The Ukrainian people have made tremendous sacrifices over the past two years, including more than a hundred killed during the Maidan revolution in 2014 and nearly 10,000 killed fending off Vladimir Putin’s invading forces in eastern Ukraine. They have endured disappointment with their own leaders and frustration with the West, which, Ukrainians believe, has fallen short in providing the support their country needs.
Twice in the past 12 years, Ukrainians formed massive protests against corruption and authoritarianism. The first time was in 2004 against efforts by then Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych to steal the presidential election. The second time came in 2013–14 over then-President Yanukovych’s massive corruption and reversal under Russian pressure to sign agreements with the European Union. No other country in the world can match what the Ukrainian people have done in the past dozen years.
The people of Ukraine deserve full Western support. Accordingly, Western leaders need to reassure them that sanctions against the Putin regime will remain in place as long as Russian continues to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The United States and European Union also need to adopt a tough-love approach with Ukrainian leaders to make clear that failure to deal with corruption will come at a price.
Keep Sanctions but Bury Minsk
“Sanctions on Russia can and should only be lifted once Russia fully complies with its commitments under the Minsk [peace] agreement,” President Obama said during an April 24 news conference in Hannover, Germany. German Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed Obama’s call for unity between the European Union and the United States against Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine. “We stand by the agreement of Minsk and put a lot of importance on its implementation as soon as possible,” she said. “We still have no stable ceasefire and we must advance on the political process, and we discussed in detail the next steps needed.”
U.S. and German leaders are right to stress the need for maintaining sanctions against the Putin regime, but they are wrong to hinge such a position on Russia’s compliance with the Minsk ceasefire deal, mediated by Germany and France more than a year ago between Russia, the aggressor, and Ukraine, the victim of Russian aggression.
That is because Minsk is a terribly flawed deal: It does not mention Crimea at all, which Russia illegally annexed in March 2014; it refers to “foreign” forces instead of “Russian” forces, which continue to invade Ukraine and engage in hostilities; and it unfairly imposes on Ukraine the need to pass special legislation and a constitutional amendment for elections in Donetsk and Luhansk, regions which Russian occupying forces currently control.
Voting on such legislation is an incredibly sensitive issue for Ukrainians. Four protestors died last August when Ukraine’s parliament, the Rada, by a bare majority, approved a first reading. For the next step, it is unlikely that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko can muster the necessary 300 votes in the 450-seat Rada to amend the constitution, as called for under the Minsk deal.
More than 1.5 million Ukrainian citizens were displaced from the Donbas region as a result of Russia’s invasion. Unless they are able to return safely to their homes and vote, under Ukrainian law and consistent with the standards of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, holding an election there would have no legitimacy. Moreover, it is none of Russia’s business what type of governing system Ukraine decides to have.
And yet Ukrainian Rada deputies and political leaders are coming under growing pressure from Western capitals, including Washington, to pass the legislation and conduct the election this summer. There is absolutely no way a legitimate election could be held in the Donbas so soon. The pressure on Ukraine to demonstrate that it is fulfilling its obligations under Minsk is intended to keep wavering EU member states on board with sanctions when they come up for review in late June. But doing so places undue burdens on Ukraine and directs pressure away from where it should be focused—Moscow.
Indeed, Russia has not fulfilled a single condition under Minsk. While the Minsk deal temporarily reduced the level of fighting in eastern Ukraine, the violence has picked up in recent months. More than a year since the deal was struck is enough time to conclude that Minsk isn’t working. As the invading party, Russia bears full responsibility for this failure, not Ukraine.
To say that the Minsk deal is the only game in town, the constant refrain of Western diplomats, is both lazy and defeatist, as well as unfair to Ukraine. Russia has proven to be an untrustworthy interlocutor (not just on Ukraine) and continues to deny, absurdly, that it even has forces on Ukrainian soil, making it pointless to conduct further negotiations with Moscow. Nor is it reasonable to continue to pressure Ukraine to fulfill conditions under Minsk when Russia refuses to uphold any. It is time to come up with a better game.
Accordingly, the EU and United States, along with Canada, Japan, and other countries that have sanctioned Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, should replace Minsk with a one-sentence pronouncement:
Sanctions against Russia will remain in place—and will be increased over time—unless and until Russia withdraws its forces and weapons from Ukraine (including Crimea), respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and returns to Ukraine those citizens it kidnapped from Ukrainian territory.
