Ukraine recently marked the fourth anniversary of Russia’s illegal invasion and occupation of the Crimean Peninsula. While this annexation and the ongoing fighting in eastern Ukraine have receded from the news, according to Ambassador Kurt Volker, U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations, 2017 was the most violent year of the conflict since it began in 2014. In that time, the war has claimed more than 10,000 lives, displaced approximately 1.6 million people, and created a humanitarian crisis for the three million citizens living on the front lines.
The violations of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and the ongoing aggression in the Donbass represent a concerted effort by the Kremlin to undermine Ukrainian democracy. As the recent U.S. national defense strategy argues, the Kremlin “seeks veto authority over nations on its periphery in terms of their governmental, economic, and diplomatic decisions” in order to serve its own interests, for example, by stymying Ukraine’s aspirations to further integrate into European and transatlantic structures.
According to a recent survey by the International Republican Institute, almost half of all Ukrainians cite corruption as the most important issue facing the country, and a staggering 71 percent believe their country is headed in the wrong direction. This corresponds with the low levels of support for the national government and a concurrent rise in anti-European Union political movements that arguably play into the hands of the Kremlin.
Ukraine’s chronic corruption doesn’t just undermine the country’s prospects for European integration. It reinforces the Kremlin propaganda alleging that the Ukrainian government does not represent the interests of ordinary citizens. Institutions weakened by corruption cannot effectively represent and serve the needs of all citizens, and may further alienate populations vulnerable to Russian influence, particularly in the occupied territories.
Until Ukraine wins its internal war on corruption, it will be more difficult to make the case to residents of occupied Crimea and the Donbass that their reintegration would bring about a full and equal partnership in Ukraine’s political development. A well-governed Ukraine reduces the vulnerability of these already vulnerable regions to Russian influence, and gives citizens a stake in Ukraine’s future as a united democratic country.
The United States and our partners in Europe have an important role to play in supporting the efforts of Ukrainian reformers to establish key institutional bulwarks against corruption, such an independent anti-corruption court, and to strengthen existing bodies like the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine. This type of support, combined with continued sanctions against the Kremlin and increased military assistance to the frontlines, could help Ukraine to finally break the stalemate with Russia and build a stable democratic future.
External support is clearly crucial. However, Ukraine must also work to ensure that the grass is in fact greener on their side, so that the divisive nature of cultural or historical cleavages in Ukrainian society will be surpassed by the strength of democratic institutions and norms.