The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Ukraine’s president again comes under U.S. pressure — this time, for good reason

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a news conference in Kyiv on March 3.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a news conference in Kyiv on March 3. (Sergey Dolzhenko/AFP/Getty Images)
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VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY, the Ukrainian president whose phone call with President Donald Trump led to Mr. Trump’s first impeachment, has yet to receive a call from President Biden. But the delay has nothing to do with Mr. Trump’s corrupt attempt to force Mr. Zelensky to dig up dirt on Mr. Biden. Instead, the new U.S. administration is seeking to induce Mr. Zelensky to tackle his own country’s endemic corruption — something that is vital to stabilizing its economy and preserving its fragile independence from Russia.

Mr. Zelensky, a former actor and political neophyte, was elected in 2019 on a promise to take on the oligarchs, dirty judges and mafia networks that have plagued Ukraine since it gained independence from the Soviet Union. But last year he retreated, firing reformers in his cabinet and the central bank president, and stalling on judicial reforms and action against oligarchs. In particular, Mr. Zelensky waffled on taking on Ihor Kolomoisky, the tycoon whose television network propelled him to the presidency.

The backsliding has caused the International Monetary Fund to withhold disbursements on a $5 billion loan deal, without which Ukraine may be unable to make debt payments later this year. It has also troubled Kyiv’s supporters in the United States, which remains Ukraine’s most important ally despite the turmoil introduced into the relationship by Mr. Trump. U.S. military aid has helped deter further aggression against Ukraine by Russia, which invaded and annexed Crimea and still controls a slice of eastern Ukraine.

Mr. Biden was a strong supporter of Ukraine’s independence as vice president, visiting the country and demanding the dismissal of a corrupt state prosecutor. The new administration is renewing that pro-reform policy: In a phone call to Mr. Zelensky’s foreign minister last month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken “highlighted the importance of Ukraine maintaining progress on fighting corruption and implementing rule of law and economic reforms,” according to an official statement. Last week, the administration followed up by sanctioning Mr. Kolomoisky on grounds of corruption, sending an unmistakable message about its expectations.

Mr. Zelensky, who rightly resisted Mr. Trump’s pressure for political favors, seems to be trying to respond to Mr. Biden. He took action against one powerful, pro-Russian oligarch, shutting down television networks the oligarch controlled. He has tried to push a crucial judicial reform through parliament. And authorities opened criminal cases against three former officials at a bank Mr. Kolomoisky once controlled from which $5.5 billion was allegedly looted.

Mr. Zelensky’s office released a statement in response to the U.S. sanction, saying that “Ukraine is grateful to all its partners for support” in “the battle with the oligarchs.” But the president must show greater commitment to that fight. He should press for judicial reforms, restore independence to the central bank and rule out any move to weaken the National Anti-Corruption Bureau. He should break unequivocally with Mr. Kolomoisky and support criminal charges against him. Having survived a U.S. president who sought to corrupt him, Mr. Zelensky now has the opportunity to forge a partnership with Mr. Biden that could decisively advance Ukraine’s attempt to break free from Russia and join the democratic West. He should seize on it.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Ukraine’s anti-corruption push is stalled. Biden can help get it going again.

Paul Waldman: Republicans are still trying to frame Joe Biden with Ukraine

Sergio Peçanha: The Trump impeachment inquiry, told with maps and dancing Rudys

Josh Rogin: In May, Ukrainian oligarch said Giuliani was orchestrating a ‘clear conspiracy against Biden’

Catherine Rampell: We’re all Zelensky now