Visiting Kyiv on Monday and Tuesday, Biden made a rousing speech to parliament. His voice ringing with deep emotion, he called on legislators not to waste what could be their "last moment" to turn Ukraine into a free, prosperous country. The speech, however, followed a series of meetings in which the vice president, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt pushed a cautious line: Keep the much-maligned government in place and stick to the Minsk agreement with Russia to end the war in the east. The message: Apparently, the U.S. wants Ukraine to make as little trouble as possible.
Biden's visit, his fifth as vice president, coincides with a key date on the Ukrainian political calendar. On Dec. 11, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk's year-long immunity from dismissal will expire. That means his enemies, especially those on President Petro Poroshenko's team, will be able to try to get rid of him.
Last weekend, Mikheil Saakashvili, the governor of Odessa and former president of Georgia, made a sensational presentation at an anti-corruption forum he'd organized. He showed what he said was a chart of corruption schemes that cost Ukraine $5 billion a year -- only slightly less than the country receives in International Monetary Fund bailout loans. On the chart's edges were Ukraine's oligarchs, such as Rinat Akhmetov, the country's richest man, former Governor Igor Kolomoisky, and Dmitry Firtash, who is wanted by the U.S. on corruption-related charges. Yatsenyuk was at the center of the chart.
There were notable absences: businessmen close to Poroshenko, who are also accused of using their proximity for enrichment -- legislators Igor Kononenko and Sergei Berezenko, as well as energy billionaire Konstantin Grigorishin. Saakashvili is Poroshenko's loyal ally, and some local commentators suggested that his accusations, aired right before the Biden visit, were part of the Odessa governor's bid for the prime minister's job. Alexander Golubov wrote in an article for the Moscow Carnegie Center that Saakashvili "is hardly even hiding" his desire to succeed Yatsenyuk.
Saakashvili is no stranger to Washington politics, but his friends mostly are Republicans. The connections date to Saakashvili's tenure as Georgia's president, when George W. Bush was in the White House. Senator John McCain is an especially close ally.
Yatsenyuk has close ties to the Obama administration. During Ukraine's "Revolution of Dignity," Nuland and Pyatt discussed getting "Yats" into the new government in a telephone conversation that was intercepted and leaked, perhaps by Russian intelligence ("I didn't say it was inauthentic," was how a State Department spokesperson described it). "I think Yats is the guy who's got the economic experience, the governing experience," Nuland says on the recording. To Biden, and even to President Barack Obama, Yatsenyuk is as much of a negotiating partner as Poroshenko: They both have met with him on several occasions.
So Biden's message to Ukrainians was, don't rock the boat. On Monday, he met with a group of young legislators and civic activists, who asked him to push for changes to the cabinet and for the dismissal of the Poroshenko-appointed prosecutor general, seen as part of the thoroughly corrupt government system. Yet the legislator Svitlana Zalishchuk wrote on Facebook after the meeting: "It is obvious that our American partners don't see a way to ensure stability without preserving the status quo. The vice president's visit is meant to preserve the ruling coalition."
Although Yatsenyuk's political party is so unpopular that it wouldn't get into parliament if an election were held this week, it's an important part of the coalition. And if the prime minister loses his job, there is likely to be a snap election. The outcome would be hard to predict: Recent local elections empowered both the remnants of the pre-revolutionary regime and some dangerous extreme nationalists. The U.S. administration clearly doesn't want such turmoil: It wants the current parliament to pass laws making it possible to hold elections in areas held by pro-Russian rebels. Biden assured Ukrainian legislators of continued U.S. support against Russia, and got a standing ovation, but his real purpose was to convince the Ukrainian leaders to stick to the Minsk compromise with President Vladimir Putin, end the armed conflict and reintegrate the east of the country into Ukraine, even on terms favorable to Russia.
In his speech to parliament, Biden decried the "cancer" of corruption that's keeping Ukraine from becoming a successful democracy. In practical terms, however, his stability message means the preservation of a corrupt system of checks and balances in which cronies of the president and prime minister divide up access to the still-ample opportunities to milk the hapless country dry.
"My personal opinion is that without a reset of our governance system, we won't break through," the legislator Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze wrote after meeting with Biden.
If the U.S. doesn't want such a "reset," however, things will go on as before. The current Ukrainian leadership doesn't have to do as Biden says, and it'll drag its feet on complying with the unpopular Minsk accord. But it cannot overtly disobey, either, because it's dependent on U.S. support both financially and in terms of holding back Putin. So Ukraine is in for a period of enforced stability, and that may be the last thing it needs.
By Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg View
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.