Ukraine at the Atlantic Council: Building a program, protecting American interests

Ukrainian and US state flags fly in central Kyiv, Ukraine September 25, 2019. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

For the first time since Russian forces in Ukraine shot down a civilian airliner in Donbas, Ukraine has become a front page story in the US. The reason for this interest has little to do with the critical geopolitical issues at stake in that country, but with the intersection of Ukraine in the American domestic political standoff between the House of Representatives and the White House, and the looming presence of an impeachment inquiry.

Despite US domestic political divisions, bipartisan support for a policy in support of Ukraine has been consistent and strong. Our work aims to keep it that way.

Given the Atlantic Council’s long track record on Ukraine, we have a unique perspective on how Ukraine moved from a geopolitical issue to a domestic one. In the midst of this growing domestic debate, we remain clear-eyed about US interests: Ukraine’s success is the best means to check Russian adventurism. To better understand that perspective, it helps to understand how our program developed.

The Atlantic Council’s work on Ukraine began with a small program shortly after the Orange Revolution under the guidance of Senior Fellow Adrian Karatnycky, a noted expert on Ukraine. But the Council deepened its work on the country in the wake of the Maidan Revolution in the winter of 2013-14, when hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets of Kyiv to protest not just the decision of the Yanukovych government to reject a trade agreement with the EU, but its increasingly repressive policies.  

Indeed the Council recognized that something of historical importance for the United States and our European allies was taking place on the streets of Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities. The country was rising in the hope of creating a new Ukraine, democratic, open, and tolerant – a Ukraine that would vindicate the transatlantic vision of a Europe, whole, free and prosperous. Understanding the opportunity, the Council created the Ukraine-in-Europe Initiative to help Ukraine finds its path to a better future. To finance this program, the Council called on its Board members, who met the challenge and enabled the launch of the program and the hiring of talent to run the program. 

Events moved quickly, as Yanukovych fled to Russia, an interim government took charge in Kyiv, Moscow invaded and seized Crimea, and launched a covert war in Donbas. Council team members recognized that Ukrainians were defending not only their freedom, but the rules-based order our founders helped create. In this context, the Council doubled down making a strategic commitment to develop our voice on Ukraine given the outsized strategic stakes.    

Petro Poroshenko then won a first round victory in Presidential elections in May. Poroshenko led a counteroffensive that during the summer of 2014 that almost took back all of Donbas, until regular Russian troops entered the fray, defeated Ukrainian forces and set the stage for the signing of the first Minsk ceasefire.

Meanwhile, the Council hired former Ambassador (Ret) John Herbst, who worked in Kyiv during the Orange Revolution to develop the Ukraine work as the new head of the Eurasia Center. The initiative had two large objectives: to bolster Ukraine’s defense against Kremlin aggression by encouraging Western aid and diplomatic support, and sanctions on Russia; and promoting reform in Ukraine. The Center also put Kremlin disinformation efforts under a microscope, kept a spotlight on Russian-occupied Crimea, and published a twice weekly electronic newsletter, UkraineAlert, that quickly found several thousand high-placed and influential subscribers.

The strong program established by the Eurasia Center proved attractive to foundations, the Ukrainian diaspora, and others who understood the threat to U.S. security posed by the Kremlin’s aggressive foreign policy. This brought in resources that made the program self-sustaining as it worked to shape the policy discussion in Washington and Europe. 

In 2015, the Center issued a report with the Brookings Institution that made the case for arming Ukraine sparking an international debate that dominated the Munich Security Conference. Shortly thereafter, it broke new ground by using social media to prove that Russian troops were fighting in Ukraine. This opened up a new field of work and the creation of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. The success of the overall program was evident in the mainstreaming in Washington of the Center’s views on supporting Ukraine and working against the Kremlin’s revisionist efforts to upend the international order established at the end of the Cold War. While we cannot claim that our work on Ukraine and Russia was not the reason for this shift in opinions, our team proved to be thought leaders in this area.

The effective policy work of our Ukraine-in-Europe Initiative, including its frequent programming in Kyiv, Berlin, Brussels, and London, made the Atlantic Council well known in Ukraine. This in turn sparked interest from Ukrainian firms and business leaders ready to support the program. Given the opaque and controversial history of some large Ukrainian firms, the Council applied due diligence guidelines for reaching any partnerships in country. We did not enter into relationships with those who were under investigation or against whom there were credible allegations of ongoing troublesome activities. 

By 2017, we had a broad range of partners that included foundations, governments, Ukrainian and Western firms, and philanthropists in and outside of Ukraine. It is a big tent that includes people and organizations with disparate views; but they all accepted our intellectual independence and backed our mission and programming. Both the diversity of our supporters and of those who our program engaged reinforced our independence.

With this support we assembled a strong team of internationally respected diplomatic practitioners and experts to make our program as credible and effective as possible. The group includes Ambassadors Alexander Vershbow and Dan Fried, Dr. Anders Aslund, Dr Alina Polyakova (now at Brookings), Melinda Haring, Geysha Gonzalez, and a group of politically diverse nonresident senior fellows from Michael Carpenter to Ariel Cohen. It also provided means for us to engage our broader network including Atlantic Council board members General David Petraeus, General Phil Breedlove, Paula Dobriansky, and Melanne Verveer.

The support enabled us to do important work on Kremlin disinformation. We established the Stratcom conference, convening leading experts and senior government officials for the major annual global event in this field. We produced a series of reports on the Kremlin’s Trojan Horses in countries across Europe. We convened senior transatlantic leaders for events on Russian interference in Western elections and, with the Pinchuk Foundation and the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity, assembled a Task Force to monitor Moscow’s interference in Ukraine’s recent Presidential election, led by David Kramer.

Our educational work also includes outreach to Congress. Besides providing regular briefings on Ukraine and Eurasia to members and staff, we established a Congressional Fellows program that provides a year-long series of master classes on Eurasia with the world’s leading experts. The Center also takes our fellows – Democratic and Republican staff from the House and Senate – on a week-long trip to Ukraine to meet with leaders and civil society. 

This Atlantic Council’s extensive programming over the past five years brought us into frequent and largely positive contact with senior political figures and other key policymakers in Ukraine, the US, and Europe. Our work helped inform policymakers in the West about the dangers of Kremlin revisionism and the need to take strong steps to check it, especially on the main front in eastern Ukraine. It also helped us to promote reform in Ukraine, sometimes in the face of reluctance at senior levels in Kyiv.  

Despite dramatic political developments throughout the transatlantic community, North America and Europe have stood firm in support of Ukraine and against Russian aggression. Our work has helped keep the spotlight on Russia’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine and Russia’s responsibility to end the war, while also bolstering Western support for Ukraine’s reforms and resolve to retain sanctions against Russia. We’ve seen increasing amounts of US and other allied security assistance to Ukraine, including lethal defensive arms. Through these challenges, Ukraine’s democracy and the resolve of the Ukrainian people have only strengthened. This was all possible because of superb professional diplomats such as Ambassadors Marie Yovanovitch and Kurt Volker.

Sadly, the current news cycle on Ukraine risks diverting American attention from our critical interests in helping Ukraine defeat Kremlin aggression and pursue reform. No matter how the current political fight turns out in Washington, Ukraine merits bipartisan support. American interests are best served by halting Kremlin aggression on Ukraine’s eastern border and welcoming a reforming Ukraine into the European mainstream, surely something both sides of the aisle can agree on. 

John E. Herbst is director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council and a former US Ambassador to Ukraine.

Damon Wilson is executive vice president of the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @DamonMacWilson.