Ex-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer and current U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie L. Yovanovitch.
Events have somewhat overtaken their talk, which came in Kyiv on the morning of April 6 -- several hours before U.S. President Donald J. Trump ordered the bombing of a Syrian government airfield with 59 Tomahawk missiles in retaliation for Bashar al-Assad's sarin gas attack that killed at least 80 civilians.
But in the run-up to the two-day 10th annual Kyiv Security Forum on April 6-7, two U.S. ambassadors to Ukraine – one current, the other a former one – struck generally hopeful notes about U.S. policy towards Ukraine and Russia.
Yovanovitch, Pifer speak
Marie L. Yovanovitch took a cautious and patient stance, but showed that she is up to speed with events in Ukraine since she took over as America's ninth ambassador last summer.
She shared the stage with Steven Pifer, the third U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who served from 1998 to 2000. He is now a Brooking s Institution senior fellow and director of the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative. He was refreshingly candid, as many ambassadors become after they are unburdened by leaving officialdom.
Their talk was moderated by Barbora Maronkova, director of the NATO Information and Documentation Centre in Kyiv.
Both ambassadors said they were encouraged by recent signals on Ukrainian and Russian policy from Trump, whose close Russian ties and extensive praise of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin have put a cloud of suspicion -- and official investigation -- over him.
Yovanovitch pointed to a range of tough statements from top officials showing strong support for Ukraine, including March 31 remarks from U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels.
'Fighting two wars'
“Ukraine is fighting two wars,” Yovanovitch said -- one for its territorial integrity and sovereignty against Russian-backed forces in the Donbas, the other a domestic one against corruption that will answer the question of “what kind of country is this going to be?”
Then she quoted Tillerson’s remarks at the NATO-Ukraine Commission meeting at the end of March, when he said in Brussels: “It serves no purpose for Ukraine to fight for its body in Donbas if it loses its soul to corruption. Anti-corruption institutions must be supported, resourced, and defended.”
Having served as deputy chief of mission under U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Carlos Pascual, the fourth U.S. ambassador, who served from 2000 to 2003, she said the biggest difference since that time is in the expectations of the Ukrainian people for a better nation. Those who fought the EuroMaidan Revolution that prompted President Viktor Yanukovych to flee power on Feb. 22, 2014, want a nation that is democratic, accountable and produces results for the people, she said.
Such a transformation in the country is vital “for Ukraine’s future and our strong bilateral relationship,” Yovanovitch said. Rather than serving as an excuse for delays, she said, Russia’s war in the Donbas “makes it even more urgent that Ukraine moves forward with reforms.”
She said that Ukraine's leaders need to be "moving the country forward in ways that are visible in the first place to the Ukrainian people."
She cited the necessity of health care reform, whose goals include introducing greater transparency in state spending. She also said Ukraine needs to make progress on the privatization of its 3,500 state-owned enterprises and, in the meantime, make the management of existing ones more transparent and professional. Such changes, she said, would mark a break from the "old manner that doesn’t allow them to be well-run, transparent and profitable."
The United States is also following the criminal case against ex-State Fiscal Service head Roman Nasirov, suspected in a multimillion-dollar tax corruption case. If Nasirov is found guilty and spends time in jail after a "good process," she said, the conviction will be seen as a step forward in fighting corruption.
Countries that have successfully eradicated corruption start with "a big case of an important person, of a person who is considered untouchable," she said. If the courts reach an independent verdict that a person is guilty after a fair trial, "that starts to send a strong signal in the country that things have changed," she said.
Pifer feels 'a lot better'
Pifer supported Hillary Clinton for president in 2016. Trump's election triggered deep concern about U.S. policy towards Ukraine. While he's still "a little nervous" about Trump's instincts and unpredictable tweets, he thinks that a more sober reality is setting in within the administration about Russia's behavior.
"I feel a lot better about American policy towards Ukraine and Russia," Pifer said. The "good news" is when you look at Tillerson, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, he asid, "it’s a Republican mainstream policy -- support for NATO, support for Ukraine and skepticism about Russia."
He said America has plenty reasons to get tough with Russia, including because of its interference in the U.S. presidential elections last year, which he called "an attack on the central plank of American democracy." With the White House dismissing the events as "fake news," Pifer said "it just makes it look like they’re trying to hide something."
'Move on reform'
Ukraine needs to seize the moment and "move on reform," he said, dispelling the perception in the West that its leaders are not fully committed to the anti-corruption agenda. He named creation of an anti-corruption court as a top priority.
He also lamented that, when he served nearly 20 years ago as ambassador, "we were talking about the need for pension and land reform." Both issues are still parts of Ukraine's unfinished agenda.
The problem is that Ukraine hasn't shown itself to be a reliably competent and accountable state, Pifer said. He said the nation needs to graduate from being a chronic Western aid recipient to attracting "significantly more amounts of foreign investment" so that it can become economically independent.
And Ukraine should not "descend back into political infighting," he said because it only damages the nation's reputation in the West.
"Muddling through is not going to be enough," Pifer said. "Donald Trump likes winners. You have to make it appear that Ukraine is a prospective winner."
