularly dials up provocations from separatist forces to exert leverage over Kiev.

According to emails allegedly belonging to senior Putin aide Vladislav Surkov, and recently obtained by a Ukrainian hacker group, the Kremlin has detailed plans on how to further destabilize Ukraine’s politics and economy. The authenticity of the documents has not yet been verified.

Vice President Joe Biden gestures with enthusiasm after addressing deputies of the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev on Dec. 8, 2015. (Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

The Biden Effect

Ukraine’s government has relied heavily on its direct channel to the U.S. vice president, and Biden’s departure will leave a gaping hole. The vice president’s impact is largely based on the force of his big personality, his backing from Obama, and his long track record of promoting a robust American role in Eastern Europe — from supporting NATO’s enlargement to pushing for U.S. military intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s.

If Clinton is elected, which looks likely if current public opinion polls hold, it’s possible the job of overseeing U.S. ties with Ukraine could shift back to the State Department. Clinton herself could take up the mantle, as she has shown strong interest in the conflict, according to current and former administration officials.

It’s even possible Biden will have a role in a future Clinton administration. Her advisors are toying with the idea of having Biden serve as her secretary of state, according to a report in Politico, though the prospects for that outcome remain unclear at best.

But it’s clear the next president will “have to have a point person for Ukraine,” whether at the White House or the State Department, said a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Biden speaks to Ukrainian leaders on the phone two or three times a month, and “he is very hands-on,” the administration official told Foreign Policy.

Ukrainian officials echoed that portrayal and heaped praise on Biden’s outreach.

“Joe’s role was unique and valuable and will be very hard to duplicate,” former Ukrainian Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko, now a fellow at the Atlantic Council, told FP.

Obama and Biden have divided up responsibilities of responding to the crisis in Ukraine. The president has focused on shoring up support for retaining sanctions against Russia in his talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders. Biden’s mission, meanwhile, has sought to keep Ukraine in the loop while also ensuring Kiev doesn’t violate the Minsk deal or fail to tackle corruption at home — either of which could spur European capitals into abandoning the sanctions regime.

“The vice president has been extraordinarily involved in helping communicate to the Ukrainians to stay whiter than snow as it relates to reforms, and their obligations under Minsk, so there’s no excuse for the Europeans to walk away,” the administration official said.

Protesters clash with police in Independence square in central Kiev at the height of protests against former President Viktor Yanukovych on Feb. 20, 2014. (Photo by JEFF J MITCHELL/Getty Images)

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.

Ukrainian servicemen play soccer on a road at Svitlodarsk, approaching Debaltseve on Feb. 15, 2015 as a cease-fire is cautiously observed (Photo by VOLODYMYR SHUVAYEV/AFP/Getty Images)

Shipping Weapons to Ukraine

Apart from prodding Kiev on reforms, U.S. policy toward Ukraine will hinge on the still simmering war in the country’s eastern Donbass region. If the Minsk deal collapses and violence spikes, the next president would face renewed debate — not only about new sanctions on Moscow, but about whether to arm Ukrainian forces as they fight Russian-backed separatists.

The question of whether to provide arms to Kiev — particularly anti-tank weapons — sparked a heated debate in and outside the administration when the war was at its peak in 2014.

According to Derek Chollet, who at the time served as a top Defense Department official, Obama’s advisors were virtually unanimous in calling for weapons for Ukraine’s security forces. “This was one of the few occasions I can recall in the Obama administration in which just about every senior official was for doing something that the president opposed,” Chollet wrote in his book The Long Game.

The White House was so concerned about avoiding any tensions with Russia that it trucked in nonlethal military gear to Ukraine instead of flying it on U.S. military aircraft — just in case the planes’ “gray tails” were perceived as a provocation.

Low-level fighting continues, with casualties reported every week. Yet there are no large-scale military offensives underway, and front lines have frozen in place. And as a result, calls for arming Kiev’s forces have faded.

“The issue was riper when the conflict was hotter,” the senior administration official said.

The Ukrainian armed forces also have become much more capable and organized over the last two years, after receiving training and assistance from the United States and after Kiev began a reform program. Still, Ukrainian officials say they will raise the issue of receiving lethal aid from Washington with the next U.S. president and expect to win bipartisan support for the move on Capitol Hill.

Hillary Clinton meets with Petro Poroshenko at the Intercontinental Hotel on Sept. 19 in New York City. (Photo by JUSTIN SULLIVAN/Getty Images)

Kiev and a New White House

Looking ahead, Ukraine and the tenuous Minsk peace accord will remain a foreign-policy priority for the next president because of their central role in Washington’s strained relations with Moscow. Officials in Kiev look upon a possible Clinton presidency favorably and have high hopes that their needs will be met.

“Hillary is a champion of Ukraine. She knows everything about Ukraine,” said Yatsenyuk, the former prime minister.

By contrast, Trump has expressed little sympathy for Ukraine’s plight and even parroted Russia’s point of view on events.

After Trump gave a July interview to George Stephanopoulos on ABC News, in which he implied Russia had not invaded Ukraine and said those living in Crimea might actually be happier under Moscow’s control, Kiev expressed outrage. On his Facebook page, Yatsenyuk wrote that Trump’s comments had violated “the very values of the free world, civilized world order and international law.”

On the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in September, Clinton met with Poroshenko, and the two agreed that “solidarity with Ukraine is important in resisting Russian aggression,” according to the press release from Poroshenko’s office.

The Ukrainian president also reached out to Trump, but no meeting occurred: At the time, a spokesperson for Poroshenko’s administration said the GOP nominee’s campaign never gave a clear answer about holding a meeting.

Photo Credit: Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration