Next US president has a Ukrainian problem
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Of the many foreign policy pots and pans left neglected on the next president’s stove, the one marked “Ukraine” may be ready to boil over. It is a goulash of bribery, theft, official corruption and even murder — and nothing is as it first appears.

Ukraine has faded from our national consciousness as other, even more spectacular recent foreign policy fiascos — Syria, Libya and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — overwhelm our capacity to catalog them.

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Most Americans have all but forgotten Russia’s invasion of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, and at least one U.S. presidential candidate seems willing to pardon it altogether. Nevertheless, Russians still occupy Crimean Ukraine, and pro-Russian rebels control much of the country’s eastern half.  

The Obama administration’s reaction to Vladimir Putin’s aggression has been tepid. President Obama rejected congressional demands to provide military support to the Ukrainian government, preferring a cautious combination of economic sanctions against Russia and economic support for the Ukrainian government in Kiev.

Obama’s delicate carrot-and-stick approach hasn’t worked. While the war in the east of Ukraine rages on, Putin has shown no inclination to withdraw a single troop, and the long-simmering Ukrainian kettle threatens to boil into the worst crisis in relations between Moscow and Washington since the Cold War.

Despite all the best efforts of the west since its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine is a kleptocracy. Its political history is nonstop perp walk, with one popularly elected leader kicked out of the country in a popular uprising, another suspected of murder, and the third blamed for the weakened institutions and lost opportunities.

The optimism created by the 2013-2014 Euromaidan street demonstrations, which forced the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in favor of the cabinet led by Arseniy Yatsenyuk and eventually election of the current president, Petro Poroshenko, was short-lived. Yatsenyuk himself was in turn forced to resign against a backdrop of permanent political crisis and high-profile charges of corruption.

The Russian invasion and the war that followed have killed thousands of Ukrainians and displaced a million more, but when asked which is more urgent — the war against the pro-Russian rebels or the war against corruption — Ukrainians believe corruption is more important, by a margin of more than two to one.

The “Panama Papers,” the millions of leaked documents from the Panamanian corporate law firm Mossack Fonseca, last April also proved that Poroshenko was busily registering offshore accounts even as his own troops were retreating from one of the bloodiest defeats of the war.

Poroshenko is Europe’s richest leader, according to Forbes, and despite his promises to “embed new traditions” by selling off his assets, he has sold nothing.  In fact, he was the only one of Ukraine’s wealthy businessmen to see his net worth actually increase in 2015, to $858 million. Like his predecessor, Yanukovich, he has erased whatever thin line once existed between business and politics in Ukraine and he is profiting richly, even as his country struggles through the worst economic and political crisis since the country’s independence in 1991.  

Perhaps most dispiriting of all, even those Ukrainian activists, politicians and journalists who are portrayed as true reformers appear likewise unable to resist the temptation to engage in the systematic looting of the Ukrainian economy.

The New Yorker magazine, for instance, dedicated several thousand words to three citizen-journalists who now serve in the Ukrainian Parliament. Like other western media outlets, the New Yorker portrayed Serhiy Leshchenko, Svitlana Zalishchuk and Mustafa Nayyem as dedicated journalists — new faces who sought election to Parliament as part of Poroshenko’s bloc in the wake of the Maidan street protests, which Nayyem helped organize.

Now, however, Leshchenko’s post-election acquisition of high-end housing has attracted the attention of the Anti-Corruption Agency of Ukraine, an investigatory body that was established at the urging of the United States. Last week, the Anti-Corruption Agency forwarded the Leshchenko file to the special prosecutor’s office tasked with corruption fighting.  

Leshchenko could not explain the source of the income that allowed him to buy the residence, loan documents are missing and the purchase price was allegedly below market. The owner of the building, according to Ukrainian media accounts, is Ivan Fursin, the partner of mega-oligarch Dmytro Firtash.

It has also been revealed that Leshchenko’s expenses for attending international forums were paid for by the oligarch Victor Pinchuk, who also contributed $8.6 million to the Clinton Foundation.

While Leshchenko remains the toast of the western media and Washington think tanks, back at home, his fellow reformers in the Parliament are calling on him to resign until his name is cleared.

Meanwhile, the next president will find Ukraine besieged on all sides, with Russian troops and pro-Russian rebels at its throat and corruption destroying it from within — and as the Leshchenko scandal suggests, not all in Ukraine is what it appears to be.  

The new president must learn to discern Ukraine’s true reformers from those who made anti-corruption crusades into a lucrative business, and be able to distinguish real action from empty words.  

If not, the two and a half decades-long Ukrainian experiment with independence may boil over completely.

Mark Pfeifle was deputy national security adviser for strategic communications and global outreach at the National Security Council from 2007 to 2009. He is president of Off the Record Strategies in Washington, D.C.


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