Three and a half years since Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, Russian soldiers and their proxies are still killing Ukrainian civilians and service-members on a daily basis. This spring, the Kremlin accelerated its violations of the ceasefire, increasing its deadly artillery and rocket attacks and launching subversive operations across Ukraine. The latter are meant to signal that Russia is no longer confining the kinetic conflict to the Donbas battlefield. A sabotage operation in March blew up a large munitions depot near Kharkiv that forced the evacuation of 20,000 nearby residents. The same month, an exiled Russian member of parliament was shot dead in Kyiv. In June, a senior Ukrainian military intelligence officer was assassinated with a car-bomb, also in Kyiv. Finally, the summer fighting in the Donbas was accompanied by a massive cyber-attack that briefly disabled Ukrainian ATMs, banks, and metro systems and went on to infect tens of thousands of computers worldwide. So much for a “frozen” conflict.
In addition to these kinetic operations, the Kremlin has stepped up its efforts to weaponize corruption by working to buy off Ukrainian politicians and burrow even deeper into the country’s political establishment. The Kremlin’s strategy is clear: keep the war in the Donbas simmering to foster political discontent while channeling funds to pliable Ukrainian politicians to try to change Kyiv’s geopolitical orientation after the next parliamentary election. For all its hysteria about purported Western attempts at regime change in Russia, that’s exactly what the Kremlin wants in Ukraine, which it politely calls “resetting the ruling regime.”
This strategy may in fact be viable. One of the ruling coalition parties, the National Front, is polling in the single digits while the other, Bloc Petro Poroshenko, has lost first place in the polls to former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party. If Moscow throws serious money into the next Ukrainian parliamentary election, it’s anyone’s guess how things will turn out. After interfering in the U.S. election and helping their dark horse candidate win, Kremlin strategists must be feeling pretty good about their odds of success.
As it pursues its strategy of subversion inside Ukraine, the Kremlin also continues to hold out the possibility of a negotiated settlement to the conflict in the Donbas, albeit on Moscow’s terms. The principal forum for such discussions are the “Normandy format” talks involving the leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia. Following the July 24 session in which French President Emmanuel Macron participated for the first time, and in anticipation of the arrival of Kurt Volker, the new U.S. special envoy for Ukraine, Moscow continues to signal that a negotiated option is possible. Donetsk separatist leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko has used the term “Malorossiya” to refer to the creation of an entirely new Ukrainian polity, without Crimea, and with a capital in Donetsk. That is of course a complete pipedream, but it telegraphs Moscow’s desire to negotiate a solution that preserves a Ukrainian state (minus Crimea) that includes the occupied regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Sergei Tsekov, who ostensibly represents Crimea in Russia’s Federation Council, has explicitly spelled this out, saying that the creation of “Malorossiya” would be a step towards the federalization of Ukraine.
In return for the West’s acquiescence to the creation of a quasi-autonomous statelet in the Donbas — analogous to the Republika Srpska entity within Bosnia and Herzegovina — Moscow would no doubt promise to withdraw its regular troops from the Donbas, pull back heavy weapons from the Line of Control, and stop the daily ceasefire violations, effectively “freezing” the conflict. As Moscow will no doubt point out, a “Malorossiya” scenario would preserve Ukraine’s de jure territorial integrity (though “a la Srpska”) and would put an end to the kinetic conflict. For Ukraine, however, this scenario would amount to the permanent surrender of its sovereignty, and would effectively preclude the country’s future Euro-Atlantic integration, just as Banja Luka effectively blocks Bosnia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. This remains the Kremlin’s negotiating position, and so long as it is rejected by the West, blood and dirty money will continue to flow freely within Ukraine.
There are several things the United States can do to immediately shift the dynamic in Ukraine’s favor. With Defense Secretary James Mattis considering a trip to Ukraine in the coming weeks, here’s what the U.S. should do to maximize the effectiveness of his visit:
(1) Announce that the Pentagon will provide Ukraine with defensive weapons and more expansive military training so Kyiv can better defend itself against Russian aggression.
(2) Press Prime Minister Groysman and President Poroshenko to step up anti-corruption efforts and allow the National Anti-Corruption Bureau to do its job unimpeded.
(3) Help Ukraine devise a strategy to attract badly needed investment so its defense-industrial sector can produce and even export its own weapons and ammunition.
Let’s start with the defensive weapons. Mattis’s visit is the perfect opportunity to announce that the United States is reversing its de facto arms embargo on Ukraine by providing defensive armaments so Ukraine can better resist Russian aggression. Ukraine’s military needs longer-range counter-battery radars, anti-tank and anti-ship missiles, more secure communications, advanced UAVs that can better resist Russian jamming measures, and more Humvees and MRAPs for better battlefield mobility, among other things. In light of expanded Russian subversive operations, the U.S. should also deepen its intelligence sharing with Ukraine’s military intelligence agency. The recent assassinations of top military intelligence officers testify, very tragically, to the increased effectiveness of the Defense Ministry’s Main Intelligence Directorate (HUR), which is on the frontlines of Russian hybrid war against Ukraine. Mattis should also declare that the U.S. is granting Ukraine “Major Non-NATO Allied” status, which is a largely symbolic move, but one that would formally prioritize security assistance and other support to Ukraine. Any public rollout of Major Non-NATO Allied status would, however, have to state explicitly that the conferral of this status in no way prejudices Ukraine’s current or future aspirations for NATO membership.
