(Matthew Rojansky is the director of the Kennan Institute at
the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Thomas E.
Graham is former senior director for Russia on the National
Security Council staff, 2004-2007. Michael Kofman is a public
policy scholar at the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson
Center. The opinions expressed here are their own.)
By Matthew Rojansky and Thomas E. Graham and Michael Kofman
June 12 At this critical moment for the future
of Ukrainian, Europeanand U.S. interests in the region, the
U.S.-Ukraine strategic partnership lacks both strategy and
This much is clear after meetings with Ukraine's political
leaders, journalists, academics, civil-society activists and
volunteers active in the conflict zone during our recent trip
across the beleaguered nation. Ukraine's appeals for U.S.
support have only grown louder and more desperate as renewed
fighting flared around Donetsk in the past week.
Washington and Kiev have reached the limits of what
political rhetoric, summitry and symbolism can achieve. Both
must now identify the vital national interests that can build
and sustain a partnership between the two countries for the
foreseeable future. If they don't, the two nations risk
continuing a relationship that will disappoint and ultimately
alienate Americans and Ukrainians alike.
Ukraine has already transformed in crucial ways since the
Maidan demonstrations in 2013-14. It is on a path leading away
from its Soviet and post-Soviet legacies. Yet its course toward
a Western European alliance is not yet open or irreversible.
Ukraine's future will be shaped by reform-minded political
leaders and an awakened civil society. But also by longstanding,
powerful oligarchic interests and pervasive corruption. Reforms
have been sluggish, to the dissatisfaction of many, including
the ruling political coalition.
Each attempted reform reveals the need to fix other
components of governance, the political system or the economy.
Positive effects are slow to be felt and public patience wanes.
Russia's annexation of Crimea and occupation of the Donbas
have altered both Ukraine's delicate domestic regional power
balances and the relative equilibrium among the country's most
powerful oligarchs. Part of the country grows tired and angry
from the grinding reality of war, while another part seems
oblivious to it.
Many Ukrainians we spoke to repeatedly said they have little
confidence that the current constellation of political leaders
can deliver on promises they have made at home and abroad. Even
many people in the government cautioned against framing
U.S.-Ukraine relations in terms of support for one or several
domestic political forces and their agenda. Doing so, they said,
could draw Washington into a byzantine game, in which oligarchic
power-brokers hold most of the cards, and in which the doors
would stand wide open to these same Ukrainian actors seeking to
play for influence in U.S. domestic politics - an unhealthy
development by any measure.
For more than a quarter century, the United States has
supported Ukraine based on shared values and interests. But
official Washington is now deeply vested in the success of the
new Kiev government formed after the 2014 elections; senior U.S.
officials have called their Ukrainian counterparts "courageous"
and "inspiring." So Washington has little leverage on the
Ukrainian leadership to follow through on specific policy
Under these circumstances, politicians and parties, their
oligarch backers and many new civic groups all seek U.S. support
and close ties with Washington. It is beginning to resemble an
emerging client-state relationship in search of reliable
patronage. This is hardly the relationship the Ukrainian and
American people want. But in the absence of a strategic vision
and a framework for strategic partnership, it is likely what
both could end up with.
To avoid this, much can be done. First, Washington should
endorse Kiev's leading political figures and their agenda with
the same degree of caution and circumspection as the Ukrainian
people support them. Washington must stop believing that it can
be an active player in Ukrainian politics to achieve a desired
Instead, the U.S. objective should be to work on the
overarching problems that create instability and threaten
Ukraine's future: the disastrous state of the economy and the
conflict with Russia. Both are vexing and beyond the capability
of the Ukrainian state - under any leadership - to solve by
Next, Washington should work with Kiev to lay the framework
for a bilateral strategic partnership. This should be based on a
clear definition of mutual interests and values, and realistic
expectations for the short, middle and long term.
Instead of a few favored partners or signature projects in
Ukraine, Washington should look for spheres of cooperation that
serve the interests of both nations. It must forget the tired
formula of persuading Ukrainians to pick a pro-Western path as a
vehicle for foiling Russian-led integration projects. A new
approach can build a foundation for sustained bilateral
engagement with Ukraine as a whole - well beyond the period
after the fighting with Russia has ended. As it eventually will.
Finally, Washington must demonstrate strategic patience.
Ukraine will likely progress more slowly and more fitfully than
Americans would prefer. A strategic partnership based on clearly
defined values and interests will help both sides navigate the
potential misunderstandings and significant challenges that lie
(Matthew Rojansky, Thomas E. Graham and Michael Kofman)