The U.S.-backed government in Ukraine is burdened by “dirty money and dirty politics” and its frozen conflict with Russia-backed separatists in the nation’s east is “heating up again,” the State Department’s point woman for European policy warned Tuesday.
While Ukraine’s parliament pushed through key anti-corruption legislation on Tuesday, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland said Kiev still faces major challenges to prevent a “slide backwards once again into corruption, lawlessness and vassal statehood.”
Ms. Nuland also told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that there were more violations during the first week in March to the cease-fire between Moscow-backed separatists and the Ukrainian military than at any time since the fragile truce was reached in September.
“In recent weeks, we have seen a spike in cease-fire violations, taking the lives of 68 Ukrainian military personnel and injuring 317,” she told lawmakers at a hearing examining the Ukrainian situation two years after the popular uprisings that ousted pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych and installed a pro-Western government.
Ms. Nuland blamed the “vast majority” of the violations on pro-Russia separatists in the former Soviet bloc nation.
Russia responded to Ukraine’s so-called “Maidan Revolution” of 2014 by annexing the nation’s Crimean Peninsula and subsequently fomenting separatist unrest on the Ukrainian side of the Ukraine-Russia border.
With Russian President Vladimir Putin announcing Monday a drawdown of troops from Syria, speculation is surging in Washington that Moscow may return its focus to its neighbor in Ukraine.
“Things are heating up again,” Ms. Nuland said Tuesday, adding that despite Mr. Putin’s promise to honor the Ukrainian cease-fire, separatist forces continue to “harass and intimidate” outside observers tasked with monitoring the truce.
Ms. Nuland said the situation is made worse by the fact that Ukraine’s new leaders continue to drag their feet on reforms needed to secure significant economic aid from the International Monetary Fund.
While Washington has provided more than $760 million in aid to Kiev and offered roughly $2 billion in loan guarantees, Ms. Nuland lamented that “Ukraine’s leaders have been locked for months in a cycle of political infighting and indecision about how to restore unity, trust and effectiveness.”
“The oligarchs and kleptocrats who controlled Ukraine for decades know their business model will be broken if Maidan reformers succeed in 2016,” she said. “They are fighting back with a vengeance, using all the levers of the old system: their control of the media, state owned enterprises, [parliament] deputies, the courts and the political machinery, while holding old loyalties and threats over the heads of decision-makers to block change.”
Ms. Nuland also pointed to some signs of progress, noting that Ukraine’s currency has stabilized over the past six months and that parts of its economy have grown modestly even as Ukrainians survived their first winter without relying on gas imports from Russia.
The nation has also approved a 2016 budget in line with certain IMF requirements and on Tuesday its parliament pushed through new anti-corruption legislation.
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