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House Lawmakers Boost Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Campaign

Members returning from a codel to Ukraine talked up Kiev’s reforms, providing political cover in the face of White House attacks.

A bipartisan U.S. congressional delegation met in Ukraine last week with the country's minister of Defense.
Ukraine Ministry of Defense
Oct. 8, 2019, 8 p.m.

House lawmakers returning from a congressional delegation to Ukraine are talking up the new government’s anti-corruption efforts, in sharp contrast to President Trump’s latest talking point on the call that sparked an impeachment inquiry.

Trump and his lieutenants have doubled down on highlighting Ukraine’s reputation for kleptocracy in the course of defending the president’s decision to delay roughly $400 million in military aid to Kiev. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham announced Tuesday that he would allow Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to testify about “corruption and other improprieties” involving Ukraine.

In conversations with National Journal, lawmakers who traveled to Ukraine over recess said that President Volodymyr Zelensky’s political allies, defense minister, and foreign minister appear genuinely dedicated to implementing measures intended to restore civilian control over the military and tamp down corruption in parliament.

“They all are committed to rooting out corruption in their country, to having a standard of conduct that you can trust and that you can build a country on,” said Republican Rep. Vicky Hartzler, who went on the trip. “I was very impressed with their commitment and their competence. … I really feel like Ukraine is in good hands.”

Over the course of the week-long visit that ended Saturday, Reps. Hartzler, John Garamendi, John Shimkus, Dave Loebsack, Tom O’Halleran, and Jenniffer González toured military installations across Eastern Europe and met with top military officials. In Ukraine, they visited the Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine outside Lviv, and met with Ukraine’s newly appointed Defense and Foreign Affairs ministers, Andriy Zagorodniuk and Vadym Prystaiko, respectively, and members of parliament.

The delegation did not meet with Zelensky.

“We did not push for a meeting,” Garamendi said. “I did not want to put him in a difficult situation.”

In Poland, the delegation visited the Aegis Ashore missile system and the newly opened U.S. Army Headquarters in Poznan, and met with Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak. In Estonia, they toured Amari Air Base and spoke with Defense Minister Jüri Luik.

Arrangements for the trip were made over the summer by Garamendi, the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee chair, “for the purposes of reviewing America’s efforts to bolster NATO in the eastern countries” like Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, he said, and to “determine if [the United States] was doing enough to support Ukraine’s effort to push Russia out of their country.”

Zelensky, a former comedian and a political neophyte, is navigating dueling crises: the rift with Washington, which opened up over Trump’s desire for dirt on his political opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden; and the war with Russian-backed separatist forces in Eastern Ukraine. Zelensky has been attempting to negotiate an end to the conflict, and he relies on Washington for political and military support.

“[In the] first three months, of [Zelensky’s] presidency, Trump engaged in a devastating series of personal efforts that just set the new government back on its heels,” Garamendi said. “The meetings we had with the ministers indicated—very intelligent, very clear-eyed, very determined leaders, who are going to continue to protect their country from Russia—they will make every effort to survive Trump’s political onslaught. And I believe they will.”

According to Garamendi, the Ukrainians pitched two requests to the delegation. The first was for security assistance, like “naval or Coast Guard equipment,” anti-tank Javelin missiles, artillery, “counter-artillery and mortar systems, sniper bullets, and ammunition.” The United States provides military support to Ukraine through the Pentagon’s Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative and the State Department’s Foreign Military Financing program.

“Everything that a country needs to wage a defensive war … included in that is a continuation of the training programs that the United States and NATO allies provide, as Ukraine is rebuilding an army,” Garamendi said.

The Ukrainians also asked for sustained political support from Washington to help counter Russia’s incursions into Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, he added.

Retiring GOP Rep. John Shimkus, who observed Ukraine’s second round of presidential elections earlier this year, said Zelensky has “followed through in spades” on his anti-corruption platform. Shimkus published an op-ed in Medium Tuesday urging “restraint to those who would drag Ukraine, and President Zelensky, into the scorched earth politics of personal destruction practiced here at home these days. Ukraine is caught in a very real war against Russia, and they need the encouragement and reassurance of the United States’ friendship and support.”

“It is truly amazing what’s happened since [Zelensky has] been elected,” Shimkus told National Journal, pointing to the repeal of a law that had immunized sitting members of parliament from indictment, the new government’s decision to fund Ukraine’s anti-corruption prosecutor’s office, and the appointment of a civilian, Zagorodniuk, to lead the defense ministry.

“Don’t let the political warfare in the United States bleed into the political transformation that’s going on in Ukraine,” Shimkus said.

It remains to be seen how damaging the impeachment scandal will be for Zelensky’s image as an anti-corruption crusader. Zelensky retains close ties to Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who owns part of the television company, 1+1 Media Group, that aired the comedy series which elevated Zelensky to political stardom.

Griffin Anderson, communications director for Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who cochairs the Ukraine Caucus, told National Journal that Kaptur was “cautiously optimistic” about Zelensky, adding that he must make clear “his independence from oligarchs, including Ihor Kolomoisky.”

It’s also unclear how the scandal will affect Zelensky’s relationship with Western allies like Germany and France, whom he bashed in the call with Trump.

“[Zelensky] is facing his first real political crisis as president … over the possibility of moving forward and ending the war [in Eastern Ukraine]. Couple this with what is happening with Washington—the honeymoon period for Zelensky is over,” said Jonathan Katz, a senior fellow with The German Marshall Fund. “I think that both here in Washington and in Ukraine, people are getting ... increasingly worried about his capacity and his understanding on these hard-charging issues that someone even with deep experience in governance would have a difficult time coordinating and also leading on.”

According to Katz, Ukraine’s development over the next few years of an independent judiciary, which will have to enforce any new anti-corruption statutes passed out of parliament, will be critical. The repeal of immunity for members of parliament only matters, Katz pointed out, if the prosecutors and judges can enforce it.

“You need to have a whole system in place that upholds the rule of law,” Katz said. “The challenge has been to, piece by piece, build the institutions … to be able to actually look into and prosecute and bring to justice those responsible for [corruption].”

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