Confidential document reveals Biden Administration’s concerns over corruption in Ukraine

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3rd October 2023 – (Washington) A confidential U.S. strategy document obtained by POLITICO suggests that officials in the Biden administration are more worried about corruption in Ukraine than they publicly admit. The document, labelled as “sensitive but unclassified,” outlines the long-term plan of the United States to assist Kyiv in combating corruption and implementing reforms across various sectors in Ukraine. It emphasises that corruption could lead Western allies to withdraw support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia’s invasion and emphasises the urgency of anti-graft efforts.

The confidential version of the document highlights the potential consequences of “perceptions of high-level corruption,” warning that it could undermine the confidence of both the Ukrainian public and foreign leaders in the government’s ability to address the ongoing war. This stark assessment contrasts with the toned-down analysis presented in the publicly available 22-page document, which was quietly posted on the State Department’s website approximately a month ago.

The extended version of the “Integrated Country Strategy” is three times longer and provides more comprehensive details about U.S. objectives in Ukraine. It encompasses a range of goals, including the privatisation of banks, English language education in schools, and the adoption of NATO protocols by the Ukrainian military. Many of these objectives aim to tackle the pervasive corruption that plagues the country.

The discreet release of the strategy, coupled with the presence of stronger language in the confidential version, highlights the messaging challenge faced by the Biden administration. While the administration wants to push Ukraine to combat corruption, it must strike a delicate balance to avoid emboldening opponents of U.S. aid to Ukraine, particularly Republican lawmakers seeking to block such assistance. Any perception of diminished American support for Kyiv could also cause European countries to reevaluate their involvement.

According to a U.S. official familiar with Ukraine policy, there are candid conversations taking place behind the scenes. However, these discussions are kept confidential to address the sensitivity of the issue.

While concerns about Ukrainian corruption have long existed among U.S. officials, including President Joe Biden, the focus on the issue was downplayed following Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. During this time, the Biden administration aimed to demonstrate solidarity with Kyiv and avoid providing ammunition to a small group of Republican lawmakers critical of U.S. military and economic aid to Ukraine.

Over a year into the war, U.S. officials are now placing greater emphasis on addressing corruption both publicly and privately. National security adviser Jake Sullivan recently met with a delegation from Ukrainian anti-corruption institutions. Additionally, discussions are underway between the Biden administration and Ukrainian leaders regarding the possibility of tying future economic aid to anti-corruption reforms aimed at making Ukraine more attractive to private investment. However, such conditions are not being considered for military aid.

The release of the Integrated Country Strategy, a product of the State Department drawing on contributions from various U.S. government entities, including the Defense Department, signifies the goals, timelines, and milestones that U.S. officials seek to achieve in Ukraine. The strategy is periodically produced for many countries.

William Taylor, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, believes that the strategy will likely be welcomed by many ordinary Ukrainians who are weary of the endemic corruption in their country. However, he emphasises that it should not hinder the assistance provided to Ukraine in its fight against the ongoing war.

The American objectives for Ukraine outlined in the document include fulfilling promises of equipment and training to bolster Ukraine’s armed forces against Russian attacks. The strategy also highlights the need to reform elements of Ukraine’s national security apparatus to enable a decentralized and risk-tolerant approach, reducing opportunities for corruption.

Although Ukraine’s accession to the NATO military alliance remains distant, the American strategy frequently references the desire to align Ukraine’s military with NATO standards. One of the desired milestones mentioned in the confidential version is the establishment of a professionalised junior officer and non-commissioned officer corps in Ukraine, following NATO doctrine and principles.

Furthermore, the strategy aims to ensure that Ukrainian defence documents reflect NATO terminology, indicating Ukraine’s alignment with Western security structures. It also encourages Ukraine to develop its own military equipment and a domestic defence industry capable of supporting its core needs, including defence information technology start-ups.

The document underscores U.S. concerns about the influence of a select few on Ukraine’s economy. “Deoligarchisation,” particularly within the energy and mining sectors, is identified as a crucial element in building a better Ukraine. The confidential version emphasizes the importance of meaningful reforms that decentralise control of the energy sector as an indicator of success.

The United States is actively involved in assisting Ukrainian institutions in enhancing their oversight capacities. This support ranges from helping local governments assess corruption risks to implementing reforms in human resources offices. For instance, the strategy mentions the U.S. aid in improving the auditing capabilities of the Accounting Chamber of Ukraine, enabling it to track direct budget support from the United States.

The strategy also addresses assistance in Ukraine’s health sector, cyber defences, and efforts to combat disinformation. It emphasizes the importance of supporting Ukrainian anti-monopoly initiatives and measures to increase tax revenue.