Ukraine’s presidential election is less than a week away, and no candidate will win outright with fifty percent. Comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy leads in the polls and will certainly be in the run-off election on April 21. The big question is whether he will face incumbent President Petro Poroshenko or former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Poroshenko leads Tymoshenko by less than 2 percent, so the race is tight.
Poroshenko is counting on several things to put him into the run-off.
On March 22, nine days before the Ukrainian presidential election, Ukraine’s pro-Russian presidential candidate Yuriy Boyko went to Moscow to meet Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev without prior announcement.
It’s strange for a presidential candidate to visit a leader of a country with which it is at war, but that was only the beginning of this extraordinary meeting, much of which was broadcast on Russian state television. Everything was wrong with it.
We read with interest Adrian Karatnycky’s piece “Viceroys in Kyiv.” We respect Mr. Karatnycky but have a different perspective. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. We each served as the American ambassador to Ukraine and, in that capacity as well as in other positions in the US government, urged our Ukrainian counterparts to move on reform—both in private and public conversations. We were not viceroys; we acted as partners.
To be sure, Ukraine is a sovereign democratic state (Mr. Putin’s view to the contrary notwithstanding). Putting in place the structures of a modern European state requires tough and often politically painful decisions. Ultimately, Ukraine and Ukrainians are responsible for making those decisions and choosing their reform policies.
We are also mindful that Ukraine has now entered its sixth year of a war of Russian aggression. The continued fighting in the Donbas makes adopting reforms much more difficult. Indeed, that is one reason why the Kremlin keeps the conflict simmering. Moscow does not want Ukraine to succeed. But the war with Russia does not make reform impossible; in fact, it makes reform even more important. The war is not an excuse for foot dragging. By adopting economic and political reforms, Ukraine becomes better able to resist Russian pressure.
As a general rule, diplomats ought to tread carefully when commenting on domestic developments in their country of assignment. That does not mean, however, that they should not speak out. Ambassadors have a right—indeed, a responsibility—to speak out.
How should Western diplomats advance democracy and the rule of law? In closed societies, as the late US diplomat Mark Palmer argued, US ambassadors should be clear voices for human rights and due process. They should monitor attacks on human rights, attend trials of dissidents, and speak out when they see major violations of freedom.
With democratic allies the role is trickier. Here, engagement and criticism usually involves trade disputes, an occasional response to an anti-American outburst, or relatively minor foreign policy differences rather than a focus on a country’s major institutions. Moreover, as a rule, diplomats are expected to take a strictly neutral approach to internal political contestations.
In young and emerging democracies, especially those that are closely allied with the West or under attack by the West’s strategic enemies, the role is trickier.
Ukraine is one such country which makes for an interesting case study.
In in Kyiv of late, Western ambassadors have been making pointed comments on policy debates and dispensing personnel advice, especially around issues of corruption. On March 4, the G-7 ambassadors issued a joint statement that called a decision by Ukraine’s Constitutional Court to revoke an illicit asset law a “serious setback in the fight against corruption in Ukraine.” But the statement, which oozed colonial hauteur, was an example of double standards. There is no such similar law on the books in any of the G-7 nations.
Kateryna grew and took on Ukraine’s bullies by participating in the Orange and Euromaidan Revolutions and by becoming a lawyer and public administrator in Kherson, a city of 290,000 just one hour from Crimea.
But on the morning of July 31, her valiant efforts ended when a young man poured a liter of sulfuric acid on her as she got into her car. The motive was to silence her public accusations that top local officials were making tens of millions of dollars from the illegal harvesting of wood from public lands.
“We talked about the dangers, but this was her life, her personality,” said Dr. Handziuk in an interview in Toronto last week. Canadian Ukrainians flew him over to talk with politicians and the press about Katya’s final months and his efforts, along with others, to try and get justice.
In late February, the Constitutional Court of Ukraine declared the criminal code’s article criminalizing illicit enrichment unconstitutional. The response among activists, independent media, and Western embassies was unanimous: the decision was a massive step back for Ukraine. It undid the small but real progress that the country had made toward prosecuting corrupt officials.
