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What’s the Deal with Ukraine?

Raising the curtain on why Ukraine keeps headlining global news: It’s more than just the tug-of-war with the United States, Russia and the European Union.

Ukraine is popping up everywhere these days, from President Trump’s impeachment process to Russia’s hidden-in-plain-sight occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea region. Why is one of Europe’s poorest countries punching above its weight in global headlines?

Former US Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer joins Altamar to help look past the daily news cycles and break down the country’s geopolitics. Following more than 25 years with the US State Department, Pifer is a Director of the Brookings Institution’s Arms Control Initiative and Senior Fellow at Brookings’ Center on the United States and Europe. He is also a fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and author of “The Eagle and the Trident: US-Ukraine Relations in Turbulent Times.”

“The new government in Kiev has to be very careful about how it handles the whole question about Ukraine and the United States right now… on the one hand, they don’t want to antagonize President Trump, but on the other hand they also don’t want to antagonize the Democrats. It seems to me that the safest thing for Ukraine to do is to keep out of American politics. It will not be useful for Ukraine if it becomes a football in the American domestic political scene and in the 2020 presidential election,” argued Pifer.

In recent decades, Ukraine has enjoyed strong bipartisan support in the United States – even contributing to the US-led Iraq coalition force and helping curb Iran’s nuclear proliferation program. According to Pifer, “On the geopolitical side, the United States government has been interested in Ukraine because if succeeds in developing as a stable, independent, democratic state with a robust market economy, that’s going to help the goal of a more stable and secure Europe, which has been a long-defined US interest.”

Ukraine’s new, young President Volodymyr Zelensky, who made fighting corruption a central theme of his campaign, will now have to make good on his promises, explained Pifer: “That to my mind is probably going to be the test for Zelensky, both in terms of his domestic constituency and also a big test in terms of Western supporters like the International Monetary Fund… he’s advocated a very strong pro-reform agenda, anti-corruption, and pro-Western: his first overseas travel was to Brussels to meet the leadership of both the European Union and NATO.”

For Pifer, the question mark is President Zelensky’s lack of political experience: “He’s an entertainer, both in movies and television… but does he have the expertise to run a government?” However, Pifer notes that for the first time since Ukraine regained independence in 1991, the President’s party has a solid majority in Ukraine’s Parliament: “Previous presidents had to deal with very divided Parliaments. So, he has the power to make changes, but he’s also in a situation where if changes don’t happen, it’s all on him and he can’t blame anyone else.”

Meanwhile, “Ukraine aspires to be fully European, including membership in the European Union,” said Pifer. But it faces major challenges: “The European Union understands that if they move to bring Ukraine in that would cause difficulties in their relationship with Russia… Europe, or at least some of Europe, might want to get back to a normal relationship with Russia, and what Ukraine worries about is that that would entail some acceptance of Russia’s ambitions within Ukraine.”

For Ukraine to achieve its objectives, “there’s going to have be developments in terms of Ukraine’s economic development – it needs to get to a point where there’s a stronger economy and higher living standards,” said Pifer.

But Pifer warned that country’s oligarchs are a major impediment: “The oligarchs certainly have a role to play in Ukraine’s economy, but what causes concern is their outsized political influence and the way that they seem to use their political power to protect their economic position. And it’s held Ukraine back. You see it in terms of foreign direct investment in Ukraine, which is nowhere near what it should be for a country of Ukraine’s size and potential,” said Pifer.

Listen to our analysis of Ukraine – available for download here.

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Episode 58