This should not be a negotiation with Vladimir Putin. This should be a declaration. Western leaders must be clear that Ukraine remains the victim of Russia’s ongoing aggression, and sanctions against the Putin regime must stay in place until it leaves Ukraine in peace, however long that may take.
Ukraine’s Corruption Problem
While Russia poses the biggest external threat to Ukraine, the biggest internal threat comes from the failure of President Poroshenko and those around him to tackle corruption. The West needs to take a tough-love approach to address this challenge.
Some will argue that we should give the new government of Volodymyr Groysman time to get settled before adopting such an approach. But neither Ukraine nor the West can afford to wait. Moreover, the April 14 approval by the Rada of Groysman, a loyal Poroshenko man, suggests more of a consolidation of power in the hands of the President than a step toward real reform.
The Ukrainian people deserve better. After each revolution—first 2004 then 2014—it didn’t take long for Ukraine’s new leaders to severely disappoint the population, reverting to old practices of infighting and massive corruption.
Based on my recent trips to Ukraine (three in the past five months, including the week of the government reshuffle), I heard little optimism about the new government. With few exceptions, most officials appointed as part of Groysman’s cabinet are viewed less favorably overall than those whom they replaced. A number of observers expect Groysman’s government to last no more than six months.
All this argues for heightened outside pressure on Ukraine’s leaders involving four main elements.
First, the United States, European Union, and international lending agencies should make further financial assistance to Ukraine conditional on results and performance, not rhetoric and empty promises. To a large extent, this is already happening, especially with the hold-up in the next $1.7 billion tranche from the IMF. Formation of a new government is not progress; it is a development. The West and international community should insist on a serious reform program and early delivery from the new team. Providing lethal military assistance to help Ukraine defend itself against further Russian aggression is a different matter, to be clear, and should have happened two years ago.
Second, the United States and its European allies should more aggressively offer help from agencies like the FBI and Department of Justice for investigations into corruption inside Ukraine. And they should make clear that Ukraine’s readiness to accept and make use of such help will be seen as a test of its seriousness on combatting this problem. Outside assistance and pressure on Ukrainian prosecutors is necessary for investigations to be carried out fairly and without political interference. This will also help end politically motivated persecutions of whistle-blowers, including within the Prosecutor General’s office.
Third, American and European law enforcement agencies should look into the source of purchases of high-ticket assets and real estate by Ukrainians in our own countries. From where are Ukrainian officials and oligarchs getting the money to buy companies and expensive condos in the United States, for example? The West should not enable Ukraine’s corruption.
Fourth, it is time for targeted sanctions against Ukrainians involved in serious corruption. Arguing for such measures is not to equate Ukraine with Russia, against which there are two kinds of sanctions already in place for gross human rights abuses and for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The sanctions for Ukraine would be for high-level corruption. Even sanctioning a small number of corrupt individuals would have a sobering effect on others who do not want to lose access to the West for travel and banking.
The Maidan movement in 2014 was very much a protest against 25 years of devastating corruption in Ukraine. Aside from creation of an independent national anti-corruption bureau, Poroshenko and those in the previous government have done nothing to advance the anti-corruption cause. The Prosecutor General’s office has been a vehicle for targeting political enemies and impeding cases against those genuinely suspected of illegal activity, including those responsible for the murders of the “Heavenly Hundred” who lost their lives in Kyiv in February 2014. A total house-cleaning of the Prosecutor General’s office—as well as the nearly 20,000 prosecutors in the country, along with many judges—is desperately needed.
Hence the need to emphasize the sticks as well as the carrots in our approach to supporting Ukraine in the fight against corruption. Unless we deprive Ukrainians involved in illegal behavior of the privilege of traveling to and living in our countries and parking their ill-gotten gains in our financial institutions, Ukraine’s leaders and oligarchs will never get serious about fighting corruption. The few times in the past 15 years that the U.S. government has said that it would not issue visas to certain Ukrainian individuals, it got a lot of attention.
Maintaining sanctions against Russia until it departs Ukraine, including Crimea, and getting tougher with Ukraine’s leaders over corruption are the best ways for the West to help Ukraine succeed. There is no time to waste on either front.