Ukraine Needs U.S. Help to Fight Corruption
Domestic reforms are just as important as defending against Russian aggression.
By providing Ukraine with defensive antitank weapons, the Trump administration has taken an important step towards helping the country defend itself against Russian aggression. The administration should now build on this enhanced relationship by upgrading and expanding the U.S. military’s training program in Ukraine and by using U.S. leverage to press Ukrainian leaders to follow through on anti-corruption reforms.
The grim reality today is that Ukraine is waging a war on two fronts. While defending against Russian tanks, missiles, and artillery in the east, the Ukrainian state is battling corrupt actors on the inside. When the kleptocratic regime of Viktor Yanukovych absconded from power in February 2014, Russia’s “little green men” and their covert proxies emerged as the pre-eminent threats to the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Now that Ukraine’s military is stronger and can hold the line against Russian forces, corruption has arguably emerged as the greatest threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty and Euro-Atlantic aspirations.
The Kremlin understands this better than anyone. Kremlin strategists initially failed to anticipate that Russia’s invasion would galvanize a more cohesive Ukrainian national identity and sense of civic responsibility, especially among the younger generation. But now Moscow has adjusted. Where tanks and mortars failed, Russia’s political technologists are now counting on the nonlethal but potentially more potent and subversive weapon of corruption to weaken Ukraine internally. Their goal is simple: use corruption to set Ukrainians against each other and block the country’s path towards European integration. With presidential and parliamentary elections approaching in 2019, the Kremlin is focusing on supporting those parties and politicians who can be most easily bought or manipulated by its proxies. While Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ultimate goal is to control the government in Kiev, he would also be quite happy with a fragmented and divided Ukrainian polity.
That is why the current administration must use its leverage to strengthen Ukraine’s defenses against corruption, while continuing to build up Ukraine’s military. On the anticorruption front, the Obama administration sent FBI, Department of Justice, and State Department experts to Ukraine to help create from scratch an independent National Anti-Corruption Bureau, an independent National Agency on Corruption Prevention, and an independent Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor. In addition, the United States is providing the expertise to create a new patrol police in local communities across Ukraine. This force is now cited as one of the most tangible signs of change from the previous regime, with bribery diminishing considerably. The Obama administration also provided advanced training to National Guard and Border Guard services, helping increase the capacities of these key forces, along with their ability to protect Ukraine from outside threats.
None of these reforms were easy. They required constant minding and diplomatic pressure to get Ukraine’s leaders to follow through on their commitments. Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, for example, insisted repeatedly that Ukraine’s leaders create independent anti-corruption institutions to prevent and prosecute graft. Biden pressed this point home at just about every opportunity, and he was on the phone with Ukraine’s leaders almost every week.
This sort of diplomatic pressure is needed now more than ever. Unfortunately, as a result of the distraction of their own elections (and the Brexit vote), leaders in the United States, Britain, France, and Germany have paid scant attention to Ukraine over the last year. This has led entrenched interests within Ukraine’s ruling class to launch a broadside against the country’s nascent anti-corruption institutions. Correctly perceiving these institutions as a threat to all manner of corrupt schemes, the vested interests have tried to neuter or politically subordinate them to the government. This past month, representatives of the ruling parties publicly attacked the director of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (conveniently, during a visit to Washington when he was unable to rebut their allegations in person) and then summarily dismissed the chairman of the parliament’s anti-corruption committee because of his political independence (he belongs to an opposition party). Despite these audacious moves, there was no flurry of calls from Western leaders to register concern. This is where the current administration must apply its diplomatic leverage, as the previous administration did on so many occasions. The message has to be simple: Western support is based on conditions, not automatic, so you either agree to fight corruption or lose our support.
On the military front, the United States can further augment its enhanced leverage by continuing to expand and upgrade its training program, Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine. This training mission currently graduates five land forces battalions and one special operations battalion annually. If Ukraine were to invest the resources by providing top-quality trainers (a persistent shortcoming faced by leaders of the program from the start), the mission could be expanded from its current focus on small-unit tactics to more sophisticated combined-arms training modeled on real-life conditions in the Donbass. Upgraded training would help counter Russia’s sophisticated electronic warfare measures and lethal drones, and allow the strategic advice being providing by former U.S. Centcom commander John Abizaid, a senior defense advisor to the Ukrainian military, to be translated down from the General Staff to the unit level. In terms of long-term strategic effect, enhanced training would be a real game-changer and far more significant than a few hundred antitank missiles (though, to be clear, weapons are needed too).
Finally, the United States must also think bigger. In addition to applying leverage to encourage anti-corruption reforms and expanding its military footprint, Washington should press its European partners and allies to step up. This means encouraging NATO countries to follow the U.S. lead by providing weapons to Ukraine. It also means beginning serious discussions with the EU on a Western-managed investment fund as a means to encourage deeper anti-corruption reforms.
Lithuania’s former prime minister, Andrius Kubilius, is one of a growing number of European leaders who have proposed creating such a fund. Because Ukraine’s membership in NATO and the EU is not realistic in the near future, the political incentives are not currently strong enough for Ukrainian party leaders to back difficult reforms and cut off the vested interests that finance their re-election campaigns. A Western-managed investment fund would serve as a bridging mechanism to spur reforms and good governance until a realistic Euro-Atlantic perspective emerges in the future.
Ukraine has many brilliant reformers in senior government positions who are impatient to implement the various plans they have drawn up. They now need to be empowered to put in place these reforms, free from the interference of vested interests. Western investments into Ukraine’s real economy would finally offer the right mix of political incentives to drive reforms forward, and investments would come in tranches that would be conditioned on strict anti-corruption benchmarks. The amount of capital required to stand up this investment fund — somewhere on the order of $6 billion annually — is quite modest in comparison with the EU’s $378 billion European Fund for Strategic Investments.
Some will ask whether this amounts to throwing good money after bad. The answer is that it depends on whether Europe and the United States are willing to take a proactive, hands-on approach to helping Ukraine fight corruption. If structured the right way and backed by the EU’s political clout, a Ukraine Investment Fund has the power to drive change in ways no outside actor can match. The mechanisms of the market provide the most powerful incentives for reform, particularly when augmented by political conditionality. The precedents can be found in Ukraine’s own neighborhood, in countries like Poland, Romania, and Lithuania.
The alternative to a proactive, hands-on approach is the current laissez-faire attitude towards Ukraine. If this remains the state of affairs, however, then the United States risks seeing Ukraine’s vested interests, backed by Russian money with its own special conditionality, wipe out the reforms of the last few years. And if these corrupt interests claw their way back, as happened after the Orange Revolution, the result will be far more costly for the West over the long run — economically and geopolitically. That is why it is imperative for the United States and Europe to focus attention on helping Ukraine win on both of its strategic fronts: in the east where its soldiers are defending Ukrainian sovereignty and territory against continuing Russian aggression, and internally, as reformers are increasingly embattled in their fight against the old system. The stakes are simply too high for the West to stand on the sidelines.