Joe Biden, the U.S. vice president under Barack Obama, has praised a White House decision to supply Ukraine with more lethal weaponry, but also suggested that weaker U.S. policy toward Kyiv was leading to backsliding on crucial anticorruption reforms.
Biden, who was the Obama administration’s point person on Ukraine, called Kurt Volker -- the current U.S. special envoy for Ukraine -- a "solid, solid guy."
But Biden suggested that Volker did not have enough authority to be tougher on Ukraine’s leadership on corruption and that backsliding on the reforms could hurt the chances of implementing the Minsk accords, the framework deal reached with Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Volker is "a solid, solid guy. But Kurt, to the best of my knowledge, does not have the authority, or the ability, to go in and say, 'If you don't straighten this up, you're out of here,'" Biden said.
Biden made the comments on January 23 in an appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
The United States has been a stalwart supporter of Ukraine since 2013, when a series of street protests over closer integration with Europe evolved into a major confrontation with President Viktor Yanukovych, culminating in his ouster in February 2014.
The Obama administration imposed economic sanctions for Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and for its support of separatists in the war with Ukrainian forces that has killed more than 10,300 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014.
But Washington has also struggled to push Yanukovych’s successor, Petro Poroshenko, to institute major governmental reforms and clean up the country's endemic corruption. The Obama administration was also reluctant to authorize more advanced weapons for Ukraine's military, fearing it would antagonize the Kremlin.
Biden said he and other administration officials had to work hard to persuade European leaders to go along with U.S. sanctions on Russia.
"If in fact you do not continue to show progress in terms of corruption, we are not going to be able to hold the rest of Europe on these sanctions," Biden said he told Ukrainian leaders. "And Russia is not going to roll across the inner line here and take over the rest of the country with their tanks, what they're going to do is take your economy down -- you're going to be absolutely buried, and you're going to be done. And that's when it all goes to hell."
"There is no pressure that I'm aware of...on the present leadership in Ukraine to hold them together to be able to continue what looked like was a real possibility of turning Minsk into something that was doable by being much tougher than Germany wanted us to be," he said. "We were moving in that direction, but it now looks like the pressure is off and it requires day-to-day-to-day" reinforcement.
Reached by RFE/RL by e-mail, Volker declined comment.
The Trump administration policy toward Ukraine had been in doubt early on in his presidency, amid Trump’s repeated calls for a more conciliatory approach toward Russia. During the 2016 election campaign, the Republican Party platform was reportedly changed to water down U.S. support for Kyiv.
However, with Congress and key national security officials showing strong backing for Ukraine, the Trump White House has largely continued his predecessor’s policies.
Last year, the White House signaled it was moving forward on a long-delayed plan to supply Ukraine with more advanced weaponry, to bolster its forces fighting Russian-backed separatists.
Volker is a well-regarded former ambassador to NATO, and his appointment last year was seen by many in Washington as a strong selection to spearhead diplomacy over the Ukraine conflict.
However, the position is only part-time, and Volker splits his attentions between Ukraine diplomacy and heading a Washington think tank named for Republican Senator John McCain.