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.

Trump Ad­min­is­tra­tion

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.

Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion

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.

Bu­dapest Mem­o­ran­dum

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.”

Elec­tion in­ter­fer­ence

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.

Oli­garch grip

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)

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