American Senators on Bipartisan Support for Ukraine
9 September, 2019

This week two American Senators, Republican Ron Johnson from Wisconsin and Democrat Chris Murphy from Connecticut visited Ukraine to meet Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other high officials, including the new Prosecutor General Rouslan Riaboshapka and the head of the High Anti-Corruption Court Olena Tanasevych. Hromadske invited them for an interview ahead of their meeting with the head of state. 

You're about to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. What are you going to discuss and what advice will you give to him?

Ron Johnson: We started our day by meeting the new Prosecutor General (Rouslan Riaboshapka -ed.) and I think we're mindful of the fact that President Zelenskyy won an amazing mandate from the people of Ukraine to rid this country of corruption. We also attended the opening session of the High Anti-Corruption Court. And I thought President Zelenskyy's speech was excellent. He made the point that "we're not just going to fight corruption, we're going to defeat corruption”. So I think that's really one of our main topics: the challenge that he's going to be facing. This isn't easy - democracy isn't easy. It took America decades. We're still trying to form a more perfect union. This is extremely difficult but he has an amazing mandate from the Ukrainian people. The courage they've shown on the Maidan and ever since. We're just here to basically support the Ukrainian people. 

Chris Murphy: It's wonderful to be back here in Ukraine. I was here during the height of the protests in late 2013 on the stage of the Maidan with Senator [John] McCain. I miss him but I'm so proud of this ongoing Revolution of Dignity which people all across Ukraine have decided to stand up over and over again to demand that they live in a truly sovereign and free country. I'm glad that we're partners. Ukraine has support from both sides of the aisle: the Republicans and Democrats. We fight about lots of issues in Washington but there are a few that unite us in a manner more so than our support for Ukraine. So I was encouraged today by all of this robust focus on anti-corruption efforts. There's been a lot of talk in this area, a little bit of progress and I think now some serious movement and we're both looking forward to meeting the President - [it’ll be] my first time. I know Senator Johnson has met with him prior and we hope to be partners with him.

Speaking of anti-corruption initiatives the U.S. has supported the previous government in establishing anti-corruption bodies and so on. Do you have the feeling that with the new parliament and new government the anti-corruption reforms will go faster? Because the U.S. has also criticized the pace of these reforms before?

R.J: I would say in our discussions with the new Prosecutor General [Rouslan Riaboshapka] and chieftess of the High Court [Olena Tanasevych], and all the other representatives we have spoken to so far in the Ukrainian government there is a dedication to carrying out that mandate: to - again - defeat corruption. I have no doubt that the dedication, effort and will are going to be there. And we've also been working with our Charge d'Affairs here, the MC staff. They're fully on board, they want to be completely supportive working with Ukrainian partners to - again - fulfill the mandate that the Ukrainian people gave to this new administration. 

C.M.: There has been this robust support from Congress. We've appropriated over the years hundreds of millions of dollars, into the billions. But in the last few years - to be honest, occasionally - there have been some of our colleagues who questioned the pace of reform here. I think it's so important for us to be able to come back to the U.S. and make this case that this is a new day and these anti-corruption efforts are real. The people who've stolen money from this country are going to be held accountable. And that will make it a lot easier for us to be able to prevail on our colleagues to continue the economic, political, and military support for Ukraine.  

How do you assess the first steps of the Ukrainian parliament? Given that there was a very rapid pace of changing the Constitution, also lifting the immunity. Are there any concerns about them?

R.J.: First of all, I think that the election result was quite amazing. That took some real guts on President Zelenskyy's part to really put his mandate on the line just a couple of months after he won the election to make sure he had the partners in the parliament to pass the laws. I think the strongest indication is that they passed a constitutional amendment that does not exempt members of parliament from the anti-corruption law. That's a very positive first step and they have a very aggressive agenda over the next few months. 

C.M.: You know it's probably not very different than the American system. When new presidents come into power, they want to get as much done as they can at the beginning of their tenure. It's when they have the most wind at their back. So I don't blame President Zelenskyy and his new majority in the Rada for attempting to do the same thing. We're certainly there to support them.

Ukraine, Poland, and the U.S. have signed a memorandum of sales of liquefied natural gas from America to Ukraine. Is it a breakthrough of the Ukraine parliament or is it rather a continuation of the cooperation already established by the previous one?

C.M.: I don't know whether it's a breakthrough or not, but we've got to have a comprehensive plan to be able to secure the long-term energy independence of Ukraine, but also of Europe as well. Senator Johnson and I have not really understood Europe’s interest in participating in a new gas route from Russia into the continent. Not just because it may harm Ukraine in the short run, but because it harms Europe, in the long run: making this entire continent more and more reliant on a product that comes from Russia. LNG is part of the solution but so have to be renewable energy sources. Other countries have done better than Ukraine on this and that has to be part of their package moving forward as well. I'd love to see the United States getting into the business of doing more than just providing advice, and actually providing some financing vehicles. And Senator Johnson and I actually have legislation that would help the United States finance more energy independence projects. Whether they'd be LNG or wind and solar. That would be an important piece of legislation for Congress to pass. 

