Trump’s Two Favorite Lies About Ukraine

By Markian Kuzmowycz, Alum of The Fletcher School

President Donald Trump is no stranger to half-truths or full-blown fiction — but when it comes to Ukraine, two falsehoods seem to be his favorites. A stingy Europe, he claims, has left Washington to pick up the slack in aid to the cash-strapped republic; and Ukrainian corruption is somehow irredeemably endemic.

Both have been amplified uncritically. But what’s particularly troubling is that they’re in direct conflict with America’s interests in the region.

To debunk the first, just look at the numbers: Two-thirds of Ukrainian aid comes from European countries. And not only is the European Union Ukraine’s single largest donor, but Kyiv is the bloc’s largest non-member recipient of financial assistance, having received some $16 billion since 2014 — a lion’s share coming from Europe’s Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). Between 2014 and 2018, the U.S. sent nearly $1.96 billion in assistance Ukraine’s way, roughly half that which EU countries were providing on an annual basis.

Widespread corruption, meanwhile, isn’t exactly a myth. In fact, it’s the central issue that helped propel populist President Volodymyr Zelensky into office. But Kyiv is fighting graft in the open: Anti-corruption agencies have been launched at the behest of Ukraine’s Western allies, while hard-hitting and fearless Ukrainian investigative journalists work freely, bringing government procurement and official salary declarations into the open. President Zelensky’s ambitious government priorities center on attracting foreign investment, and he understands that little progress can be made without real improvements in the rule of law and investor protection.

To be fair, officials in Kyiv indeed often wonder why significant amounts of cash from Brussels don’t come with firmer guarantees of EU or NATO membership. And part of the reason is probably because Ukraine’s fight against graft is going slower than many hoped.

But by neglecting the above-mentioned nuances through his trademark rhetorical flourish, Trump fires up a Republican base that, according to the Pew Research Center, continues to believe that other countries “take unfair advantage of the U.S.”

That’s unfortunate, because a democratic and transparent Ukraine more closely aligned with Europe is in America’s long-term interests. U.S. military support helped Kyiv hold its position against a Russian invasion while the war continues at a slow burn. Ukraine stands as a bulwark against Russian expansionism and irredentism, but also at the front lines of the newest forms of disruption: cyberattacks, disinformation and electoral interference. The country’s practical experience defending itself against a much more powerful neighbor offers valuable opportunities for security coordination that will also inform Washington about a rapidly changing battleground.

But among many Ukrainians, and within the halls of government in Kyiv, the fight for Ukraine’s future is perhaps more pressing than a hard-to-reach settlement in Donbas. And it starts with rapid adoption of reforms that can closer integrate Kyiv with the European Union. Washington ought to put its weight behind these lofty aspirations.

The largest country located entirely within Europe cannot seize upon the opportunities that lie ahead of it without greater access to the world’s largest common market. Whether it’s Ukraine’s dynamic IT-culture or its largely untapped agricultural potential, growth opportunities lie ahead — and, frankly, should appeal to a president who claims to be a savvy investor. Repeating talking points about Ukrainian corruption or European indifference only help prop up the Moscow-sponsored narrative that Ukraine can’t get its act together.

President Zelensky and his Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk have fought hard to reject this notion, having prioritized anti-corruption work and European integration. They’re in the midst of a so-called government “turbomode,” trying to pass reforms as quickly as possible to make up for lost time and satisfy a population starved for results.

But there’s another reason why America’s rhetorical and material support for Kyiv matters. President Zelensky, a former comedian, is viewed with some intrigue among Russians. A political system next door which elevates a neophyte to bust up corruption and improve economic conditions with the steadfast backing of Western allies has more potential to spark change in Russia than any efforts directly undertaken in Washington.

The Trump administration openly questioning the value of Ukraine to American interests should not come as a complete surprise. For one, Secretary Pompeo is not the first Trump-appointed Secretary of State to do it.

But misrepresentations that have been parroted by this administration to excuse its actions damage Ukraine in the long-run. Luckily, many officials in Kyiv — while perhaps annoyed — have avoided any public responses which might be seen as taking sides and remain focused on their reform path. They should do so not only with the behind-the-scenes backing in DC, but should also receive public statements that clearly spotlight Ukraine’s achievements.

Such support would go a long way in a country that has historically soured quickly on its political leadership. The window of opportunity for change is open, for now.

This piece was republished from Kyiv Post. 

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