September 28th, 2012
11:45 AM ET

U.S. needs Ukraine priorities straight

By Matthew Rojansky, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Matthew A. Rojansky is deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The views expressed are his own.

Last week, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution demanding the immediate release of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and calling for sanctions against officials responsible for her imprisonment. Some Senators had sought even harsher penalties – freezing NATO-Ukraine cooperation, recalling the U.S. ambassador, and boycotting Ukraine’s 2013 OSCE Chairmanship – yet the resolution ignored the bigger picture of U.S. relations with Ukraine, an important country of nearly 50 million at the crossroads of Europe and Eurasia.

The Tymoshenko case has imposed a kind of foreign policy myopia on many in Washington that does not serve U.S. national interests. Americans benefit greatly from security cooperation and economic engagement with Ukraine, and the success of ongoing reforms and free and fair parliamentary elections in October will determine the shape of U.S.-Ukraine ties for years to come. With so much at stake, it is important to recall a few guiding principles for effective U.S. policy towards Ukraine.

No policy will succeed without a baseline level of trust between officials in Washington and Kiev. To secure and sustain that trust requires consistency, including on sensitive political issues. It is therefore essential that as U.S. officials underscore the need for Ukraine’s upcoming elections to meet the highest international standards of freedom and fairness, they match their rhetoric to reality during and after the election. An oft heard complaint from Kiev is that Washington “moves the goalposts” on Ukraine’s democracy – that Ukraine delivers on specific requests for transparency or reform only to discover that Washington now wants something more or different altogether.

This goes as much for the wider community of U.S. and European election observers, whose initial reports and statements seem already to lay the groundwork for post-election criticism, while providing few specific, actionable recommendations to improve the situation while it is still possible to do so. It might be expedient for observers to preserve some wiggle room for addressing credible post-election challenges, but anything short of a clear conclusion based on widely recognized standards and concrete evidence will deepen an already acute persecution complex on the part of Ukraine’s leadership. The bottom line is that to instill and preserve trust between Washington and Kiev, Americans must make clear in every possible way that they care about the process and conduct of the elections, not merely the result.

Foreign policy is a delicate art, and steps that foreclose options or limit the U.S. toolkit will have the effect of weakening U.S. influence in Ukraine over the long term. The trials and incarceration of Ukraine’s opposition leaders are deeply disturbing, and have no place in a modern European democracy. Yet if Washington responds to Kiev’s intransigence on this issue with ever harsher coercive measures, including the sanctions some senators have demanded, there is a very real chance that we will lose Ukraine. Let us be clear: Ukraine will not simply fall prey to Russia’s machinations, like some helpless pawn, but rather, if faced with a single stark a choice from the West – toe Europe and America’s line or be isolated from them – Ukrainians may simply cease paying attention. In a post-Soviet society already plagued by apathy and distrust, Ukrainians can ill afford to lose hope that patience and engagement can yield progress.

Economics 101 defines the problem of scarcity as unlimited wants with limited resources, and, to paraphrase George Shultz, the laws of economics apply as much in foreign policy as they do at home. While it may be rhetorically satisfying and politically convenient for Americans to assert an equal commitment to every priority in Ukraine, ranging from democratic development to removal of weapons-grade uranium, the reality is that some priorities are achievable, at an acceptable cost and within a realistic timeframe, while others are not.

If we cannot advance all of our values and all of our interests all of the time, then we are left with the necessity of ranking our national priorities. While it is clearly important that Ukraine put an end to politically motivated prosecutions, it bears asking whether resources and attention from Washington that have been focused exclusively on this issue are crowding out other compelling U.S. national interests. Ukrainian officials have responded positively to encouragement from U.S. and E.U. leadership to stay the course on free and fair elections, and new guarantees are now in place. Kiev has also undertaken an ambitious regulatory reform process that could ease the burden of taxes, red tape, and corruption, but U.S. investments in Ukraine worth over a billion dollars are still highly vulnerable. Finally, Ukraine has a critical role to play in assuring European energy security, combating trafficking and cyber crime, and resolving protracted post-Soviet conflicts, especially as the incoming Chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2013. Progress in any of these areas is arguably more central to U.S. national interests than the ongoing fight over Tymoshenko, despite the disproportionate level of attention it receives.

Above all, strategic patience is a vital concept for U.S. foreign policy in general, and for relations with Ukraine in particular. Ukraine is barely 20 years-old as an independent state within its current borders. The country suffers from ethnic, linguistic and regional fragmentation, exacerbated by the push and pull of powerful external actors. Ukraine’s adolescent democracy is fragile, and politicians of every stripe perpetuate many of the worst practices of the Soviet and post-Soviet eras. It will take time and patience for Ukrainians themselves to overcome such severe impediments, but that is the only path forward, even if it means curbing the ambitions of U.S. policy for the time being.


soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. Old Man Clark

    Exactly who are we Americans to butt into Ukraine's internal affairs anyway? And why should Ukraine collaborate with the U.S. and NATO? It seems like the West is worming it's way into every country these days and that I find quite nauseating to say the least! Besides, the Ukrainians ought to be a more independent country free of all outside interferences.

    September 28, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Thank you, Old Man Clark. I couldn't agree more! It seems like the right-wing thugs in Washington are trying to tell everyone what to do nowadays. This is truly disgusting!

