Ten Things the New US Ambassador to Ukraine Should Do

On August 18, Marie L. Yovanovitch became the US Ambassador to Ukraine. Yovanovitch is not new to the country; she served as the deputy chief of mission in Kyiv—the second in command—under Ambassadors Carlos Pascual and John Herbst months before the Orange Revolution erupted. She spent the bulk of her career working in the Eurasia region, with ambassadorial posts in Armenia and Kyrgyzstan.

The man who held the job before Yovanovitch, Geoffrey R. Pyatt, is one of the United States’ most talented diplomats; despite a lack of previous experience working in the former Soviet Union, he aced his post. Pyatt’s sunny disposition, relentless optimism, strong relations with civil society, and round-the-clock hours made him one of the best known foreign faces in Kyiv, and one of the most trusted interlocutors. His strong relationship with Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland ensured that Ukraine was a top priority in Washington. Pyatt was also a social media sensation. He tweeted constantly, in English, Russian, and Ukrainian, and his Twitter account became a must-visit site because Pyatt read everything and wrote about it.

Ukraine has massively changed since the last time Yovanovitch served in Ukraine, and the world has massively changed. We respectfully offer the following advice directly to Ambassador Yovanovitch to bring her up to speed:

  1. Get on Twitter, ASAP. Pyatt’s tenure demonstrates the importance of the medium. Everyone, including the presidential administration, will read what you write. It’s your chance to set the agenda and define what issues you care about as ambassador.
  2. Spotlight the issue of internally displaced persons (IDPs), meet with IDP families and students, and constantly remind the Ukrainian authorities to prioritize IDP-related social policies. Ukraine has nearly two million internally displaced persons. Those who live in the grey zone, the dividing line between Ukraine and the so-called separatist republics, live in unimaginably inhumane conditions. Yet the government of Ukraine has been tone deaf on this issue. When asked about the situation of IDPs in Ukraine, former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said, “The situation is more or less under control.” The situation is not under control. The country’s IDPs haven’t been able to vote in the previous three elections. Nearly 400,000 people have been cut off from government assistance for stupid bureaucratic reasons. Make this your issue: you can make a real difference in the lives of thousands of elderly and poor Ukrainians.
  3. Stand up for the media loudly and often. The West has a tendency to act as if the Russian infowar is the biggest threat facing Ukrainian media. In so doing, it echoes the Ukrainian government’s own stance and empowers it when it fails to protect Ukrainian journalists or represses them itself. The United States should take an unambiguous stand in defense of press freedom. If reforms are to succeed, the Ukrainian press must remain free, not a patriotic mirror image of Russia’s.
  4. Recognize how different the political environment is now. Ukraine’s political class is wiser and more mature, but also more Machiavellian and astute. During the Orange Revolution, it was easier to ascertain the big players’ motivations. While reformers now sit in parliament and in the government, old habits are still in place, including at senior levels; the governing coalition remains fragile. The most reformist members of the cabinet left in February.
  5. Don’t overpersonalize relationships; be on the constant lookout for new faces and friends. US ambassadors have a tendency to glom on to the “good guys.” In the case of Ukraine, the previous ambassador had close relationships with three reform-minded parliamentarians: Sergii Leshchenko, Svitlana Zalishchuk, and Mustafa Nayyem. While these individuals are committed to real reform and deserve our respect and admiration, there are plenty of others with the same zeal and drive, especially outside Kyiv, who would benefit from the new ambassador’s attention and resources.
  6. Be bullish on reform and make sure that President Petro Poroshenko’s “de-oligarchization” policy is applied fairly and evenly. While recognizing the country’s enormous achievements since the Euromaidan, continue to push for more. Make US and IMF assistance conditional on further reform. The thousands of brave ordinary people who stood on the frozen Maidan risking life and limb deserve nothing less. The elites aren’t fooling anyone: most Ukrainians don’t feel or see any of the much-vaunted reforms. Don’t hesitate to hold oligarchs accountable for the lack of reforms, even when US policy interests may require a warm relationship with the country’s rich, especially those representing eastern Ukraine. Be consistent and thus trustworthy, avoid double standards, and do not fall into a trap of dividing oligarchs into competing camps of “good” (read: US-government friendly) and “bad” guys.
  7. Get out of Kyiv as often as possible, but not necessarily to visit the usual suspects in Lviv and Odesa. Go the extra mile! Do not hesitate to visit small towns and villages: meet with university students in the provinces, talk to schoolchildren in the most deprived territories, and stop by kindergartens for informal discussions with mothers and educators. It is by talking to them, not to Hrushevskogo and Bankova people, that you learn about the fabric of society and the real speed of reforms in Ukraine.
  8. Put the major civil society organizations and independent think tanks on speed dial. The Reanimation Package of Reforms is a unique Ukrainian platform that monitors parliament closely and won’t hesitate to sound the alarm when Old Ukraine and its old ways of doing business tries to undermine New Ukraine. It is similarly important to support “think” and “do”-tanks that are capable of thinking outside the box, generating actionable policy ideas, and serving as trusted platforms for debate.
  9. In supporting the growth of civil society in Ukraine, rely on the vast network of graduates from US government-sponsored academic programs. The Ukrainian Fulbright Circle, the Kennan Institute Alumni League, as well as the independent associations of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton graduates can always help embassy staff identify pressing issues and propose solutions to US policy needs. Meet with these groups on a regular basis.
  10. Be active in cultural diplomacy and cultural reforms. Opened in 2015 under Pyatt, America House in Kyiv grew into one of the friendliest organizations in town. Today it is a lively hub of educational, cultural, and civic activism, which helps a new generation of Ukrainians to understand what made America America. So do push the US government to open similar centers in Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv, Lviv, and Odesa, in order to strengthen bonds between Ukraine and the US.

We wish you all the best in your new post.

Melinda Haring is the editor of UkraineAlert at the Atlantic Council. Follow her on Twitter @melindaharing. Kateryna Smagliy is the director of the Kennan Institute in Kyiv and tweets @SmagliyKateryna.

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Image: The first anniversary celebration of America House Kyiv on May 20, 2016. Credit: America House Kyiv