Kyiv’s Implementation of Reform is the Key Step to Stabilize Ukraine, Geoff Pyatt Says

As it confronts Russia’s invasion and economic crisis, “the greatest single risk factor facing Ukraine today is business as usual,” US Ambassador Geoff Pyatt told the Atlantic Council today. To stabilize the country, “the political class will have to put aside the habits of the past and focus on implementing the ambitious program of reform” embodied in the coalition government announced last week, he said.

Watch US Ambassador Geoff Pyatt in a discussion moderated by the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center director, John Herbst.

Speaking to an audience of officials, foreign policy specialists and journalists, Pyatt listed several “leading indicators … to watch” in gauging Ukraine’s ability to make the changes it needs.

“Foremost is the implementation of the governing coalition agreement” among the five parties forming the new government, Pyatt said. President Petro Poroshenko appears to have followed private suggestions from other European heads of state in drafting a road map for reforms broad enough to win support from the widest range of political allies. The plan, initially drafted by Poroshenko aide and former Microsoft manager in Ukraine Dmitriy Shymkiv, is not only specific but “incredibly wonky,” according to Pyatt.

Indicators to Watch

Specific reform efforts to monitor include these, Pyatt said:

  • The first reform effort to watch is in the energy sector, which “has drawn the most egregious corruption under multiple governments,” has hobbled the economy, and has been used by Russia to constrict Ukraine’s strategic options. “There is no sector … more central to the fate of Ukrainian democracy.”
  • For many Ukrainians, broad, “politically driven corruption …”has sapped confidence in government.” It was at “the root of the Maidan” movement that welled up a year ago into street demonstrations that eventually led former President Viktor Yanukovych to flee Ukraine in February. “So there’s a political imperative to demonstrate to the Ukrainian people that the practices of the past will be changed.”
       This change “won’t be easy. . . . I’ve had prominent business people who’ve come to me and say, ‘Ambassador, you don’t understand. Every vote in our Rada is influenced by different commercial interests.’” But one of the most inspiring things in Ukraine today is the emergence of a new generation of political leaders in the Rada, in almost every political party, who have come to office with a focus on achieving better governance with an explicit rejection of the historic model. . . . They want to see a Ukrainian government that serves the interests of the Ukrainian people.”
  • Constitutional reform, begun “under Prime Minister Yatsenyuk’s first government, led by Deputy Prime Minister Groisman … is as urgent as it’s ever been.” Groisman has spoken of wanting to follow “the Polish example of dramatic moves toward … empowering mayors and governors and creating a system in which local government is much more accountable.

Russia’s Role

Russia denies its sponsorship of the war in Ukraine, including its deployment of troops in Ukraine’s Donbas region, and instead portrays the attacks there as a spontaneous division between eastern and western Ukrainians.

Pyatt noted that, just before returning to Washington, he had visited Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine’s largest city, and one in which hardline Russian nationalists say local residents are determined to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. “I was reminded how disconnected that narrative was from reality,” Pyatt said. “It was remarkable to see Ukrainian flags everywhere—on the main streets, draped over the [Taras] Shevchenko statue—this in a city that had been targeted” by Russia’s campaign in the spring to incite rebellion against Kyiv.