For Biden, Ukraine Is a ‘Déjà Vu’ Problem That’s Hard to Fix



“It is no exaggeration to say that the hopes of freedom-loving people the world over are with you because so much rides on your fragile experiment with democracy succeeding,” Mr. Biden said in 2015, urging Ukraine’s Parliament to press ahead with change. “It may be your last moment.”

While Ukraine has made some clear progress since Mr. Biden’s visit, U.S. officials worry about backsliding. Last week, the State Department publicly rebuked Ukraine’s government for removing the chief of the country’s oil and gas company — “just the latest example of ignoring best practices and putting Ukraine’s hard-fought economic progress at risk,” a spokesman for the State Department, Ned Price, told reporters.

During his visit on Thursday, Mr. Blinken pressed the message, stressing to the Ukrainian television network ICTV “the imperative that Kyiv move forward with its domestic reform agenda.”

Close observers of the country are skeptical. “The fact that most of the economy is concentrated in the hands of a few individuals is pretty hard to undo,” said Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation.

It is all the more difficult to carry out hard overhauls, Mr. Charap added, when Ukraine’s politicians “recognize that they’re too big to fail,” meaning that it would be very difficult for Western leaders to withdraw support from their government, handing Mr. Putin a huge victory in the process.

Then there is the Russian military threat. For just as long, U.S. officials have vowed to ensure Ukraine can defend itself against Russia. The United States currently sends Kyiv more than $400 million in annual military assistance. Even during the tenure of President Donald J. Trump — who was accused of leveraging American military aid in a hunt for information to be used against Mr. Biden — other senior officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, repeatedly committed to the country’s defense against Russia.

But Mr. Putin has not backed off, and this spring, he escalated his threat with an immense buildup of as many as 100,000 Russian troops along Ukraine’s eastern border. U.S. officials say that as many as 80,000 of those troops remain, including warships off Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, and that Mr. Putin could still mount an invasion if he chooses.


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