Less than a month before Ukrainians go to the polls to elect a new president, Vice President Joe Biden said the country’s interim leaders must work to shed the nation’s legacy of corruption that allows Russian aggression and influence to destabilize the region.
Biden also said that President Barack Obama would visit Poland in June for the 25th anniversary of the historic vote that freed Ukraine from communist rule.
“For 25 years, Ukraine has been free” from the former Soviet Union, Biden told an audience at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. But “it has not met its goals. For 25 years, including the Orange Revolution, [a free and functionally democratic Ukraine] has not been realized—in significant part because of corruption and as a consequence of institutions that need significant modernization.”
The crisis in Ukraine, Biden said, “was borne in the Kremlin. It was borne in Putin’s mind. It has nothing to do with the fact that we expanded NATO.”
“There is a common view, East and West, that the government has to begin to deliver, that corruption is incredibly corrosive,” Biden said. Building institutions that are “transparent, more modern, more effective than those Ukrainians have had over the last 25 years, in fighting corruption so that in time democracy can be delivered to the Ukrainian people—in my view it’s the most significant bulwark against Russian aggression.”
The integration of Russia into the international order “remains in everyone’s interest,” he said. “But Russia needs to know it cannot—and I believe they do know—have it both ways. If Russia wants to benefit form the international order, it has to respect that order and abide by the rules. Otherwise, it’s going to face growing costs and growing isolation.”
Ukraine, Biden said, “needs a government that serves the people, not enrich the powerful.”
Russian officials have been increasingly boisterous in recent weeks, alleging the annexation of Crimea was in response to a Western-backed coup of Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. Many in Kiev, however, came to view Yanukovych as a puppet of Moscow after he reneged on a promise to expand trade relations with the European Union—a measure Putin sharply opposed, countering the E.U. offer with $15 billion dollars in loans to maintain a close Kiev-Moscow partnership. Following months of unrest, Yanukovych was forced from power and fled the capitol on Feb. 22, leaving behind a lavish mansion replete with a private zoo and golf course.
Even before Yanukovych fled, the Kremlin positioned thousands of Russian troops, armor and aircraft along Ukraine’s eastern. In the weeks since, U.S. and NATO officials have repeatedly claimed the Russian maneuvers were intended to destabilize the region. Russia countered that their military presence was part of pre-planned military exercises.
“Ukraine’s struggle starts with an acute challenge of Russian violation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Biden said. “What Russia has done violates not just Ukrainian sovereignty but the fundamental principle that European borders cannot, will not be changed through political intimidation or military force.”
Biden also asked NATO member states to bolster their defense spending. “Shared security has to be a shared responsibility,” Biden said.