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Priorities for U.S. Policy toward Ukraine in the Obama Administration

"Ukraine, emerging hopeful and independent from the ruins of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, was viewed by many as the stable keystone for a peaceful, united, prosperous, democratic Europe, stretching from the Atlantic ocean to the Ural mountains," stated William Green Miller, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, and Senior Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center, at a January 5 Kennan Institute lecture. Eighteen years later, he posited, a combination of both internal and external factors place Ukraine in a dangerous position. The world economic crisis has severely affected Ukraine and its gas war with Russia threatens its stability. "There is an urgent need," Miller put forward, "for unity on the part of Ukraine's leaders." At the same time, however, Miller sees a strategic necessity for the United States to help Ukraine reemerge from what he considers to be a dire situation.

To provide context for the current political situation in Ukraine, Miller outlined the complex structure and evolution of Ukrainian governance. He argued that "for all its difficulties, Ukraine remains the most democratic state of the former Soviet Union." Even during the administrations of Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma, when Ukraine was a single party of power state, it conducted relatively free and fair elections, which permitted the growth of other parties. In 2002, after three cycles of parliamentary elections, parties representing constituent views different from those of the party of power assumed the majority.

Political power was truly passed to the majority with the Orange Revolution in 2004. The Ukrainian electorate supported Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko then because they promised to end corruption, put thieves in jail, provide for the basic needs of the people, and create a fair, just, and transparent system of governance under the rule of law. "The standards of the Maidan People's Parliament of 2004 remain," Miller confirmed, "but thus far, the leaders of the Orange Revolution have failed to carry out their pledges." Personal conflicts, he explained, have prevented necessary cooperative effort. Today, he observed, "the major threats to Ukraine's democratic possibilities are from within." According to Miller, corruption and its attendant ills, conflicts of interest, and abuse of office for private gain and unfair advantage are the main enemies of a healthy Ukraine. "In the current political terrain," he remarked, "money buys elections, votes, judicial outcomes, places in universities, beds and treatments in hospitals, favors, benefits, political power, and control."

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the U.S. policy of support for Ukraine's sovereignty has been strong across the U.S. political spectrum. Miller urged the new U.S. administration to continue this policy and suggested that it could help the current situation by focusing its diplomatic efforts and programs on dealing with the aforementioned problems. He also proposed that the U.S. work to help develop Ukrainian infrastructure, such as clean water supply, energy conservation, and hospitals; to assist libraries, educational institutions, and research centers; and to expand academic exchange programs.

Miller also recommended that the Obama administration, like the Bush and Clinton administrations before it, voice its support for Ukraine's eventual entry into NATO. In the meantime, however, Miller pointed out that the U.S.—through the signing of the Tri-Partite Agreement of January 14, 1994—is explicitly and formally obliged to support Ukraine in the event that its sovereignty, territorial integrity, or independence is threatened militarily, economically, or politically. "In essence," Miller clarified, "in exchange for giving up the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world, Ukraine received a solemn commitment from the U.S. that it would support Ukraine against the outside threat of or actual use of political, military, or economic force." The United States-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership, signed on December 19, 2008, reaffirmed that commitment. Miller counseled that the Obama administration view it as a solid outline of security policy to be followed and enhanced. In order to deepen the formal government-to-government relationship and to strengthen these former agreements, Miller advised that the Obama administration consider creating an analogue to the Gore-Kuchma Commission and meeting at least twice a year to discuss shared issues and resolve outstanding difficulties.

The international framework for the U.S. to protect and enhance Ukraine's independence, Miller concluded, is already in place. It is up to Ukraine's leaders, he noted, to use their mandate to give their people what they asked for, but the U.S. is in a position to provide crucial support where needed. "The future is in the hands of the people of Ukraine," he said, "but we should be ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with a democratic Ukraine as we have in the past."


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Sarah Dixon Klump

Editorial Assistant
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more