After seeing for himself what sorts of meager resources the Ukrainians have at their disposal, Secretary Mattis should sit down with Congressional leaders in the Armed Services committees to discuss increasing the amount of security assistance Ukraine receives under the next National Defense Authorization Act. The $150 million appropriated under the current fiscal year’s act is wholly insufficient for a country at war with a much larger neighbor determined to keep the conflict going indefinitely. One area that needs to be seriously considered is U.S. help rebuilding Ukraine’s navy. After its invasion in the spring of 2014, Russia devastated Ukraine’s small naval presence in Crimea, leaving hundreds of kilometers of maritime flank exposed along the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. While U.S. security assistance has rightly focused to date on the land forces fighting in the Donbas, Ukraine needs additional support to build a small and nimble “mosquito fleet” to disrupt potential Russian aggression along its coast. The current U.S. training program for Ukraine’s military – by far the single most effective aspect of U.S. security assistance – should also be expanded from its current focus on small unit tactics to more sophisticated combined arms training.
The second major line of effort the U.S. must pursue is to exert more sustained pressure on Ukraine’s leadership to accelerate anti-corruption efforts and empower the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) to do its job. Despite a great deal of effort put into the process of establishing new anti-corruption institutions, the public is still waiting to see high-profile cases prosecuted and assets recovered. The reason is simple: political pressure from higher up continues to flummox the system. Currently, the weakest link in the chain of anti-corruption prosecution is the judiciary. If anti-corruption prosecutors pursue leads, gather evidence, and file indictments but the courts are manipulated by corrupt actors, the entire system breaks down. That’s why one of the major next steps Ukraine must take is to create independent, credible anti-corruption courts where high-profile cases can be heard and judgments handed down free of political interference. Anti-corruption activists have been warning for months that Ukraine is starting to backslide, and anecdotal evidence suggests too much business is still being conducted according to the old rules. This is one of the reasons why the popularity of the governing parties remains so low. Leveraging the provision of defensive weapons, the administration must offer Ukraine’s leadership some very tough love (emphasis on the tough) and, crucially, keep after them to unblock prosecution efforts and allow for cases to go forward against corrupt senior officials.
The third line of effort involves merging the first and second efforts: reforming Ukraine’s defense industry by improving corporate governance and fighting endemic corruption within the defense sector. This means root-and-branch reform of Ukraine’s state-owned defense behemoth, Ukroboronprom, which oversees some 80,000 employees spread over 130 enterprises. The good news is that Ukraine possesses enormous potential as a defense manufacturer; indeed, it already produces world-class airplane and helicopter engines, transport aircraft, UAVs, rocket artillery, and a variety of sophisticated IT-enabled defense products. Ukraine also has a wealth of scientific, computing, and engineering talent, and its pool of educated human capital is large, though it is quickly being depleted by better-paying opportunities outside the country. The bad news, however, is that Ukraine’s defense sector, much like its energy sector, has been notoriously pillaged by corrupt middlemen and those seeking exclusive contracts and sweetheart deals. As long as Ukraine’s defense industry retains a reputation for corruption and opacity, Western defense companies are unlikely to invest significant resources. This needs to change, and the U.S. can help Ukraine develop a roadmap for changing the way the entire sector is managed. Paraphrasing an old proverb: give Ukraine weapons, and it defends itself for a day; teach it to produce weapons effectively, and it defends itself for a lifetime.
There are of course no easy solutions to reforming Ukraine’s defense industry, but shaking up Ukroboronprom’s board of directors is a good place to start. One model to consider is for the government to appoint a selection board to choose Ukroboronprom’s new Board of Directors. The selection board could consist, for example, of the Ministers of Defense, Interior, Economic Development, Finance, and Infrastructure, as well as the Chairman of the National Defense and Security Council, and perhaps one senior defense policy advisor (or private sector executive) from each of the countries that make up Ukraine’s Defense Reform Advisory Board: the United States, Canada, Lithuania, and the United Kingdom. This way the process would be Ukrainian-led, but it would be transparent and leverage foreign expertise. This selection board would then appoint – from scratch – a new Board of Directors for Ukroboronprom, relying purely on meritocratic criteria rather than political connections.
A new and independent board would then be able to exercise more effective, transparent, and professional oversight over the company’s management. It could also hire an outside firm to conduct an audit of the entire company and recommend how best to restructure the conglomerate to attract foreign investment and grow the net worth of its underlying assets. This would not be an easy process by any stretch, but the potential payoffs that would flow from a thorough reform of Ukraine’s defense industrial sector are enormous, and would have positive spillovers for many other parts of the Ukrainian economy. With a little help from U.S. institutions like the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), western companies could find attractive investment opportunities in Ukraine, help support the development of Ukraine’s defensive military capabilities, spur corporate governance reforms that improve transparency and root out corruption, and help grow the Ukrainian economy and create high-paying jobs. This would be the ultimate win-win-win scenario.
All of these steps – providing weapons and military training, pressing Ukraine’s leadership to keep anti-corruption efforts moving forward, and reforming the defense sector to attract foreign investment – would help Ukraine become stronger militarily and economically; more resilient and resistant to Russia’s use of corruption as a political tool; and more united politically. It would increase the odds of Ukraine’s success over the long term, and help keep Moscow’s aggression at bay. But let’s be honest: it will not be enough to resolve the conflict. No peaceful settlement that restores Ukraine’s territorial integrity and leads to the withdrawal of Russian troops is possible without the West – led by the United States – applying much greater leverage over Moscow. While the application of such leverage is possible in theory, all the reasons that have led President Trump to seek to appease Putin and cultivate a relationship with Russia make it practically impossible to see how such pressure could be exerted under this administration. (To be fair, President Obama did not apply sufficient leverage to change the Kremlin’s cost/benefit calculus either). However, that is all the more reason to move forward with the concrete steps recommended here. A growing and innovative economy, more capable and professional military, and stronger rule of law are what will ultimately account for Ukraine’s victory over Russian aggression.