Ukraine’s government has hired Washington lobbyists to fix its problems with the Trump Administration, but would do better to fix its internal problems, instead.
Ukraine’s problems are in four categories: a structural problem caused by the multiple overlapping entities involved in military strategy and procurement; the absence of a unified strategic vision for ordering equipment and supplies; a “Fifth Column” of pro-Russian officials; and a staggering corruption that divides the self-interest of the elites from the national interest.
A recent Rand study highlighted the deficiencies in the command structure of Ukraine’s security sector. Defense procurement particularly has several overlapping structures with no clear lines of authority or unity of command. The President, Prime Minister, Defense Ministry, General Staff and the infamous state-owned defense company, Ukroboronprom, compete against and undercut one another. Each entity produces its own wish list, driven more by impulse than strategy, and each entity has separate financial controls, opening the door to insider dealing and corrupt sales of government property.
In Ukraine, citizens are played for suckers: local militias fight to preserve home and liberty, while the leaders focus on procedure, personal prestige, and offshore bank accounts. Ukroboronprom is infamous for selling arms to the black market, and domestic contracts are given to factories indirectly owned by President Petro Poroshenko, who still hadn’t divested his business interests as he promised to do when he took office in 2014.
However, Ukraine’s political leaders are not fiddling while their country burns, they are busy stealing their military budgets — nearly half, in the estimate of a former Ukrainian senior military officer who requested not to be identified. They reason that when the rest of Ukraine is swallowed up by Russia, they will have a well-funded Plan B.
But it is not just the corruption that’s the problem. The system is plagued with inefficiency and lack of commitment. In 2015, at a time when the Ukrainians were complaining about the cost of spare tires and repairs, the U.S. government was prepared to ship them over 150 Humvees, along with spare parts and training – over $300 million worth of equipment. However, the government of Ukraine refused to spend $600,000 to pay the shipping cost.
Complicating these issues is the presence of the Russian Fifth Column. Many of the senior leadership — military as well as political — are loyal to President Putin, and they work actively to undermine Ukrainian independence. For them, corruption is a political tool as well as a means of personal enrichment. (That Plan B, again.)
The Ukrainian leadership can control their future only if they persuade the U.S. they are worth the effort. They need to make rapid and radical changes: abolish Ukroboronprom, let the Ministry of Defense focus on administration and procurement, and have the General Staff make the strategic decisions that drive supply requests. Moreover, it is time for President Poroshenko, the Defense Minister, the Chief of Staff and their deputies to put Ukraine’s interests above their own, resign their positions, and let someone who cares about defending Ukraine manage the defense effort.
If Ukraine’s leaders do not stop the corruption, the inefficiency, and the ridiculous turf battles, they will no longer have a country to loot, which may be what it takes to get their attention. The incoming Trump Administration and the Congress should condition aid on reform and transparency, as suggested by Rex Tillerson in his confirmation testimony in the Senate. Honest Ukrainian patriots should embrace those conditions, force out the kleptocrats, and lead the reform.
Ukraine should be able to preserve its territorial integrity and freely choose allies and trading partners. However, its leaders must show they are serious about meeting Western standards of governance: make their case for continued aid, and show how the aid will be used. This will be far more effective than the recent misguided attempts of the Poroshenko government to meddle in the U.S. elections. They need to make the same case to NATO and show that they are ready to become a responsible member of the West. Unless they do, Trump and his advisors will treat Ukraine like a bad investment and walk away. In fact, they may even press for investigations into what has happened to all the American aid and insist on repatriating it to either the U.S. or the Ukrainian people. Ukraine’s future is in Ukrainian hands.