America's Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland paid her latest visit to Ukraine in mid-July. The high-profile trip sparked speculation over undue US influence in Ukrainian affairs after Ms. Nuland was seen to push President Poroshenko towards agreeing to decentralisation and possible de facto recognition of autonomy for Kremlin-backed breakaway statelets in east Ukraine.
While in Kyiv, the senior US diplomat was interviewed by leading Ukrainian TV personality Savik Shuster. The conversation focused on US attitudes towards Ukraine's stuttering reform process, and directly addressed comments by US Vice President Joe Biden during the recent US-Ukraine business forum which suggested that Ukraine was fast running out of time to convince the country's Western partners that it was serious about transforming itself and overcoming the Soviet legacy of institutionalized corruption.
The US Embassy in Kyiv has released the following official transcript of the interview:
Shuster: Ambassador Nuland, the main topic in Ukraine this week is not decentralization. You’ll be surprised: it’s the U.S. – Ukrainian Business Forum, the Vice President’s speech. And most Ukrainians – and I’m absolutely certain about it – would like to tell the Prime Minister of Ukraine what the Vice President of the United States has said – basically, “Shape up, Arseniy. Ukraine is running out of chances.” What are the reasons you think that the fight against corruption is really not giving any results?
Nuland: Well first, Savik, let me just say how proud we were to host the U.S. – Ukraine Business Forum. It was an opportunity for the United States to say to its own business community, “We believe in Ukraine. It’s time to go invest in Ukraine. We’re supporting Ukraine. It’s time for you to do that as well.” And we had interest from more than 150 businesses. We’re talking about coming and doing another one here in Ukraine later in the year. So this is part and parcel of America’s support for your democratic reform future.
Look, fighting corruption is one of the hardest things that countries have to do – particularly countries emerging from the kleptocratic Soviet system. And frankly, this part of Ukraine’s journey was never really done before. I don’t have to tell you this -- that pretty much every set of leaders since independence has, in one way or another, either directly ripped off the people of Ukraine or allowed it to happen. So there’s Soviet overhang here. There’s also a recent tradition of this. And there are some outside your country who use corruption to manipulate the system to make money themselves here. So it’s a hard problem. It’s what we call a “wicked” problem. So it’s going to take a lot of effort. You can’t expect it to happen overnight. But by the same token, it has to be pursued to the end. So what Ukraine has done now is set in place the legislative base to fight corruption. You’ve started to change some of the personnel. You’ve started to create – with our help and others – a cleaner military, a cleaner police system. But changing the culture and really rooting out all those snakes and cutting off their heads is going to take time. So we will stand with you as you do it. But, like a bicycle, you’ve got to ride it and keep going so it doesn’t fall over.
Shuster: But when you mention outside forces, people, whatever, you don’t only mean Russia, I suppose?
Nuland: We’re talking about this phenomenon all over the area that I work on. I work on 50 countries of the Euro-Atlantic region. We’re worried about it in the Balkans. We’re worried about it in Central Europe. We’re worried about it in Eastern Europe. Dirty money buys politicians, buys businesses, takes over the sovereignty of the country, and manipulates politics. It can come from outside forces. It can come from within. It has to be rooted out regardless of where it comes from. But when a country is vulnerable to this kind of thing, those who don’t wish you well from the outside, or those who want to rip you off, can take advantage of this vulnerability and make trouble and have influence that they shouldn’t have.
Shuster: But the United States Vice President pronounces, “Now you have to put people in jail,” looking into the eyes of the Prime Minister of Ukraine. So I wonder, what is it? Is it disappointment? Is it a warning? Is it an incitement?
Nuland: No, as I said – fighting corruption has to be pursued in stages. So you have put in place the legislative base. You’ve started to clean the cadre. But now the justice system has to work. So it’s not just a matter of presenting cases to the prosecutor. The prosecutor has to complete some cases – whether it’s at the federal level, whether it’s at the city level, whether it’s the local level – so that the people of Ukraine have confidence that if they report a crime, if they report that they’ve been ripped off, that those people are going to pay, that there will be justice. And justice also creates a deterrent. If you know you’re going to get away with it, you’re going to keep doing it – but if you know you might go to jail, you’re going to think twice.
Shuster: I think you, Ambassador Nuland, you yourself once said that it would be good if a current President of the United States already saw a Ukraine which is stabilized, which has started fighting corruption, really, so that the next president who comes doesn’t have the problem that he had.
Nuland: I’m not sure what part of something I said you may or may not be quoting.
Shuster: What I’m -- I’m interested about the time framework. “You have no time left,” said the Vice President of the United States. How much time are we talking? Two months? Two years – as he said? When do you want to see results of the fight against corruption.
