26 June 2015

US-Ukraine Strategic Partnership Lacks Strategy, Partnership

23 June 2015

When three influential American Russia experts call for a substantive US-Ukrainian strategic partnership, it’s time to listen.

Matthew Rojansky, director of Washington’s prestigious Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Thomas E. Graham, former senior director for Russia on the National Security Council staff and currently with Kissinger Associates, and Michael Kofman, a public policy scholar at Kennan, recently wrote an important op-ed in which they criticized the “U.S.-Ukraine strategic partnership” for “lack[ing] both strategy and partnership.”

Please take note: the three experts take for granted that such a partnership exists and strongly imply that it should exist. They’re calling, not for establishing such a relationship, but for filling it with appropriate substance.

Here are their recommendations:

“First, Washington should endorse Kiev’s leading political figures and their agenda with the same degree of caution and circumspection as the Ukrainian people support them. ... Instead, the U.S. objective should be to work on the overarching problems that create instability and threaten Ukraine’s future: the disastrous state of the economy and the conflict with Russia. ... [Second], Washington should work with Kiev to lay the framework for a bilateral strategic partnership. This should be based on a clear definition of mutual interests and values, and realistic expectations for the short, middle and long term. Instead of a few favored partners or signature projects in Ukraine, Washington should look for spheres of cooperation that serve the interests of both nations. It must forget the tired formula of persuading Ukrainians to pick a pro-Western path as a vehicle for foiling Russian-led integration projects. A new approach can build a foundation for sustained bilateral engagement with Ukraine as a whole — well beyond the period after the fighting with Russia has ended. As it eventually will. [Third], Washington must demonstrate strategic patience. Ukraine will likely progress more slowly and more fitfully than Americans would prefer. A strategic partnership based on clearly defined values and interests will help both sides navigate the potential misunderstandings and significant challenges that lie ahead.”

The first point is spot on. America’s goals vis-a-vis Ukraine cannot be to promote any particular leader or leaders, but to advance good solutions to Ukraine’s main problems. As a result, Ukrainian policymakers should earn Washington’s support by bringing about the changes that regenerate the economy and end the war. That said, Washington must understand that reform cannot, and will not, ever come to pass if the former Regionnaires now grouped in the Opposition Bloc or the Communists return to power. America must be cautious and circumspect with respect to the national democrats, but it must reject outright the political groupings that embody corruption, thievery, thuggishness, lack of reform, Putinism, and Sovietism.

The second point is a bit too circumspect for my taste. In fact, the United States and Ukraine have a perfectly clear short- and middle-term interest: stopping Russian aggression and ending the war in eastern Ukraine. They also have an obvious long-term interest: promoting civilized international behavior by Russia. As to bilateral engagement with Ukraine “well beyond the period after the fighting with Russia has ended,” that too is obvious. Ukraine has the human capital and economic potential to become a leading middle power that could, if its transition to a consolidated democracy and prosperous market economy succeeds, play a positive, stabilizing role in Eurasian politics. Whether inside or outside the European Union and NATO, Ukraine could be as important an American ally as South Korea or Israel.

The third point is on the mark again. Ukrainians and Americans who think reforms are proceeding too slowly must get a grip on themselves and their expectations. For starters, reforms are taking place. Substantial macroeconomic stabilization has been achieved—no small feat. Decentralization is about to be introduced, while the budgets of local governing bodies have already been increased. New policepatrols are about to take to the streets in a few cities. No less important, painful measures have been implemented without undermining Ukraine’s democratic procedures. Supporters of faster reform forget that democracy is generally incompatible with vastly unpopular change. That Ukraine has managed to promote reform while transitioning to a post-Yanukovych democracy (and fighting a ruinous war!) is almost miraculous. Promoters of “big bangs” should remember that the greater and faster the reforms, the greater the concentration of political power, and the greater the likelihood of authoritarian rule.

These are all quibbles about the op-ed. The important thing is to recognize and promote the US-Ukraine strategic partnership and to supplement it with an EU-Ukraine strategic partnership

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