In his first 50 days in office, President Biden made the rounds and spoke personally with two dozen world leaders. One president was conspicuously absent from his call list: Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine.
Now we learn that President Biden reached out to his Ukrainian counterpart last Friday, 73 days into the new administration. They had a 40-minute call, an account in The Wall Street Journal says, to show U.S. support for Ukraine as its hostile neighbor, Russia, flexes its muscles at their porous border.
At first glance, it might have been an awkward conversation, given their backstory. You have then-Vice President Joe Biden threatening to withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine unless it fired a shady prosecutor… who was investigating Burisma, a shady energy company… which had been paying $50,000 a month in fees to Biden’s son, Hunter. This fact pattern led to President Trump bringing it up in a phone call to the new Ukrainian president… which, in turn, culminated in Trump’s impeachment - the first one, anyway.
How should you handle it? By doing it the Ukrainian way. You ignore it.
You ignore it but pursue your agenda with confidence and determination of a utilitarian leader. That’s my advice as an American lawyer who was born in Ukraine and was brought to U.S. as a young child with my parents and grandmother; we were fleeing from the horror of the Soviet Union. As an adult I have done business throughout the world and have advised numerous former Soviet opinion leaders on market entry and government relations. My business dealings included working with various Ukrainians.
When it comes to dealing with problems, Ukrainians invoke a saying from two centuries ago: “The dogs bark, but the caravan goes on.” It may have been coined by the Turks, because it rhymes in their language, but it fits Ukraine well.
Forty years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian economy still struggles with corruption and pillaging. Old-guard oligarchs dominate the nation’s most vital industries: oil & gas, chemicals, steel, media, banking. Politicians run on platforms vowing to tame the oligarchs, too little reform or effect. See: President Zelensky himself.
The dogs bark, but the caravan goes on. Ergo, never mind that President Biden’s son and an associate reaped $4 million in payments from Burisma as it was under investigation in three countries; plus “millions of dollars from foreign nationals with questionable backgrounds,” as a U.S. Senate report found (and which the legacy media largely ignored). To Ukrainians, this is the way the world works. This approach allows the Biden administration to move on to more pressing matters, and ultimately effect change.
President Biden should make Ukraine the primary U.S. ally in the old Eastern Bloc. We should help strengthen Ukraine’s economy and bolster its defenses as the region’s biggest bulwark against Russian aggression. Ukraine has the largest land mass in Europe, rich with natural gas and fertile, productive land. (At one point, I represented the Agrarian Party of Ukraine…) Its northern border includes more than 1,200 miles abutting Russia’s southern boundary.
The U.S. also should help Ukraine break Russia’s lock as the sole supplier of natural gas to many of its Soviet spinoffs. Our technology could let Ukraine expand its self-sufficient natural gas industry to sell more gas to its neighbors and become a reseller of gas imported from U.S. producers.
Helping Ukraine revive its corruption-riddled economy will be trickier. Ukraine is continuing to spiral into disarray. As a country, Ukraine has lost its national creed, and its citizens have lost faith in Ukraine’s politicians’ platitudinal promises to curtail corruption and revitalize middle class. Many of Ukrainian reformers turned out to be war profiteers and short-sighted opportunists seizing any opportunity to make money from appeasing Russia’s emissaries. The nation’s GDP, at $115 billion, is almost 40% smaller than it was seven years ago, begging another old saying popular among Ukrainians: "The fatter the flea, the leaner the dog."
Still, it makes sense for the U.S. to build up Ukraine as a counterweight to our rivals in Moscow. With multiple political parties and a highly educated population, Ukraine is a salvageable democracy and a worthy investment of America’s political capital. The U.S. has supported Taiwan for more than half a century, as a counterweight to communist China. Ukraine continues to be strategically important to U.S. interests both as a geopolitical ally, and as an experiment in nascent democracy that ought not fail from an ideological standpoint.
In the Obama era, amid Russian troops’ invasion of Crimea, the U.S. shipped blankets and other supplies to Ukraine and stopped short of sending arms. President Trump sent them anti-tank missiles.
What will Biden do?
Yuri Vanetik is a private investor, lawyer, and political strategist based in California.
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