Russia is using tensions with Ukraine as a threat while rolling out the “Putin’s Ultimatum“—a roster of demands that include demilitarization of Eastern Europe beyond NATO’s 1997 borders and guarantees that Ukraine and Georgia will never be members of NATO. These demands appear to protect Moscow, but if accepted, may lead to the abandonment of the former Soviet states by the West and recreate an exclusive Russian sphere of influence from the Black and Baltic Seas to the Pacific. This is unacceptable and should be rejected.
After the December 7 teleconference between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, Russia refused to demobilize its military forces which are capable of invading and occupying Ukraine. Intentionally escalating the conflict, Putin appears determined to exercise his Brezhnev-era training and repeat the 1950-60s Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
It is up to Ukraine, its European friends, and the United States to prevent Putin’s aggression by building up defensive military muscle and national resilience. The West, led by the United States, has already expended massive assistance to Ukraine. Since 2014, the EU and its financial institutions have mobilized over $19 billion in grants and loans to support reforms.
Since 2014, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), also led by the United States, approved $17 billion in assistance to Kyiv; and in 2020, the IMF approved an eighteen-month, $5 billion standby arrangement for Ukraine aimed at helping the country cope with the Covid-19 pandemic. Due to conditionality connected to good governance and corruption, far from all international assistance funds were disbursed.
In addition, the United States has committed more than $2.5 billion in military aid since 2014. Calls are getting louder from Capitol Hill to increase U.S. military assistance to Ukraine. The Senate voted this month on the National Defense Authorization Act. It includes $300 million for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, which provides support to Ukraine’s armed forces.
However, Ukrainian military readiness and internal cohesion are insufficient to prevent potential Russian aggression. Unlike the countries which built up territorial defense with massive trained-and-well-equipped reserves, such Finland, Israel, Sweden, and Switzerland; Ukraine is mostly relying on the regular army and volunteer battalions, totaling under 200,000 troops. But with reserves, Ukraine could mobilize over 600,000 soldiers, making the price of war for Russia unacceptably high.
Ukraine also suffers from linguistic and cultural divisions between the pro-European West, and the East and the South that are often bilingual Russian/Ukrainian. The internecine warfare among political and business elites, and between some of them and President Volodymyr Zelensky, weakens the national resolve. Even with his law degree and television actor/producer skills, Zelensky cannot solve all of Ukraine’s problems without national and international support. While oligarchs often overstep the red lines of good governance, this is the time for unity in the face of possible Russian invasion.
One person above all others is undermining Zelensky’s national and international credibility and the West’s faith in the long-term future of Ukraine. The tycoon who is closest to Zelensky is his former business partner and 1+1 TV channel owner, Ihor Kolomoisky. On the eve of the 2019 elections, Kolomoisky’s channel provided Zelensky with a powerful mouthpiece that was crucial to his rise to the presidency. According to the Pandora Papers, Zelensky received multi-million-dollar payments from the 1+1 Channel to off-shore accounts despite election promises to eradicate corruption.
U.S. media alleged at the time that the FBI was investigating Kolomoisky for possible financial crimes, including money laundering. In response, his attorney, Michael Sullivan, claimed that his client was innocent.
Kolomoisky and his associates are accused of siphoning off billions of dollars from PrivatBank that they formerly owned to offshore banks and real estate, including in the United States. The United States filed two civil forfeiture complaints based on violations of federal money laundering statutes in the U.S. Court for the Southern District of Florida. The United States is alleging that commercial real estate in Louisville, Kentucky, and Dallas, Texas was acquired by Kolomoisky and his partner Gennadiy Boholiubov using funds misappropriated from PrivatBank in Ukraine.
U.S. prosecutors claim that the two embezzled billions and obtained fraudulent loans and lines of credit until the scheme was uncovered, and the bank was nationalized by the National Bank of Ukraine in 2016. According to the Financial Times, PrivatBank, now owned by the Ukrainian state, has issued a claim in the Cypriot courts in 2020 seeking damages of $5.5 billion due to alleged fraud and money laundering which the bank alleges were perpetrated by its former owners, Kolomoisky and Boholiubov. These court proceedings increase the total claims by PrivatBank against Kolomoisky and Boholiubov in England, Cyprus, the United States, and Israel to over $10 billion.
Today, Kolomoisky is deeply involved in Ukrainian politics. His allies reportedly control the Ukrainian parliamentary faction For the Future in the Rada. The faction sometimes votes with Zelensky’s Servant of the People party. Recently, a tax code vote which benefited Kolomoisky’s mining interests was pushed through in the Rada. The final version of the bill does not include tax increases on Kolomoisky’s manganese ore. For Zelensky’s public image, this reeks of the old dictators’ adage: “To my friends, everything; to my enemies, the law.”
As the New York Times reported that Kolomoisky advocates Ukraine’s rejection of the West and the IMF and return to Russia, Zelensky’s close ties with Kolomoisky look particularly troubling.
Zelensky pushed through the “oligarchs’ law” which would deny tycoons media ownership, and accused the richest man in the country, energy magnate Rinat Akhmetov, of plotting a coup against him. No evidence of such a coup was offered. Zelensky’s failure to properly identify his in-country allies and adversaries will continue to erode support when Ukraine needs it most.
As Ukraine’s future is in peril, the United States and its European allies, working together, need to boost Ukraine’s defense and domestic resilience to the next level. To do so, military reforms need to create a massive reservist force and train and prepare it to resist against potential occupation. Moreover, it is time to find common ground for the executive branch and the big business to resist, not enable, the Russian threat.
The future of NATO and U.S. security policy in Eastern Europe; and the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Ukraine and of other U.S. allies in the region are at stake. We must do our best to avoid a major conflagration in Europe.
While in the U.S. Army Berlin Brigade, Col. Wes Martin (Ret.) worked directly with the Soviet military and later in Iraq with the Ukrainian Army. He holds a master’s degree in International Politics and Business.