Pifer says US-Ukraine relations in good shape
Former U. S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer says that U.S.-Ukraine relations are moving in the right direction despite U. S. President Donald Trump, who has often shown sympathy towards Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I actually think the U.S.-Ukraine relationship is in a pretty good place,” he said in a recent interview with the Kyiv Post. “It’s a lot better than what I feared it to be in November of 2016 when Donald Trump was elected president given some of the things that Mr. Trump has said as a candidate.”
In April 2016, then-candidate Trump vowed to seek for better relations with Russia if elected. Three months later, he suggested that he might recognize Russia’s illegal 2014 annexation of Crimea. The Trump campaign worked behind the scenes trying to make sure that Republicans would not favor giving lethal weapons to Ukraine, according to the Washington Post.
But Pifer, who served as ambassador to Ukraine under U. S. President Bill Clinton in 1998–2000, says that the Trump administration is actually showing more support for Ukraine than the previous administration of U.S. President Barack Obama.
“You see strong American support for Ukraine including steps that the Obama administration did not take such as providing lethal military assistance. And it’s basically a mainstream Republican approach — which is supportive of Ukraine, supportive of NATO and skeptical about Russia.
“The one asterisk I would put on that is: that’s a policy that I am not sure President Trump personally believes in… which is not a normal situation. I mean, ideally you have those as sort of merged as one.”
Similar messages have come from ex-U.S. ambassadors to Ukraine and Russia: John Herbst, Michael McFaul, and John Tefft.
A senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and director of the think tank’s Arms Control Initiative, Pifer criticized the Obama administration on two counts: first, the administration’s decision not to provide lethal military assistance to Ukraine; second, its silence in regards the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which gave Ukraine security assurances for giving up its nearly 2,000 Soviet-era nuclear weapons. Russia, a signatory along with the United States, United Kingdom and Ukraine, violated the pact with its invasion of Ukraine in 2014.
“President Obama was cautious. I can understand his position even though I think it was the wrong decision,” he said.
The U.S. could have done to uphold its assurances in the Budapest Memorandum. “Somebody once told me, we abided by the Budapest Memorandum because we didn’t invade Ukraine. And I said no, in the process of the negotiation we told the Ukrainians that if there’s a violation, we will care,” Pifer said.
But he also points to the specifics of the language, saying that the U.S. used the term “assurance” and not “guarantee.”
Russia’s violation has hurt non-proliferation policies and complicated efforts to persuade other countries to give up nuclear weapons or not to acquire them in the first place, Pifer said. Some Ukrainians say that they should have never signed the deal and should have kept the weapons.
“That’s perfectly understandable,” Pifer said. “When we were working out this language we didn’t anticipate what happened in 2014. You were dealing with a different Russia then.”
But in the end, Ukraine didn't have much choice.
“Had Ukraine decided to keep even some nuclear weapons in 1992–1993 there would have been not much relationship with Washington,” he said.
"Ukraine would have been pretty ostracized politically” in the West, Pifer said. It “would have found itself in standoff against Russia alone.” Pifer also doesn't think Ukraine could afford to maintain an independent nuclear weapons arsenal.
Pifer said he expected that after the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Russians would "settle scores with countries that were getting too close" to the European Union. But he was thinking the pressure would be economic, not military invasion.
“There’s no doubt in my mind given the way that the Russians executed the operation that the Russians had a plan… and that plan has been sitting in the shelf or safe somewhere for a number of years,” Pifer said.
On Feb. 20, 2014 the pro-Russian rallies started in Crimea and, several days later, the Russian military took over the peninsula.
Pifer is not sure of Putin's grand strategy. “I don’t have the feeling that Putin has long-term strategies,” he said. “I think he reacts to events and I think he kind of panicked when he saw what was happening here.”
Lack of experts
Pifer agrees that the U.S. should have had a better understanding of events in the post-Soviet world. "It shouldn’t be a surprise that the assets devoted to Russia say in 2000s or in 2014 were a lot less than what were devoted with the Soviet Union back in 1980s,” he said. “The Russia desk was much smaller than the Soviet desk was at the State Department. But even with the smaller size beginning probably after the (Russian presidential elections) in 2012 people were beginning to say: ‘Hey, there’s something you’ve got to watch in Russia.”
More Obama criticism
Obama never visited Ukraine during his eight years in office, the first president not to visit the territory since U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
“But Joe Biden was here what, six times? So you know that balances it out.”
Biden’s visits to Ukraine have been sometimes used against the former vice president saying that he was promoting his son Hunter Biden’s interests. The former Wa s h i n g t o n lobbyist is on the supervisory board of Burisma Holding, one of Ukraine’s largest natural gas companies that is owned by Mykola Zlochevsky, who was accused of money laundering and approving extraction licenses for his company while he was the ecology minister under ousted former President Viktor Yanukovych.
But Pifer considers the connection to be too far of a stretch.
“It feels a little bit awkward for the vice president to have his son on a board like that, but I don’t think that was the hook,” Pifer said. “I had a chance to spend some time actually with a small group talking to the vice president back in 2015 about Ukraine, and I think he genuinely feels sympathy and support for Ukraine, so it was something he chose to engage in, whether or not his son was working (in Ukraine).”
Pifer doesn’t expect Trump to visit Ukraine “He doesn’t seem to like to travel very much, so I wouldn’t hold my breath about President Trump being here.” U.S. Vice President Michael Pence has also yet to visit Ukraine. Pifer says that Ukraine always had strong support in U. S. Congress.
“One asset that Ukraine has is that if you go back 25 years, I think in Congress you see solid support for Ukraine, and it’s on both sides of the isle,” Pifer said. “And I don’t see any sign of that changing.”
The U.S. is worried about Russian interference in Ukraine’s upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019. “It will be through cyber, through the social media, through money and it will be through agents of influence,” Pifer said.
One way to counter Russia is the establishment of independent agencies that monitor TV media channels and their content and issue prompt warnings.
Pifer remains concerned about the power of Ukraine's oligarchs in politics and business. “The problem that bothers me and that bothers a lot in the West is that they outsized political influence either through control of certain assets like media or simply because they have connection to people in power.”
Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer testifies on June 5, 2014, before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee On Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (AFP)
Steven Pifer’s book “The Eagle and the Trident” looks at U.S.-Ukraine diplomatic relations from 1992-2004. (Courtesy)