On the Record

Delivering Tough Love to Ukraine, Georgia

Steven Pifer

Steven Pifer joined Bernard Gwertzman to discuss Vice President Joseph Biden’s recent trip to Ukraine and Georgia and how it was meant to balance President Barack Obama’s Moscow summit earlier in the month.

Bernard Gwertzman: Vice President Joseph Biden has just completed a trip to Ukraine and Georgia to reassure both of those former Soviet republics that the American desire to “reset” relations–Biden’s words in Munich last February–with Russia were not meant at their expense. But he also had what one Biden aide called “tough love” for both of them. Could you elaborate on this trip?

Steven Pifer: That was the first point of the trip: to reassure Kiev and Tbilisi that the United States remains interested in robust relations with Ukraine and Georgia, and that we will work to keep open their pathways to Europe and the North Atlantic community. When I was in Ukraine about five or six weeks ago, what I heard from the Ukrainians was a concern–and I suspect there is a parallel concern in Georgia–that the effort to reset relations with Russia would somehow come at Ukraine’s expense. So part of the trip by the vice president was to assure both Ukraine and Georgia that the United States is not going to undercut relations with those two countries as it tries to develop relations with Russia. You’ve seen points made by this administration, indeed going back to the Munich speech itself, saying the reset of relations would not mean recognition of a Russian “sphere of influence” over the former Soviet states, and then repeated assurances that the United States supports the rights of countries such as Ukraine and Georgia as sovereign states to choose their own foreign policy course.

Gwertzman: What was also interesting to me was that in his speech in Ukraine, Biden was virtually demanding that the Ukrainian leadership get their act together. In Georgia, I don’t think he was publicly as tough. Can you elaborate on the “tough love” part of the visits?

Pifer: Let me start with Ukraine. Certainly the primary goal of the visit was to reassure Ukraine, but there was also a tough message there. In Ukraine, it’s not only due to the presidential election, but you’ve had a situation in the past year and a half where the government really hasn’t functioned because of infighting between President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. It’s meant that Ukraine has passed up opportunities to accomplish some important things. A big part of the vice president’s message in Kiev was to say, “You need to put aside political differences, come together as mature political leaders, find compromises, and get things done.”

He also singled out the importance of Ukraine getting serious about reforming its energy sector. This is a huge national security vulnerability for Ukraine because they have a distorted price structure where people buy natural gas at prices that don’t begin to cover the cost of the gas that Ukraine buys from Russia. As a result, Naftogaz, the national gas company, is perpetually in debt to Russia and on the verge of bankruptcy. That creates vulnerabilities for Ukraine.

Part of the vice president’s message was, “You need to get serious about this.” Part of the problem in Ukraine is if you are a household, you are probably paying a price that amounts to less than 30 percent of the actual cost of the gas bought from Russia. It’s no wonder why Naftogaz is always in financial straits. But it’s not just an economic problem because of the way it factors into the Ukraine-Russia relationship. It creates a national security issue for Ukraine. So there are two aspects to the tough message: One, the need for political leaders to get together, compromise, and produce good policy; and second, the special importance of tackling this energy security issue.

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