Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and President Joe Biden meet in the Oval Office on Sept. 21. Graft in Ukraine has long been a concern of U.S. officials all the way up to Biden. But the topic was deemphasized in the wake of Russia’s February 2022 full-scale invasion. | Evan Vucci/AP
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Biden administration officials are far more worried about corruption in Ukraine than they publicly admit, a confidential U.S. strategy document obtained by POLITICO suggests. The “sensitive but unclassified” version of the long-term U.S. plan lays out numerous steps Washington is taking to help Kyiv root out malfeasance and otherwise reform an array of Ukrainian sectors. It stresses that corruption could cause Western allies to abandon Ukraine’s fight against Russia’s invasion, and that Kyiv cannot put off the anti-graft effort. “Perceptions of high-level corruption” the confidential version of the document warns, could “undermine the Ukrainian public’s and foreign leaders’ confidence in the war-time government.”
That’s starker than the analysis available in the little-noticed public version of the 22-page document, which the State Department appears to have posted on its website with no fanfare about a month ago. The confidential version of the “Integrated Country Strategy” is about three times as long and contains many more details about U.S. objectives in Ukraine, from privatizing its banks to helping more schools teach English to encouraging its military to adopt NATO protocols. Many goals are designed to reduce the corruption that bedevils the country. The quiet release of the strategy, and the fact that the toughest language was left in the confidential version, underscores the messaging challenge facing the Biden team. The administration wants to press Ukraine to cut graft, not least because U.S. dollars are at stake. But being too loud about the issue could embolden opponents of U.S. aid to Ukraine, many of them Republican lawmakers who are trying to block such assistance. Any perception of weakened American support for Kyiv also could cause more European countries to think twice about their role. When it comes to the Ukrainians, “there are some honest conversations happening behind the scenes,” a U.S. official familiar with Ukraine policy said. Like others, the person was granted anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue. Ukrainian graft has long been a concern of U.S. officials all the way up to President Joe Biden. But the topic was deemphasized in the wake of Russia’s February 2022 full-scale invasion, which Biden has called a real-life battle of democracy against autocracy. For months, Biden aides stuck to brief mentions of corruption. They wanted to show solidarity with Kyiv and avoid giving fuel to a small number of Republican lawmakers critical of U.S. military and economic aid for Ukraine.
William Taylor, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said many ordinary Ukrainians will likely welcome the strategy because they, too, are tired of the endemic corruption in their country. |
Andrew Harnik/AP PhotoMore than a year into the full-scale war, U.S. officials are pressing the matter more in public and private. National security adviser Jake Sullivan, for instance, met in early September with a delegation from Ukrainian anti-corruption institutions. A second U.S. official familiar with the discussions confirmed to POLITICO reports that the Biden administration is talking to Ukrainian leaders about potentially conditioning future economic aid on “reforms to tackle corruption and make Ukraine a more attractive place for private investment.” Such conditions are not being considered for military aid, the official said. A spokesperson for Ukraine’s foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment. But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has fired several top defense officials in a recent crackdown on alleged graft — a message to the United States and Europe that he’s listening. The Integrated Country Strategy is a State Department product that draws on contributions from other parts of the U.S. government, including the Defense Department. It includes lists of goals, timelines for achieving them and milestones that U.S. officials would like to see hit. (The State Department produces such strategies for many countries once every few years.) A State Department official, speaking on behalf of the department, would not say if Washington had shared the longer version of the strategy with the Ukrainian government or whether a classified version exists. William Taylor, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said many ordinary Ukrainians will likely welcome the strategy because they, too, are tired of the endemic corruption in their country. It’s all fine “as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the assistance we provide them to win the war,” he said.
The document says that fulfilling American objectives for Ukraine includes making good on U.S. promises of equipment and training to help Ukraine’s armed forces fend off the Kremlin’s attacks. The confidential version also describes U.S. goals such as helping reform elements of Ukraine’s national security apparatus to allow for “decentralized, risk-tolerant approach to execution of tasks” and reduce “opportunities for corruption.” Although the NATO military alliance is not close to allowing Ukraine to join, the American strategy often cites a desire to make Ukraine’s military adopt NATO standards.