BiZel
© Evan Vucci/APUkrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and US President Joe Biden
The Sniff Test • Oval Office • Sept. 21, 2023
Biden administration officials are far more worried about corruption in Ukraine than they publicly admit, a confidential U.S. strategy document obtained by POLITICO suggests.

The "sensitive but unclassified" version of the long-term U.S. plan lays out numerous steps Washington is taking to help Kyiv root out malfeasance and otherwise reform an array of Ukrainian sectors. It stresses that corruption could cause Western allies to abandon Ukraine's fight against Russia's invasion, and that Kyiv cannot put off the anti-graft effort.

"Perceptions of high-level corruption" the confidential version of the document warns, could "undermine the Ukrainian public's and foreign leaders' confidence in the war-time government."


Comment: Corrupt US calls out corrupt Ukraine. This is going well.


That's starker than the analysis available in the little-noticed public version of the 22-page document, which the State Department appears to have posted on its website with no fanfare about a month ago.

The confidential version of the "Integrated Country Strategy" is about three times as long and contains many more details about U.S. objectives in Ukraine, from privatizing its banks to helping more schools teach English to encouraging its military to adopt NATO protocols. Many goals are designed to reduce the corruption that bedevils the country.


The quiet release of the strategy, and the fact that the toughest language was left in the confidential version, underscores the messaging challenge facing the Biden team.

The administration wants to press Ukraine to cut graft, not least because U.S. dollars are at stake. But being too loud about the issue could embolden opponents of U.S. aid to Ukraine, many of them Republican lawmakers who are trying to block such assistance. Any perception of weakened American support for Kyiv also could cause more European countries to think twice about their role.


Comment: Shhh! We just won't tell them...


When it comes to the Ukrainians, "there are some honest conversations happening behind the scenes," a U.S. official familiar with Ukraine policy said. Like others, the person was granted anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue.

Ukrainian graft has long been a concern of U.S. officials all the way up to President Joe Biden. But the topic was deemphasized in the wake of Russia's February 2022 full-scale invasion, which Biden has called a real-life battle of democracy against autocracy.

For months, Biden aides stuck to brief mentions of corruption. They wanted to show solidarity with Kyiv and avoid giving fuel to a small number of Republican lawmakers critical of U.S. military and economic aid for Ukraine.


Comment: The American people thank 'Biden Aides' for their subterfuge, disguise of intentions, mockery of principles and the commitment of public funds, equipment and responsibility for someone else's avoidable war.


More than a year into the full-scale war, U.S. officials are pressing the matter more in public and private. National security adviser Jake Sullivan, for instance, met in early September with a delegation from Ukrainian anti-corruption institutions.

A second U.S. official familiar with the discussions confirmed to POLITICO reports that the Biden administration is talking to Ukrainian leaders about potentially conditioning future economic aid on "reforms to tackle corruption and make Ukraine a more attractive place for private investment."


Comment: People are dying. Destruction is increasing. It's a war, not a portfolio.


Such conditions are not being considered for military aid, the official said.

A spokesperson for Ukraine's foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment. But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has fired several top defense officials in a recent crackdown on alleged graft — a message to the United States and Europe that he's listening.


Comment: Play acting. Zelensky knows how to read a script. Other reports strongly suggest Z has his own hands in the till.


The Integrated Country Strategy is a State Department product that draws on contributions from other parts of the U.S. government, including the Defense Department. It includes lists of goals, timelines for achieving them and milestones that U.S. officials would like to see hit. (The State Department produces such strategies for many countries once every few years.)

A State Department official, speaking on behalf of the department, would not say if Washington had shared the longer version of the strategy with the Ukrainian government or whether a classified version exists.

Taylor
© Andrew Harnik/SPWilliam Taylor, former US ambassador to Ukraine
William Taylor, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said many ordinary Ukrainians will likely welcome the strategy because they, too, are tired of the endemic corruption in their country. It's all fine "as long as it doesn't get in the way of the assistance we provide them to win the war," he said.

The document says that fulfilling American objectives for Ukraine includes making good on U.S. promises of equipment and training to help Ukraine's armed forces fend off the Kremlin's attacks.


Comment: The strategy appears to double down on what hasn't worked so far.


The confidential version also describes U.S. goals such as helping reform elements of Ukraine's national security apparatus to allow for "decentralized, risk-tolerant approach to execution of tasks" and reduce "opportunities for corruption."

Although the NATO military alliance is not close to allowing Ukraine to join, the American strategy often cites a desire to make Ukraine's military adopt NATO standards.

One hoped-for milestone listed in the confidential version is that Ukraine's Defense Ministry "establishes a professionalized junior officer and non-commissioned officer corps with NATO standard doctrine and principles." Even the format and content of Ukrainian defense documents should "reflect NATO terminology," a confidential section of the strategy says.

One target includes creating a "national level resistance plan." That could allude to ordinary Ukrainians fighting back if Russia gains more territory. (The State Department official would not clarify that point.)

The U.S. also wants to see Ukraine produce its own military equipment by establishing a "domestic defense industry capable of supporting core needs" as well as an environment that boosts defense information technology start-ups, according to one of the confidential sections.

U.S. officials appear especially concerned about the role of an elite few in Ukraine's economy.

"Deoligarchization, particularly of the energy and mining sectors, is a core tenet to building back a better Ukraine," the public part of the strategy declares. One indicator of success, the confidential version states, is that the Ukrainian government "embraces meaningful reforms decentralizing control of the energy sector."

The United States appears eager to help Ukrainian institutions build their oversight capacities. The goals listed include everything from helping local governments assess corruption risks to reforms in human resources offices.
Truck gun
© Libkos/AP
The strategy says:
The U.S. is helping the Accounting Chamber of Ukraine enhance its auditing and related work in part so it can track direct budget support from the United States.
The strategy describes ways in which the United States is helping Ukraine's health sector, cyber defenses and organizations that battle disinformation. It calls for supporting Ukrainian anti-monopoly efforts and initiatives to spur increased tax revenue for the country's coffers.

The confidential portion calls for Ukraine's financial systems to "increase lending to encourage business expansion" and a reduction in the state's role in the banking sector.

One envisioned milestone for that section is that "Alfa Bank is transparently returned to private ownership." That appears to be a reference to an institution now known as Sense Bank, which was previously Russian-owned but nationalized by Ukraine.

The strategy indicates the United States is offering technical and other aid to Ukraine's education ministry to improve the teaching of English and that it believes offering English lessons can help reintegrate Ukrainians freed from Russian occupation.
The U.S. strategy appears intent on ensuring that Ukraine not only retains its orientation toward the West but that it develops special ties with America.
U.S. officials also are helping Ukraine build its capacity to prosecute war crimes in its own judicial system. The desired milestones include the selection of more than 2,000 new judges and clearing up a backlog of over 9,000 judicial misconduct complaints.

The strategy also calls for rebuilding the U.S. diplomatic presence in Ukraine, expanding beyond Kyiv to cities such as Lviv, Odesa, Kharkiv and Dnipro.
Due to earlier staff drawdowns spurred by the full-scale Russian invasion, "the embassy remains in crisis mode," one of the public sections states. (The State Department official would not discuss the current Embassy staffing numbers.)

As they have in past communications reported on by POLITICO, U.S. officials note inventive ways in which the United States is providing oversight of American aid to Ukraine despite facing limitations due to the war.
Those efforts have included using an app called SEALR to help track the aid.