However, this outcome was all too predictable. Ukraine is not ready to criminalize illicit enrichment. Now there’s pressure for Ukraine to put the article back into the criminal code, but this is the wrong approach. Instead, we should follow Romania’s example and abandon the attempt to criminalize illicit enrichment.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko recently advocated building intermediate-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles to target and presumably use against Russia. No doubt Poroshenko calculated that he might gain a political advantage during the final days of a tough campaign for reelection by adopting this hawkish stance. And he may have also thought it made military sense as well. It appeals emotionally to a population that has been fighting Russia for five years with little overt progress. And since this advocacy casts Poroshenko as an aggressive patriotic defender of Ukraine, this posture might conceivably yield him political dividends.
However, it would be a disastrous decision for both strategic and operational reasons.
On November 25, the Russian Coast Guard attacked and illegally seized three Ukrainian naval vessels on international waters in the Black Sea. The twenty-four Ukrainian sailors on board were arrested for having violated Russian territorial waters and jailed in the nineteenth century KGB prison Lefortovo in Moscow.
These Ukrainian sailors were on Ukrainian vessels going from one Ukrainian port to another, while passing through Ukrainian or international waters. They did nothing wrong.
It’s important to understand what Russia is doing on the Black Sea. Russia wants to turn the vast Sea of Azov from a joint Russian-Ukrainian water, as agreed to in a 2003 bilateral Russian-Ukrainian agreement, into an exclusively Russian territory. International shipping into the two important Ukrainian commercial ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk is increasingly harassed and delayed by Russian inspections.
Many supporters of Ukraine called for early and firm Western sanctions on Russia to deter the Kremlin from further aggression in the Sea of Azov and for the release of the twenty-four Ukrainian sailors, but they kept wishing.
Almost four months after Kerch, on March 15, the West managed to do something.
Eighteen-year-old Tetiana Tsunik, who grew up in a tiny village in eastern Ukraine, won a full ride to the Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut, a well-regarded prep school. There she’s taking two Advanced Placement courses plus six others. She’s part of the debate club, and is editor-in-chief of two student publications. Last summer, she spent two weeks as a reporter at the Kyiv Post, the top English-language newspaper in Ukraine, and wrote five stories.
Vlad Ivanchuk, a nineteen-year-old from Lutsk, just earned a full scholarship to Harvard after studying at Westminster School in Connecticut. Last summer, he worked on a cutting-edge research project in Lviv that combines behavioral economics and machine learning.
Yevhennia Dubrova, a seventeen-year-old from Donetsk oblast, loves Hemingway and wants to be an English-language journalist in Kyiv someday. She’s a scholarship student at St. Mark’s in Massachusetts who is taking three Advanced Placement courses plus Mandarin. This summer she will study writing at Cambridge University.
Iryna Khovryak, a nineteen-year-old computer science student at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, will spend the summer interning at Facebook in California. After she graduates, she wants to work in Lviv’s booming tech sector.
Oleh Shostak, an eighteen-year-old student from a village of forty-five people in central Ukraine, landed a spot at Choate, where he’s loading up on sports and taking just about every advanced math and science course he can find. Oleh sees Ukraine as a great place for engineering or computer science after he graduates from an American university.
Their secret: Ukraine Global Scholars, a private initiative launched in 2015 that helps prepare Ukrainian high schoolers for the competitive admissions process at the best US boarding schools and universities. The students all come from modest backgrounds: Tsunik’s father is a miner, for example; Khouryak’s mother works for a bank and her father is unemployed.
Georgia and Ukraine have become close political allies over the last two decades. That closeness may be currently under threat, however. Despite the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s groundbreaking autocephaly, or independence, from the Russian Orthodox Church at the beginning of 2019, the Georgian Orthodox Church has failed to congratulate Ukrainian authorities or take any official position on the move, which also reveals tensions within the Georgian Orthodox Church. Given the importance of the Orthodox Churches in both Georgia and Ukraine, Tbilisi’s lasting silence on Ukrainian autocephaly could spill over into political affairs, and create a schism in diplomatic relations and strategic cooperation between the countries.