As winter approaches, looking for US leadership in Ukraine

America’s interests and values align in supporting Ukraine.  U.S. support both bolsters an emerging Ukrainian democracy and demonstrates a willingness to assist vulnerable allies.  This is an opportunity for the U.S. to exercise leadership in a region of strategic and historic importance. 

Last February, the people of Ukraine overthrew a corrupt and incompetent government, persevering through winter and charting a new course toward a truly democratic and independent country.  They also seek to become a part of Euro-Atlantic institutions.  In the year and a half since, Ukraine’s elected government has fostered significant political, economic and governance reforms. It held the freest and fairest elections in Ukraine's history, established new anti-corruption agencies, implemented long-overdue fiscal and energy sector reforms, and created a new police force in major cities. Ukraine’s deeply engaged and active civil society is maintaining the reform momentum.   The reform effort, while perhaps moving slower than Ukraine’s Western partners would prefer, is succeeding. 

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Unfortunately, Ukraine’s democratic transition was interrupted by Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. The Kremlin’s war in Ukraine’s east has claimed over 8,000 lives, and even as fighting has subsided in recent months, a low-intensity warfare continues.  While casualties and refugees are a daily visible reminder of the military conflict in Ukraine’s east, the government is fighting on the economic front, which poses an equivalent threat to Ukraine’s viability as a sovereign nation. Russia is keeping energy prices artificially high as winter approaches, resisting efforts at debt restructuring, demanding that the Ukrainian government pay back billions in debt, and inhibiting trade and foreign investment. Absent a more robust intervention from the U.S. and Europe, these pressures could collapse Ukraine’s economy.

Congress and the administration should hold the government of Ukraine accountable to its own broad political and economic reform pledges, but concurrently work together to craft a comprehensive aid package to bolster Ukraine’s economic resilience. The U.S. must intervene far more forcefully than it has to date to ensure Ukraine can remain solvent. Immediate macroeconomic support – in the range of $3-3.5 billion – will be needed to foster investor confidence and stabilize the banking sector. There are a number of tools available to implement this assistance, in particular loan guarantees and technical assistance linked to government, banking, and energy sector reforms. 

Beyond macroeconomic support, Ukraine needs funding to solve the Moscow-fostered humanitarian crisis that has displaced 1.5 million people and left 5 million Ukrainians in need of basic services. So far, Ukraine has received less than $500 million in direct financial assistance. To put this in perspective, following the 2008 Russian invasion, the U.S. provided $1 billion in aid to Georgia, a country one-tenth of Ukraine’s population. 

Beyond the economic war, Ukraine needs to secure its border with Russia. Ukraine will not be able to do this without military assistance and training from the U.S.  Defensive lethal assistance, as required by the Ukraine Freedom Support Act introduced last year in Congress, is overdue. In addition, Ukraine is the frontline of Russia’s massive propaganda campaign.  Russia invests billions of dollars in its state media machine seeking to hide the truth about its involvement in the war in Ukraine. Increasing resources to assist Ukraine’s efforts to counter Moscow’s disinformation campaign should also be part of the package. 

A great deal is at stake in Ukraine. Russian aggression against Ukraine is a strategic threat to the United States and Europe, particularly the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Its actions in Ukraine threaten the security architecture that has kept Europe whole, free, and at peace since World War II.  Our allies are nervous about Putin’s next move. By helping Ukraine defend itself and succeed as a democratic nation, we will demonstrate solidarity with our allies in Central and Eastern Europe. A strategy to deter Russia starts with support for Ukraine. 

Ukraine’s democratic and economic potential is limitless, but Ukrainians cannot do it alone. With U.S. support, an independent and free Ukraine will thrive as a liberal democracy in the heart of Europe.

Dobriansky, former under secretary of State for Global Affairs, is a senior fellow at Harvard University JFK Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.