Ukraine’s new president deserves additional Western support
The situation in Ukraine is hopeful but uncertain. The recent presidential election, in which a popular comedian and political novice defeated the experienced incumbent, reflected the widespread desire for change. And, having just returned from a week in Ukraine, we believe that it deserves the continued support of the United States and our democratic allies around the world.
Ukraine is engaged in two significant battles. The first is to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity from Russia, the world’s second greatest military power, most significantly in eastern Ukraine. The second is to transform the country into a modern, rule of law-based democracy and market economy. Ukraine can only succeed if it defends itself and if it begins a determined push for reform. It is our sense that Ukraine is moving forward on both fronts.
The new president’s initial appointments give hope that the reforms desired by the people might be achieved. To be sure, there is concern over the appointment of the president’s chief of staff, who worked for one of the country’s most notorious oligarchs, but President Volodymyr Zelensky will have ample opportunity to demonstrate his independence.
The parliamentary elections scheduled for July 21 likely will strengthen the president’s hand, giving his party the majority needed to pass legislation without assistance. That could enable the president and his party to address some of the thorniest issues that no president has been able to resolve, including the judicial system and state-owned defense industries.
Meanwhile, the so-called “frozen conflict” in eastern Ukraine continues. However, following our meetings with Zelensky’s security team and then a visit to the front line outside Donetsk, we can report that while the entrenched battle lines may be static, the war with Russian-backed separatists is not frozen. Despite two ceasefires, there are still scores of shots fired daily and multiple casualties each week. Over 13,000 Ukrainians have died, and less than 24 hours after we left the line of contact at Avdiivka, Russian ordinance destroyed a building in nearby Marynka, injuring four civilians.
Zelensky’s other great challenge is dealing with the Kremlin, and his inexperience is something that ex-KGB Lt. Col. Vladimir Putin has been trained to exploit. But Zelensky has demonstrated aptitude already. While still president-elect, he deftly responded to Putin’s first provocation of offering Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens in the Kremlin-controlled Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine by dismissing the offer as “a ticket to a life without human rights.” Zelensky also hit all the right themes while on his first foreign trips to Brussels, Paris and Berlin, highlighting his interest in greater cooperation with the EU and NATO.
But the success of Ukraine does not depend on the new president alone. Western support remains essential in helping Ukraine defend itself and in persuading Moscow to withdraw its 2,000-plus officers and hundreds of tanks and other heavy weapons from the Donbas. Western support has two dimensions: sanctions on Russia and assistance, including defensive weapons to the Ukrainian military, and advice to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense and Ukroboronprom, the state-run defense industry conglomerate.
Moscow has sought to create continued security and economic challenges for Ukraine. For over a year, Moscow has carried out shipping inspections in the Sea of Azov to undermine maritime commerce to the Ukrainian-controlled parts of the Donbas. As a result, trade in the Ukrainian Azov sea ports has dropped by at least 30 percent. The West has still not reacted sufficiently to these inspections, and the U.S.-imposed sanctions to Moscow’s illegal attack on Ukrainian naval vessels last November were both late and weak. Sanctions on a major Russian bank, such as Gazprom Bank or Vnesheconombank, would send the right signal to Moscow.
The second dimension of Western support for Ukraine in the Donbas is weapons. President Donald Trump was right to supply Ukraine with Javelin anti-tank missiles in 2017, but Ukraine should be allowed to acquire more and position them for use, if needed. Ukraine also needs more counter-battery radar systems to reduce their casualties from Russian artillery. And it needs shore radar, Mark V speed boats and anti-ship Harpoon missiles to defend against Moscow’s aggressive posture in the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. Other needs include better communication equipment, night vision goggles and numerous basic soldier kit items.
The West must also maintain its support for Zelensky and his team. This means that the International Monetary Fund, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the U.S. and the EU should continue to provide low-interest financing for Ukraine, provided that it takes the necessary reform steps.
The recent election, the fierce desire of the people to see their country succeed, and the determination of Ukrainian soldiers on the frontlines in the Donbas demonstrate how much Ukraine merits the continued support of the U.S. and freedom-loving people around the world.
Gen. David H. Petraeus (U.S. Army, Ret.) is a partner in a global investment firm and chairman of the firm’s global institute, as well as a Judge Widney Professor at the University of Southern California. During his 38-1/2 years of government service, he commanded U.S. Central Command and coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he subsequently served as director of the CIA. He is a member of the board of directors of the Atlantic Council.
John E. Herbst is the director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
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