UARU
The Interwoven Threats: Russia and Corruption
31 October, 2017

Ever since US President Donald Trump came to power in January 2017, the future of the relationship between the United States and Ukraine has been uncertain. According Michael Carpenter, – former foreign policy to US Vice President Joe Biden – the two main obstacles in this relationship are Russia and corruption.

However, this situation has seemed positive recently.The latest development in US-Ukraine relations is the possibility of the US providing lethal weapons to Ukraine to assist in the country’s ongoing war against Russia-backed separatists in the eastern regions.

Despite the fact the idea is supported by US Defense Secretary Mattis, National Security Advisor McMaster and State Secretary Tillerson, Carpenter is “sceptical” that this will materialize. The reason for his scepticism: the relationship between President Trump and Russia’s President Putin.

Carpenter says:  “I think [the US giving lethal weapons to Ukraine is] unlikely given the fact that Mr. Trump has coddled Mr. Putin throughout his time in office and during the campaign; he has cosied up to him, he has never really criticized Mr. Putin for his aggression in Ukraine, or for his interference with our election here in the United States”

According to Carpenter, Russia will continue to be a threat to Ukraine as long as corruption remains an issue in the country. He told Hromadske: “Russia sees corruption as the best opportunity to destabilize Ukraine and to subvert its sovereignty. So unless the government gets serious about pushing their reforms forward, Russia will have an easy way to undermine Ukraine and that would be a tragedy.”  

Hromadske sat down with the former foreign policy advisor to the US Vice President and current Senior Director of the Penn Biden Center Michael Carpenter to discuss the current state of US-Ukrainian relations and why Ukraine’s fight against corruption is so important for the country’s future.

How would you assess the relations with Russia and Ukraine? There were a lot of concerns before Trump was elected, but now we’re hearing talk of the US providing lethal defense weapons to Ukraine.

I hope that the administration decides to provide defensive weapons to Ukraine. I think it’s unlikely given the fact that Mr. Trump has coddled Mr. Putin throughout his time in office and during the campaign; he has cosied up to him, he has never really criticized Mr. Putin for his aggression in Ukraine, or for his interference with our election here in the United States. So I'm very sceptical that this will come about. I hope it does. I think the problem with this administration, with regards to Ukraine, is that there is benign or perhaps not-so-benign neglect, there is not pressure on the government to comply with anti-corruption norms,  there is not an overriding pressure from the administration to push the government to undertake further economic reforms, agricultural reforms, tax and administrative reforms. So, my sense is that we're in this uneasy status quo for the time being.

Why do you think there are criticisms in terms of anti-corruption? There are people who prefer to separate it - there is the Russian threat and the Ukrainian problem.

I think that's a false dichotomy. I think that the threat of corruption in Ukraine is just as important as the threat in the Donbas, and, in many ways, they are interwoven. So unless Ukraine is able to defend itself against corruption, this provides an avenue for Russia to interfere in the political process and to subvert Ukraine over the long-run. So it really requires that, both the Ukrainian government, but also the international community focus on both, and press for progress on both. There's not going to be progress on the Donbas without progress on corruption.

There is a lot of talk about providing lethal defense weapons at the moment. General Mattis mentioned it when he came to Kyiv. But how likely is this? Also, why did this not happen under the previous administration, when you were advising Joe Biden?

Well there were a number of us in the previous administration that argued very forcefully in favour of providing Ukraine with defensive weapons, and the reasons why we did so is because we wanted to prevent Russia from having more tools, more options for being able to conduct attacks across the line of contact. 

I am glad that, currently, Secretary Mattis and — if I understand correctly — National Security Advisor McMaster, and Secretary Tillerson are all supportive of defensive weapons, but, as I said at the outset, I'm very sceptical that the administration is going to decide to do this, simply because Mr. Trump is too cosy with the Russians to see this as something that would benefit him personally.

What kind of support could Ukraine expect? What would be effective at this stage?

I think effective in the first instance would be continuing the training programme for the Ukrainian military. That has been transformative in terms of increasing the readiness of the troops. And so, keeping the training programme that is currently going active, and also expanding it to do combined arms training I think would have a huge impact. I do think that providing certain types of defensive, like especially anti-tank systems, would be very effective in deterring, or at least disincentivizing Russian attacks across the line of contact. and then there's other programs. I think supporting the Ukrainian navy, providing - perhaps - some limited mobile air defense systems - those could all be useful in deterring further Russian aggression.

You worked for Vice President Biden and there was always strong pressure from him in the fight against corruption in Ukraine. Can you elaborate more on that? Why and to what extent was the Vice President involved in that? What was his role?

Vice President Biden was very strong in his advocacy for pushing anti-corruption reforms in Ukraine. He met many times with anti-corruption advocates and anti-corruption NGOs. He really raised this issue almost every single he spoke with either President Poroshenko or Prime Minister Yatsenyuk, or later with Prime Minister Groysman. This was the core of his message to the Ukrainian authorities: we will help you to confront Russian aggression in the Donbas but you have to take this issue of corruption seriously because this is as great a threat to your sovereignty as anything else. And so he really was very passionate about the issue and I think rightfully so. I think this is one of the existential issues for Ukraine because it's not just about the economy and economic growth, it's about national security and `it's fundamentally about the sovereignty because right now, Russia sees corruption as the best opportunity to destabilize Ukraine and to subvert its sovereignty. So unless the government gets serious about pushing their reforms forward, Russia will have an easy way to undermine Ukraine and that would be a tragedy.

What are the major concerns right now?

I think the major concerns are having a credible set of institutions that can prosecute corruption. It is absolutely a travesty that this many years after the Revolution of Dignity that there are no high-level prosecutions of political actors for corruption. I think having the new institutions in place is great - having the NABU (the National Anti-Corruption Bureau) and the Office for the Prevention of Corruption. That is a good step forward, but until anti-corruption courts are in place, until we start to see actual prosecutions of officials for corruption, then what are we talking about? Then this is all a charade, then there's just simply institutions that are not actually carrying out what it is that they're supposed to be doing. 

/By Nataliya Gumenyuk