Mr. Secretary, what is the purpose of your visit to Ukraine on this occasion?
I came here to support the workforce at Kyivstar. As a relatively new member of Kyivstar. I wanted to get out and meet the team. We’ve had a board meeting. I'll also interact with the national police here to encourage them. And then I'll meet with a couple of government officials, too.
Kyivstar is a centrality, it's important to Ukraine and the work that it's doing. Everyone's got a keen interest in the cyber-attack on it that recently took place, as well. I've been involved in the response to that.
And then I just love this place. I love Ukraine. I've been here now a dozen or so times and my wife and I both have a deep affection for the people of Ukraine.
How is the uncertainty about how Russia's war against Ukraine will go affecting investment in the beleaguered country?
It would be foolish to say that that war doesn't have an impact on the willingness of capital to come to Ukraine. But two thoughts. Kyivstar is hard at it. It's going to invest $600 million over the next three years in building up systems, making the system more reliable, adding new services for the people of Ukraine as well.
And I'm watching American and European companies, too, now identify projects that work. Work, no matter how this conflict goes on. They know that there's building that can take place, and there are opportunities.
What they're looking to make sure is that there's rule of law, transparency, due process, all of the things that if you're a capital provider, you can't deal with.
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You can deal with all kinds of commercial risk. The risk that your company may get nationalized, or your company may have some regulatory risk – those are things that cause companies to walk away from making investments. And then when you add the war to it, that would make it hard.
I can see there's a lot more people sitting there trying to figure out how to put money in here, and I'm very hopeful I can be part of helping them work their way through it.
What is your own assessment of how things in Ukraine are going in the business sector, and what would be your recommendations?
Kyivstar had a great 2023, a fantastic year. It has to do not only in its performance as a business but serving its customers, keeping the reliability rate of the system up, adding deeper technologies, all of those things.
And as you know, it got a little harder. Some of the employees are serving the country, so that’s added a twist, as it has for every Ukrainian company. But the resilience of the Ukrainian people has allowed the company still to perform its mission on behalf of the country and the Ukrainian people.
Customers are still growing, competition still exists in many sectors including in Kyivstar’s. Those are all the hallmarks of economies that are doing well in spite of the complexity of doing so in a war zone.
But we recently had this threat or talk of the nationalization of Kyivstar. Has that prospect receded?
I became involved about the same time that this issue arose publicly. If there's one thing I know – I was a small business owner in Wichita, Kansas before I lost my mind and ran for Congress – businesspeople need to know that they're secure in their property rights.
And that matters to Kyivstar. It has literally no Russian connection. It's 100% owned by the international VEON Group, headquartered in the Netherlands and listed on NASDAQ and Euronext, which got out of Russia as quickly as it could. It had a significant operation there. But it just said, fine, take it. It chose Ukraine.
And so, companies that do that ought to be able to have confidence that they're not going to have their property rights diminished.
That applies certainly for Kyivstar, but I think your larger point is, if you're Goldman Sachs or Blackstone or a large US manufacturer, Archer-Daniels-Midland, an industrial company like Halliburton or Schlumberger, whoever it might be, and are thinking about an investment in Ukraine, and you see a national company like Kyivstar, so central to the country, being dogged by the government, putting the ownership of it at risk or, reducing their property rights, you're going to think twice before you come and place your capital.
So, I think the Ukrainian government leadership does see and understands that.
And yet a French businessman has just expressed interest in buying a competitor company to Kyivstar.
Absolutely. You make the exact right point. Yes, there's deep interest here. This is an important market with good people and massive commercial opportunities. It can only be limited by the extent of the Ukrainian government’s ability to set up the conditions for businesspeople to make that foreign direct investment.
Obviously, our readers would want to know from a person like yourself, Mr. Secretary, your thoughts about the situation in the United States. So, I can't avoid asking you the following: Given the political standoff in Congress and society generally, what are the chances that the US will resume providing aid in sufficient quantities to Ukraine? And in the longer term, as we await to see what happens later in the year, what are the political risks for US-Ukraine relations?
I'm convinced the United States will continue to provide the support that Ukraine needs. Regardless of party politics inside the United States, it is the consensus view across the large swath of the American political leadership that it is important to America to continue to support Ukraine's effort to push back against the atrocities of Vladimir Putin. I just think that's fundamentally true.
And when you believe that core proposition – we'll have our political noise, but the signal, right? And if you just separate the noise from the signal, the signal will be that we're going to be with the Ukrainian people. We're going to help them win.
Last thought on this. And I don't, I don't do politics when it comes to national security things that are so just so central to humanity.
One of the things I hope we see is not only the United States, but Europe as well, permitting Ukraine to win, indeed willing them to win, indeed providing them the research they need to achieve victory. Not a standoff, not a stalemate, but the capacity to actually get to an end state – that is Ukrainian political independence from Russia and a security structure, security architecture, which reduces the risk that this ever happens again.
Those are the two fundamental things that I think the United States must stand with Ukraine for. We shouldn't limit how you can use weapons systems. We should provide you with everything that you need.
And when we do that, you will win, and the world will be a safer place. So, that’s the bottom line.
So, you remain an optimist?
Definitely! It's a necessity. We have to win. Not only absolutely for the people of Ukraine, absolutely for the people of Europe, but also absolutely or the people of America. To demonstrate American leadership here is essential.
And, you know, the old Churchill line, which is something like this: America always does the right thing after they've exhausted all the other possibilities. That remains true some 70 years on. I'm convinced we'll do the right thing.
Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for your time and for sharing your thoughts with us. Success to you and all of us.
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