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The Ukraine War in the Time of Trump

Benjamin Haddad

KYIV, Ukraine—It was just four years ago that tens of thousands abandoned their homes to gather on Maidan Square to fight for a better life, closer to Europe. For many, it was a battleground for the future of liberal democracy. Walking through the square today, everywhere you look there are pictures and plaques commemorating the 130 Ukrainians, many of them very young, who died here, leading to the departure of President Viktor Yanukovych.

The trade union building that served as the headquarters for opposition movements, on the square, is now covered with the giant letters “Freedom is our Religion” and drawings of broken chains. During the movement, it was buzzing with energy, hosting activists, refugees sleeping on the floors, and doctors treating victims of the repression. Amid lethal sniper fire, it was burned down by pro-regime forces during the crackdown on Feb. 19, 2014.

The message on the walls today is powerful, but look behind and the building hasn’t yet been reconstructed and the investigation over the shootings is still stalling. This is, sadly, an apt metaphor for the situation of the country today.

As Ukraine will face new presidential elections next March 31, it is entering a dangerous year where the tenuous progress made since 2014 could be reversed, not by Russia, but by its own leaders. Americans should pay attention. It is tempting to look elsewhere, prioritize military and diplomatic support in the face of foreign aggression. But Putin can win without tanks.

The Trump administration has proved its willingness to support Ukraine militarily. The delivery of Javelin anti-tank missiles, opposed by the Obama administration, will substantially increase the cost for Russia of further aggression. And Ambassador Kurt Volker, Trump’s special envoy to the conflict in Ukraine, is widely hailed here by political actors of all stripes for calling out Russia for its control over “100 percent” of separatist forces and saying that the fight in Donbas, eastern Ukraine, is not a “frozen conflict” but a “hot war.” These steps are critical, but our military and financial efforts to support Ukrainian sovereignty will be in vain if reforms are scaled back by Ukraine’s leaders using the war as a pretext to escape their own responsibility.

Ukrainians agree. In November, a poll conducted by the International Republican Institute showed corruption to be the major concern of respondents. Ukraine is ranked 130 on the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. President Petro Poroshenko has an approval rating of 14 percent, and his main opponents aren’t doing much better (PDF). Cab drivers, among others, echoed in almost exact same terms the bleak assessment made privately by Western diplomats: The country isn’t ruled by political leaders, but by a small coterie of oligarchs sharing the pie, and next year’s elections aren’t likely to change that.

Initially, the Poroshenko administration managed to reassure foreign investors and donors by taking steps to clean up the banking sector, raise energy prices, and improve its public procurement system. In the context of an invasion that has cost 10,000 lives, the annexation of Crimea and occupation of Donbas, this managed to bring back growth, lower inflation, and secure a $17.5 billion loan from the IMF.

One of the biggest steps forward was the creation in 2015 of the independent National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU). But NABU has little impact without the establishment of an independent anti-corruption court to prosecute and sentence those charged in such cases. Poroshenko has continuously evaded demands from donors to set up the court. Donors are starting to lose patience: The IMF has linked its next payment to the establishment of the court.

Now even NABU’s tenuous progress is under attack. Why? “Because the reforms started to work,” Olena Halushka, head of international relations at the Anti-Corruption Action Center, told me. Last fall, NABU delivered two “notices of suspicions” against high-level targets close to power. Immediately, the security services, SBU, who only answer to the president with no public oversight or transparency, went to war against NABU. SBU leaked the names of undercover NABU officers, to sabotage their work.

Parliamentarians close to the presidential party drafted a law that would have made it easier to dismiss the head of the independent authority. International outcry stopped this, a sign that external pressure still works, but more will be needed in the coming months. Ukrainians often recall how Joe Biden’s public rebuke accelerated the departure of the infamous special prosecutor: No one is playing this role in the administration today. Europeans could exert more leverage and signal that even visa-free travel with the EU can be rescinded.

Ukraine’s vibrant and courageous civil society actors are one of the most enduring legacies of 2014: They act as a constant reminder of Maidan to the political elite. As the country gears for election, they expect further pushback against their agenda, and themselves.

“Attacks are getting more creative and innovative” said Halushka. One of her colleagues returning from vacation was greeted at the airport by menacing protesters after someone leaked her travel information. Opposition MPs are wary of “kompromat” used against them. NGO members have been asked to disclose their assets and income through e-declaration, a method normally reserved for civil servants, a strange demand for individuals who don’t deal with public money. This is viewed as a way to embarrass them publicly in a country with very low salaries.

Despite the elite’s unpopularity, prospects for an outsider candidate at the presidential election seem grim. Many hope Slava Vakarchuk, a popular rock star, could run for office as an outsider candidate but so far, his intentions are unclear. Most of the young leaders that emerged from Maidan are scattered among different parties. “One of the problems of Euro-Maidan is that it’s never been embodied in a party, a new force. We are troublemakers, but not decision-makers,” said Svitlana Zalishchuk, an MP elected after Maidan who is trying, with others, to bring together reformist political currents. Barriers to entry for new forces are high, with TV channels and resources controlled by a small group of oligarchs. Most of these have assets hidden in the West: in London real estate, in European banks. We have a responsibility: Europeans could take measures to clean their own systems from kleptocratic money laundered in their capitals.

We should not give up on Ukraine; this will be a generational struggle testing our attention span. It needs “trust, backup and time,” Alex Ryabchyn, a reformist MP, told me. It will also need tough love from Western leaders.

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