R.J.: Of course, one of the main reasons: you have to defeat corruption, adhere to the rule of law, respect private properties. Those are basically table stakes for foreign investment to come into any country. So that's one of the real challenges whether that's going to be the benefit to this war, really, that this administration is going to wage on corruption in this country.

What are the other aspects of economic cooperation that the U.S. plans to maybe further in Ukraine? What are the sectors of the economy that might be of interest?

R.J.: In order to have a strong economy, you first have to have a safe and secure country. The extent that Russia has destabilized the situation here in Ukraine, illegally annexing Crimea, invading eastern Ukraine has certainly put a real pinch on the Ukrainian economy. So from my standpoint, I do want to make sure that the U.S. continues to support the Ukrainian military in their courageous effort to push back Russia's aggression and hopefully come to what I believe is President Zelenskyy's top goal is: to end that conflict in eastern Ukraine. 

C.M.: We're big supporters of a more robust economic cooperation between Ukraine and the United States but the United States isn't China: we don't have state-directed industries. What our mission is to try to help Ukraine become more hospitable for private investments. American companies are going to be here in Ukraine if they believe that they're gonna get a fair share, that they're gonna be able to get a return on investment in this country. And without more progress on anti-corruption efforts and rule of law efforts, you're just not gonna have the interest of American companies. that's why I think our focus is so clearly on this issue of continued governance reform because that is what will allow for American companies to be interested in showing up and being more present in Ukraine which is something we want.

You've already touched on China relations. Right now, as Ukraine has good relations with both China and America, given also the possible contracts selling Motor Sich [airline] and other companies, how these relations may affect the cooperation with the U.S., in case we have arms sales, for instance, to China? How to balance it?

C.M.: You can surely have good relations with the United States and China. I'd just be careful about some of the products that the Chinese may be offering here. We've had some strong feelings for instance what tools may be available to China, for instance, if they get control over your country's high-speed internet system. You may not want to be in a position in which the Chinese have control of that important sort of technology. I think that we want the countries that we are allies with economically to be able to do business with China but just to have eyes wide open as to the sectors that you are allowing China to become dominant in. 

R.J.: There are serious strings attached to Chinese investment in some of these countries. Some countries are starting to understand that we are watching right now what China is doing in terms of putting pressure on the freedom-loving people of Hong Kong. I agree with Senator Murphy: I would advise Ukrainians to be very careful in their growing relationship economic, technologically with China because there are some very serious strings attached.

Ukraine has enjoyed bipartisan support from the U.S. for a long time. Now some analysts say that Ukraine might possibly be dragged into the U.S. domestic political dispute? I'm talking about the visit of the personal lawyer of Donald Trump, Rudolph Giuliani, his meetings with Ukrainian top officials. What challenges do his actions pose before the Ukrainian government?

C.M.: I think that Ukraine has to be very careful about taking any actions that could be perceived even to be impacting an American election. Obviously we have gone through a tumultuous investigation in the United States which has uncovered tremendous interference in the U.S. election by another power. I just don't think: that is not Ukraine's intent - I just don't think you want any perception as a friend and ally of the United States of trying to be a player or an actor in a U.S. election. And that is good advice for every country, not just Ukraine.

R.J.: I think it's been remarkable how strong and unanimous the support in Congress has been for the courageous people here of Ukraine. I do not see that changing. Americans want to help people throughout the world. Those nations that are aspiring for freedom, for a capital system, for safety, security, peace, prosperity for themselves and their families. We're going to be here and we're going to continue to be in support of Ukraine.

You've touched on the security issues. Do you have a feeling that with the new government the security cooperation between the states will enhance if we compare it with the experience with the previous Ukrainian government? 

R.J.: I think we'll remain steadfast. We'll continue the support of Ukraine. I can speak for the first branch of our government: The United States Congress: we're unanimous in our support for the courage of the Ukrainian people.

C.M.: Senator Johnson is right: we are committed Republicans and Democrats to this security cooperation. We are proud to have U.S. personnel here doing important training missions. We've been proud to support some really important investments in the military. We know that there's been a lot of attention here on the president's suspension of security aid. We don't know what the final determination will be from the administration, but I think the President knows that there's broad bipartisan support for continued aid and support for lifting, what we hope is a temporary, hold on this important security funding for Ukraine.

/Interview by Sashko Shevchenko