Saturday, May 18, 2024
 
 

Working against Ukraine’s own interests

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As the Ukrainian counter-offensive begins, maintaining American support is absolutely vital to Kyiv’s success. The Ukrainian Armed Forces have proven their courage, but even the most courageous need modern weapons to win. However, continued American military assistance is not guaranteed.

Despite strong support after the Russian invasion last February, public opinion in the United States is slowly decreasing. An Associated Press poll taken in February of this year showed 48 percent of Americans supporting the provision of weapons to Ukraine, with 29 percent against it. While a plurality of support for providing weapons remains, it was at 60 percent in May of 2022.  One of the contributing factors to the decline in support is domestic American politics. 

With the election of a Republican majority House of Representatives last November, and the US presidential election next year, Ukrainian military aid is at risk of becoming a key issue for Americans.  While military aid is secure through the end of the fiscal year on September 30, a new budget will be decided in the autumn which specifically decides future weapons for Ukraine.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg; Mark Milley, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin; and Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov.

Should the highly anticipated counter-offensive prove successful in retaking occupied territory, it will help Ukraine’s case for more weapons. Should the result be less than expected, it will strengthen the arguments of those opposed to military aid for Ukraine. 

The same February poll showed only 39 percent of Republicans support more military aid to Ukraine. With Republican members of Congress already hearing hostility to additional aid from their constituents, it’s not difficult to see how this majority party in the House of Representatives might decide to cut or reduce future weapons.  Any decrease in military support would hinder Ukraine’s efforts to repel Russia’s genocidal invasion.

The Republican party has several core constituencies, the most predominant of which are evangelical Christians.  This group within the party exhibits strong support for Ukraine. Churches have donated tens of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid and have been largely sympathetic toward Ukraine. Thus, if Ukraine loses the support of evangelical Christians, it risks removing the rationale for supporting Ukraine within the Republican party, and subsequently endangers continued military aid.

Freshman congresswoman Anna Paulina Luna is one of several pro-Trump Republicans who have called for ending aid to Ukraine.

Ironically, events in the city of Rivne in western Ukraine may yet prove to be such a catalyst. In the November 2020 mayoral election, the voters elected a 34-year-old Protestant evangelical named Oleksandr Tretyak. Tretyak is the only evangelical mayor representing an oblast capital in Ukraine.  The young mayor’s term has endured both the covid lockdown and the Russian invasion, and under his leadership, the city was recently awarded the “Plaque of Honor” by the Council of Europe based on the promotion of European values. The respected transparency watchdog organization Chesno also cited Tretyak three months ago as one of the top mayors in the country regarding a “maximum level of openness” towards the public. 

However, in February an administrative protocol was issued against the mayor by the National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption (NAPC) for a conflict of interest in the payment of bonuses to city officials. The payment of bonuses is widely used in cities and state ministries to reward hard-working officials who receive otherwise meager salaries and is credited with reducing the incentive for officials to take bribes. In this specific case, a key campaign staffer made a legal donation to Tretyak’s mayoral campaign in 2020.

After his victory, she started working officially for the city and received reasonable, legal bonuses for hard work. Then in a move that surprised many legal experts, the NAPC accused Tretyak of failing to inform them of a conflict of interest for the donation from three years ago.  

The NAPC protocol overlooks the agency’s own guidance from 2021 which stated that campaign donations do not constitute income for elected officials. Not only do Ukrainians have the right to donate to whichever candidate they chose, but government bodies also have the right to reward hard work. With such a questionable decision, it’s no wonder that in a USAID-funded poll in 2021,  the NAPC was not trusted by 57 percent of Ukrainians, and only 11 percent had any trust in the agency at all. Now the matter is in the courts and ambitious political rivals are eagerly hoping that this issue will force the removal of Tretyak as mayor.

Sounds far-fetched? Ask the former mayor of Chernihiv Vladyslav Atroshenko. Atroshenko was a fixture of Chernihiv politics for 20 years as a mayor, governor, and member of parliament from the district. In the chaotic early days of the invasion, his wife drove a city car to safety in Poland, while he stayed to organize the defense of the city. Despite the car being returned to Chernihiv after the withdrawal of the Russian army, this resulted in an administrative protocol against Atroshenko on the grounds that he failed to report this. In December the courts, disregarding the will of the Chernihiv voters, removed Atroshenko from office. 

What would the removal of an evangelical mayor on spurious charges make in the big scheme of things? First, it would give ammunition to opponents of military aid to Ukraine by reinforcing the Kremlin’s false narratives that Ukraine is closing down churches and is anti-Christian.  Second, it would be a targeted strike against evangelical support for Ukraine when a new vote on military aid is just three months away. Finally, it would fuel the fires of the “Ukraine corruption” arguments that aid opponents use to justify their position.

A Ukrainian soldier in firing position near Bakhmut, the site of some of the fiercest fighting since the war began.

None of these are a reason of course to disregard the legal process in Ukraine, but should Tretyak be removed from office in this manner,  Republican members of Congress who are generally supportive of Ukraine could cite this as a reason to vote against Ukraine aid.

Small events often have wider consequences. At a time when Ukraine needs military aid from the US to continue, even the appearance of targeting the only evangelical mayor of a major Ukrainian city with a case that has no merit will be felt in Washington. And later on the battlefield in Ukraine.

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An American who has lived and worked in Ukraine since 1995, and has
served as the Director of US-funded democracy development projects.

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