Looking back, Pifer said, U.S. officials made a mistake in the 1990s because "we didn’t fully appreciate how corruption permeated Ukrainian society." The tools to address the issue -- namely withholding financial aid -- were inadequate, he said. Even cutting U.S. aid in half amounted to a $125 million loss, he said, a pittance to the amounts of money made by people benefitting from corruption.
"We could have been more blunt, more up front in talking to the Ukraine government this has to stop if you want continued engagement," he said.
'Hard year' for Ukraine in 2017
Pifer said he is not expecting any drawback from Russia in its war against Ukraine in 2017, noting he hasn't "seen any effort by the Russians" to implement the February 2015 Minsk peace agreements, which call on the Kremlin to stop arming and financially supporting separatists, withdraw its troops from Ukraine, return the eastern border to Ukraine's control and allow international monitors to roam freely.
Additionally, the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the European Union "doesn't bode well for Ukraine" because Britain belonged to the hard-line camp favoring tough sanctions on Russia.
"It will be a hard year for Ukraine in 2017," Pifer said. "I don’t expect change in Russian policy on the Donbas."
While Americans have a positive view of Ukraine in general, they continue to ask "why should we really care?"
He responded with three reasons:
1. Ukraine helped reduce nuclear proliferation by getting rid of its nuclear weapons more than two decades ago;
2. Russia -- a signatory to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which provided assurances of territorial integrity and sovereignty to Ukraine, "has violated all of those commitments" made in exchange of Ukraine's surrender of 2,000 strategic nuclear weapons -- the fourth largest arsenal in the world at the time. The United States, Great Britain and Ukraine also signed on. "It does obligate us to provide political, economic and military assistance, including I would argue, lethal military assistance," Pifer said.
3. For Russia's part in destroying European security by forcibly taking territory and attempting to change another country's borders, the West must impose high costs on the Kremlin to deter Russia from taking similar action elsewhere.
Yovanovitch said administration officials "are not freelancers who are thinking something up on the spot," although Pifer countered that he is "worried that there will be one guy who freelances" -- Trump.
Maksym Bugriy, a research fellow at Razumkov Centre and an analyst at The Jamestown Foundation, said that Western policy needs to help Ukraine with what he called the 3 "Ds" -- democracy, defense and development.
I got a chance to ask if either of them knew whether Trump would reverse ex-U.S. President Barack Obama's policy of denying Ukraine lethal defensive weapons -- particularly the hand-held Javelin anti-tank missiles.
Yovanovitch said Ukraine policy will come under a formal review and she expects "that question will come up at that time" of whether to supply Ukraine with lethal defensive weapons.
Pifer said that supplying Ukraine with better weapons "makes sense." While no one can supply Ukraine with enough weapons to kick the Russians "to the other side of the Donbas," taking away an easy military option will spur the Kremlin "toward the negotiating table," he said.
He hopes that reversing Obama's ban on supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine "is part of the evolving position of the president." U.S. support for arming Ukraine, he said, "would give political cover" for other nations that had been considering taking such a step but were reluctant to do so unless America went first.
I also got a chance to ask about the expansion of public e-declarations of income and assets from public officials to anti-corruption non-governmental organizations.
Yovanovitch noted that Ukraine's e-declarations for public officials are "much more comprehensive and public" than in many nations, the United States included.
Expanding the requirement anti-corruption civil society activists "Is a concern for us," Yovanovich said, citing a difference between people who work for the government -- who may have the opportunity to misuse public funds -- and private individuals performing a public watchdog
"It also became clear there were broader implications of the law. People are consulting lawyers at this point," she said. "We are still examining the implications of the law and will have a discussion with the Ukrainian government on this." She noted President Petro Poroshenko's formation of a working group to study the law's implications and will "wait to see the results."
Pifer simply said that including nongovernmental officials into the declarations doesn't make sense.
In response to another question, Pifer agreed that the Minsk peace process is going nowhere because "Moscow wants to have a simmering conflict." But he said that, unless Ukraine has a better plan, it needs to stick to its terms because the agreement provides the basis for Western sanctions.
If and when the Minsk deal collapses, it has to be seen by the world as the fault of Russia or their separatist proxies, not Ukraine's fault, he said.
Yovanovitch announced that while the Minsk peace deal, which calls for greater local autonomy in the Donbas for the separatist-controlled areas, is "very unpopular" in Ukraine, the agreement provides "all the elements necessary for resolution" of the war.
Ukraine must "stay in the game, stay focused," she said, and be seen as a good negotiating partner in the process to earn international support.
Since the talk at the forum, which is organized by ex-Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk's Open Ukraine Foundation, Trump unleashed a missile attack on a Syrian air base in retaliation for dictator Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons attacks that killed at least 80 civilians.
Moreover, Tillerson is meeting in Moscow on April 11-12. His overseas trip included a stop in Italy at a meeting of the G7 nations. He talked by phone with Poroshenko beforehand and offered reassurances on Ukraine's security, according to Ukraine's president.
"The U.S. secretary of state assured that the United States supports territorial integrity of Ukraine and insists on the fulfillment of the Minsk agreements, particularly on the importance of ensuring ceasefire regime," according to Poroshenko's official website."Rex Tillerson emphasized that Washington will not allow any package deal as regards solution to the situation in Ukraine and Syria."
Tillerson will have talks in Moscow with Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Undoubtedly, Syria and Russia's war against Ukraine will be key elements of the talks.