Nuland: Again, this should be less about what we want and far more about what the people of Ukraine are demanding.
Shuster: They are demanding. They’re strongly demanding.
Nuland: Exactly. The public opinion polls show that the number one thing that the people of Ukraine want all across the country – if there’s anything that unites this country from Lviv to Donetsk – it’s the need to fight corruption. So this is also what Maidan was about, in addition to wanting the path to Europe. So people elected leaders, elected Rada deputies, elected President Poroshenko because they want the system cleaned up. So the faster you deliver, the faster Ukraine will change, the faster you’ll be able to attract investment, and the stronger country you will have. So we want it to happen, obviously, as fast as possible, but we are less impatient, I think, than even the people of Ukraine.
Shuster: The people of Ukraine, I can tell you, are losing their patience. And you can feel it at every corner.
Shuster: And many people are demanding early elections, for instance, already now. Because we see that the President and the Prime Minister cannot –- sort of – find a common language and start pulling the country out of a crisis. Do you see that as a possibility or do you think it’s really dangerous in this period to have drastic political changes?
Nuland: Well, Savik, we – as you know – strongly believe that the reformist forces here have got to work together. They’ve got to hang together. That’s what the people want to see. But they also, together – because they have different responsibilities to the people – have to make the system produce. They have to ensure that justice is served, that only clean people work in the government, that the government is for the people -- not the people serving the government, as was the way so often in the past. So we want to see unity across the reformist coalition. We want to see that united front work as quickly as possible on these very difficult economic and rule of law reforms. But I would also say that there are no miracles. There’s no overnight answer to the decades and decades of difficulty that you’re now trying to clean up. So some patience, unfortunately, is going to be required as you work through this. But one of the things that we’re pleased to see here, including with this package of measures -- economic measures -- passed today in the Rada is that Ukraine is taking the necessary steps as quickly as it can. Because this stuff is painful. And when you have a painful place, and you have a Band-Aid over it, for example, and you have to change the bandage, it’s always worse if you pull that bandage off slowly. It’s much better to pull it off as quickly as you can, live through that pain, and then start to heal. And that’s what we want for Ukraine.
Shuster: Ambassador, Ukraine is fulfilling its part of the Minsk agreements – today’s vote in the parliament on the constitutional changes concerning decentralization. And you’ve said that now the other side has to show at least good will. And if they don’t – if they continue what they’re doing up to now – shooting, killing?
Nuland: Well we’ve made absolutely clear that we expect Minsk to be implemented. As you know, the sanctions that the international community has put in place – that the U.S. and the EU have in place – are there to change the policy of Russia, to encourage it to fulfill its obligations. We’ve made clear that they will stay in place until Minsk is fully implemented, including an end to the violence, including a return of hostages, a return of the border. But we’ve also made clear that if the violence increases, we’re prepared to put more pressure on Russia. We are also, as you know, supporting Ukraine’s security. The United States has contributed about $150 million dollars so far to security assistance – to training. We’re training out in Yavoriv. Our hope is that we can use this pressure – the increased capability – to see Russia and those that they manage in Donetsk and Luhansk, implement the obligations that they’ve made. It not, the costs will go up.
Shuster: Economically and militarily?
Nuland: All of those are options, of course.
Shuster: The United States is quite concerned about what is happening in Greece, and the European crisis surrounding it. At the same time, the Prime Minister of Ukraine gave an interview to Financial Times, where he said that basically, the European Union is behaving irresponsibly giving all of that money to Greece. And basically it kills all the incentives to do reforms in Ukraine. How do you – do you see any parallel between Greece and Ukraine.
Nuland: Well I didn’t see that particular interview, so I can’t speak to the precise quote. I think what you should be very pleased about is that Ukraine has worked very hard over the last year to work with the International Monetary Fund, to work with the World Bank, to work with all of us in the international community to agree on a roadmap of reforms that we can support, and to do it quickly. And then to implement those reforms quickly so that we don’t have the kind of grinding, difficult negotiations that the European Union had to have with Greece. And by the same token, as you know, Greece has been trying to recover for a long time now. You talk about the pain that the Ukrainian people are feeling. The Greek people have been under very difficult conditions for a long time. So here again, I think that there are positive lessons for Ukraine, which are to keep the pace of reform, stay in good, strong dialogue with us on what you are doing – what is important to do legislatively, judicially – so that you work through this period of painful reform as quickly as possible, you stabilize, and then you get to growth – the kind of growth we hope our business folks will be able to bring as they start to invest in Ukraine.
Shuster: Thank you very much, Ambassador Nuland.
Nuland: Thank you, Savik, for the opportunity.