      September 28, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Reply
      • Michael Brytan

        Actually the left wing governments of Canada and Europe have been far more vocal and involved in restoring democracy in Ukraine than have the "the right wing thugs Washington". If you just google a bit you will notice that the European Union is doing everything possible to restore a democratic government in Ukraine. Canada's prime minister has visited Ukraine and has been very vocal about the new dictatorship and in fact Canada is paying for 500 election observers to monitor the October elections. Given that Canada is far more involved in Ukraine than is the US we should consider that super friendly neighbor to the North as perhpas ultra-fascist extra right wingers :):)

        September 28, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
  2. Rick Jackson

    Who is Matthew Rojanos, and what is up with all the common sense displayed in this article? Doesn't Rojanos know that when you talk about US-Ukraine relations, you are supposed to do so while wildly waving a pitchfork and equating the current government in Kyiv with 1930s Stalinism? Rojanos is going to get himself in big trouble with the Ukrainian diaspora lobby. They are going to blacklist him and deluge him with hate mail... just look at their influence on the US Senate.

    September 28, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Reply
    • Michael Brytan

      Thanks for your comments Rick. The Ukrainian government in tandem with the corrupt oligarchs of that country are spending millions of dollars to pay people to write negative things about the democracy loving Ukrainian diaspora living in the US, Canada and elsewhere. The posters are equally flooding web sites in Ukraine and around the world with their anti-democracy pro-despot posting. Let's hope that Rick pays his income tax when he gets his check from the Ukrainian PR agency.

      September 28, 2012 at 11:24 pm | Reply
      • anon

        In his reply to Rick, Michael definately made Rick's point for him. If you don't tow the line, you must be being paid. No other view point is possiblethan that US policy should be directed to forcing the mafia ganster government to free the pro-democracy pro-western princess in severe distress.

        September 29, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  3. Volya

    the problems of a struggling Ukraine cannot be expressed in one article, but this does cover the main issues of corrupton courtesy of uncle putin. everyday the kremlin is actively and aggresively trying to keep Ukraine weak and on its knees.Divide and conquer, with direct support to pro russian parties i..e party of regions/communist party.After the genocide , known as HOLODOMOR of 1930 by stalin ,south east Ukraine was flooded with millions of russians. Hence the problems Ukraine has today.

    September 28, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Reply
  4. Ferhat Balkan

    There are certain key points that I believe sours the relationship between Ukraine and Russia:

    1) The possibility of Ukraine joining NATO, thus allying itself with the west
    2) As Volya mentioned above, the Holodomor famine which Ukraine is trying to get recognized as a genocide.
    3) The UPA which was an insurgent group during WW2 that Ukraine is honoring (by Russian opinion) as heroes, but the Russians considered them to be terrorists.
    A lot of it, in my opinion, is mostly the Kremlin trying to portray Ukraine as anti-Russian to cover up their own mistakes.

    September 28, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Reply
  5. j. von hettlingen

    Indeed, Yulia Tymoshenko's case is politically motivated. Whatever charges brought against her, Ukraine has to observe the European Convention of Human Rights, if it wants to be part of Europe.

    September 30, 2012 at 5:09 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      President Victor Yanukovych says he aims to balance Ukraine's ties between Russia and Europe, with EU integration as a "strategic aim". He was ousted during the Orange Revolution, initiated by Tymoshenko.

      September 30, 2012 at 5:14 am | Reply
  6. Director

    Thank you, Matthew Rojansky. You nailed it.

    September 30, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Reply
  7. Oksana- London-Ukraine

    Dear Mattew Roiansky.Maybe yours polish born parent are not happy to see free Ukraine and just for this reason you are
    supporter of ukrainian maffia.Yulia Tymochenko is right.

    October 1, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Reply
  8. maria

    I don't know what your expertise is – it is not the history, culture and politics of Ukraine.
    How is it that as a daughter of parents who fled communist Ukraine I am immediately labelled by you as ultra right. I suggest that you broaden your understanding of what our parents and grandparents went through...
    If you state that the Tymoshenko issue is not a priority I feel sorry for you – you lack empathy for those who were imprisoned by ex criminals like the President

    Your article is bizzare.

    October 1, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Reply
  9. Oleg

    Reading article you understand interest of the author. Case Tymochehko one of tens thousand. This case is known only as that Tymochehko is known. Ten thousand Ukrainians are exposed to mockeries and torture in prisons and at arrest. Millions Ukrainians are compelled to give money at the decision of any case in their life. All it becomes under bravura songs Yanukovych: "And we are fine. And at us democracy develops". All is lie Yanukovych. Very important for Ukraine is a pressure on Yanukovych. Pressure increases on Yanukovych.

    October 1, 2012 at 6:29 pm | Reply
  10. Herbert Graver

    Tymoshenko is a criminal-tried in a court of law and convicted–she should be in jail not a hospital–This is Ukrainian LAW–not to be twisted by the west and USA as a means to make Ukrainians dance. The west should be made aware of the true potential and progress being made by Ukraine- I am sick of the US senate attempting to direct and oversee all the nations of the world and push their own corrupt practice

    October 4, 2012 at 3:57 am | Reply
    • Chenko777

      Being tried in a so-called 'court of law' in Ukraine means nothing. It's a shameful exercise based on who is in power and of course the amount of money you can pay to get the results you want.

      October 17, 2012 at 11:04 am | Reply

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