KIEV, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko will arrive in Washington on Thursday with a simple request: more economic and military aid for a nation that is reeling from an insurgency in the east.
But amid concerns about Ukraine’s commitment to anti-corruption efforts and Western caution about escalating a military conflict with Russia, it remained far from clear that Ukraine’s leader would leave Washington with a substantial new pledge of support. The Ukrainian candy-magnate-turned-politician plans to talk with President Obama at the White House and will address a joint meeting of Congress.
The absence of major military aid shipments from Western partners has fueled a sense of abandonment in Ukraine, some officials here say. Now there is an increasingly weary resignation that the country will be left to its own devices to confront pro-Russian rebels who have seized key swaths of territory in the east. In an effort to nurture a fragile cease-fire, Ukraine’s parliament on Tuesday approved plans to give the rebels de facto control of parts of the east.
The end of the five-month effort to win back full control of the east has been a bitter turn of events for many pro-European activists in Kiev. But Ukraine’s military suffered steep losses in the weeks leading up to the Sept. 5 cease-fire after an infusion of Russian military aid helped turn the tide of battle.
“There is a sense, and I have to be honest about it, in the Ukrainian public and Ukrainian society that both the U.S. and the E.U. are not doing enough to support the Ukrainian case,” Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said in an interview in Kiev shortly before he left with Poroshenko for a three-day North American tour. “The people feel themselves on the front of a real fight for European values, for freedom.”
Klimkin said he is hopeful that Ukraine will be offered more aid during the trip to Washington. Officials say that Ukraine has been asking for advanced military technology, such as communications devices that would allow military units to coordinate more effectively with one another on the battlefield. Officials also want to see stepped-up financial commitments to stabilize an economy that the nation’s central bank says may contract up to 10 percent this year.
The United States has offered nonlethal security aid to Ukraine that totals $60 million and includes food rations, body armor and communications equipment. It also has staged two military exercises in Ukraine this month. The International Monetary Fund has pledged $17 billion in loans to bail out the struggling country, although the organization has warned that an additional $19 billion in assistance may be necessary.
Ukrainian officials say that they appreciate Western efforts to help them. But some note privately and with a touch of bitterness that President George W. Bush offered $1 billion in nonmilitary aid to Georgia, a far smaller country than Ukraine, after its brief 2008 war with Russia.
Western powers also have hit Russia with sanctions against its financial, defense and energy sectors. But such measures typically inflict slow-moving pain; the threat from Russia against Ukraine, many in Kiev say, is here and now.
“It’s better to show that you’re strong than to come out with statements,” said Oleksandr Danylyuk, a leader of this winter’s protests who is now an adviser to the Defense Ministry.
In recent weeks, a bipartisan stream of U.S. lawmakers has visited Kiev and called for lethal assistance to Ukraine that could help its military push back more effectively against the pro-Russian rebels. Kiev and its Western allies have said that the Russian military stepped up its direct intervention in combat in mid-August, routing the Ukrainians, a charge the Kremlin denies. NATO officials said this week that even after the cease-fire took effect, about 1,000 Russian troops remain on Ukrainian soil.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has called for ammunition and surface-to-air missiles to be shipped to Ukraine, breaking with Obama, who has steadfastly held back from increasing the assistance. Other Democratic and Republican lawmakers also have called for more aid to Ukraine.
Fighting in eastern Ukraine continued Wednesday despite pledges from both sides to stop shooting. Donetsk city authorities said that “fierce battles” were continuing near the Donetsk airport, which is controlled by the Ukrainian government. Two civilians were killed and three were wounded, authorities said. Col. Andriy Lysenko, a Ukrainian military spokesman, said government forces came under fire in at least 15 locations Wednesday.
With Poroshenko seeking more aid in Washington, some Ukrainians have questioned whether the country is ready to receive it, given long-running problems with corruption that have plagued Ukraine since it broke from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Those concerns with corruption were a key focus of the winter pro-European protests in Kiev, but there are increasing worries that little has been done to combat it in the seven months since the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych was deposed as president.
The slow pace of anti-corruption measures has frustrated some activists. Protesters burned tires in front of the Ukrainian parliament this week to demand that it pass legislation to strengthen scrutiny of officials who served under Ukraine’s previous leadership. A version of the measure eventually was approved after several cycles of votes.
Other attempts at anti-corruption legislation have been rejected, and an ombudsman who was tasked with spearheading a fight against graft resigned in frustration in August.
“The general sense is that corruption is just as bad as before,” said Anders Aslund, an economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics who has advised Ukrainian leaders on economic issues.
No matter the outcome of Poroshenko’s U.S. visit, the publicity and photo opportunities are likely to help him at home even if he returns to Ukraine otherwise empty-handed. Ukrainians will vote in parliamentary elections on Oct. 26, and polls show that nationalist and other hard-line parties appear likely to make significant gains among an electorate that blames Russia for fueling months of conflict.
“The fact alone that Poroshenko is visiting Obama is very important for Ukrainians,” said Evgeny Magda, a political analyst at the Center for Social Relationships in Kiev. “Ukrainians need to know they’re not alone.”