The Buzz

Ukraine: The Key to Any American Russia Policy

Despite flirtations with Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump will be pressed to confront Russia’s emboldened aggression when he takes office. Amid concerns of election hacking, how Trump tackles this challenge will define his foreign policy and commitment to the American people for many.

But combating Russian antagonism requires something more than military bluster. Raising stakes with armed forces may worsen circumstances. If the next administration intends to challenge Moscow and preserve global stability and American clout, it should instead craft its approach around supporting anticorruption and economic reform in Ukraine.

For the past eight years, the Kremlin has vexed the Obama administration by opposing the United States wherever and whenever possible. Aside from uncertain sanctions, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, covert invasion of eastern Ukraine and military support of the Assad regime have been largely unhindered. Even if they last, sanctions will do little to persuade Russia to pursue peace anytime soon.

Policymakers have criticized President Obama for his ostensibly lax stance. Obama’s own former defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, carped at the president’s slow response to the invasion of Crimea, and Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham have urged the president to provide lethal military aid to Ukraine.

Without resistance, Putin will undoubtedly continue to antagonize America’s eastern European partners and exacerbate the Syrian Civil War. However, stepping up military action will quell conflict.

While well-intentioned, delivering lethal aid to Ukraine will not compel Russian troops to yield. Quite the contrary, Moscow has repeatedly demonstrated the opposite. In neighboring countries where Russia peddles corruption and disinformation as influence, Putin retains escalation dominance, the near assurance that he is willing to intensify conflict to control the ultimate outcome.

The United States cannot pursue half measures that will intensify hostilities, unless it is fully prepared to counter all of the Kremlin’s escalations. Otherwise, the path forward will be Putin’s victory.

The Euromaidan revolution in 2014 signaled Ukraine’s shift toward the West after decades under Kremlin-friendly control. Such a transition, painstaking and near impossible for many former Soviet countries, is worth defending.

Ukraine is drastically restructuring its economy and government to combat widespread, endemic corruption. Since independence, the Ukrainian government has maintained strong state control in many sectors inviting the country’s elites to raid billions from the state with help from Russia. Continued economic and political development are dependent on sustaining reform. With progress, Ukraine can free up billions to rebuild critical infrastructure and shore up its own national defense.

Yet the United States has yet to commit significant resources to support these efforts, instead providing only small quantities of nonlethal military aid.

For many foreign-policy experts, Ukraine represents one of the larger shortcomings of the Obama doctrine: stern rhetoric hollowed by inaction.

To challenge Russia’s unchecked global hostility without escalating military conflict, the next administration can safeguard this progress with a panoply of economic and diplomatic tools.

The easiest opportunity is to raise engagement with Ukraine to the highest level. In Obama’s White House, Ukraine never rose to the Oval Office. Obama, foregoing travel to the country, relegated it to Vice President Biden, who never broke through to Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko.

President Trump and the next secretary of state—likely Rex Tillerson—should visit Kiev among their first international trips to signal seriousness to the Ukrainian government, the Kremlin and the European Union.

The incoming administration should also step up aid for governance reform and European integration. In the intervening years since Yanukovych’s ouster, Ukraine has undertaken massive efforts to untangle its economy from direct Russian influence and counter the Kremlin’s covert intervention in the Donbass. Continued reform under these conditions will require more aid than has been pledged.

These funds should be conditional on specific corruption-reducing measures, like the IMF’s packages, to encourage meaningful progress. Aid can finance critical infrastructure and cultivating a stronger private sector to strengthen the overall Ukrainian economy.