Biden visits war-scarred Ukraine to reaffirm US support

KIEV, Ukraine – US Vice President Joe Biden arrives in Kiev late Sunday, December 6 to reassure its pro-Western leaders that Washington remains committed to Ukraine despite stepped-up efforts to work with Russia against Islamic State (IS, formerly known as ISIS or the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq) jihadists.

Biden's 3-day visit is his 4th to Kiev since Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in March 2014 and then watched with approval as pro-Kremlin insurgents carved out their own region in the eastern industrial heartland of the ex-Soviet state.

He will meet Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Monday, December 7 and deliver a highly anticipated address to parliament the following day.

"We do not know if there is any other historical precedent for a foreign official giving a speech like this," said one senior US administration official in a teleconference with reporters.

Washington and Kiev's EU allies support Ukraine's view of Russia being an "aggressor" that orchestrated the separatist revolt in reprisal for the February 2014 ousting of a Moscow-backed president – an assertion the Kremlin denies.

Both the US and EU have slapped stiff economic sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle and have helped train and equip Ukraine's dilapidated and underfunded army with defensive equipment such as advanced radar.

But the situation changed when Russia launched ferocious air strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's enemies on September 30.

Washington accused Putin of trying to prop up his most important Middle East ally by targeting Western-backed Syrian rebels instead of ISIS and other extremists holding parts of Syria and Iraq.

Yet ISIS's claim that it downed a Russian airliner carrying 224 holidaymakers and crew from Egypt on October 31 appears to have prompted Moscow to focus more on bombing oil infrastructure and other jihadist targets.

The November 13 Paris attacks further prompted French President Francois Hollande to try to enroll Russia in a "grand coalition" against ISIS including the US and some European and Arab states.

Hollande's mission has been treated with caution by the White House and overt fright by Ukraine, a country of about 40 million.

The senior US official said Biden would take extra care to stress that the overtures toward Putin in no way affected the West's support for Kiev.

"I think that is going to be a major theme of the trip – that nothing that is going on in the Middle East has changed one iota of our commitment to the Ukrainian people and to their security," the US official said. (READ: US starts training Ukraine forces to fight pro-Russian militants)

Getting serious about corruption

Yet Biden arrives in a country whose morale is sagging due to Poroshenko's seeming inability to erase corruption that has ravaged Ukraine for much of its recent history.

Poroshenko's prosecutor-general has particularly fallen prey to accusations of blocking investigations and hiring workers who have since been detained with huge stashes of gold and cash in their flats.

This, along with Kiev's failure to win back the east after 19 months of bloodshed that has claimed more than 8,000 lives, is souring the public's mood toward the government and helping the resurgence of Ukrainian far-right groups.

"Much more needs to be done to reform the prosecutor-general's office so that it actually enables anti-corruption efforts as opposed to standing in the way of those efforts," the US official said.

"So that will be I think something that is talked about."

Analysts say the main problem rests in the government's failure to break the hold big business has enjoyed over much of Ukrainian politics for more than 20 years. 

"Ukraine has 1,833 state corporations that are a persistent source of corruption," said Anders Aslund of the US-based Atlantic Council.

"The government has failed to privatize one single enterprise because of deeply ingrained vested interests."

Poroshenko has taken credit for dismissing nearly 4,000 graft-tainted prosecutors. He also introduced a high-ranking official on Tuesday, December 1 responsible for rooting out bribe-taking and at least partially limiting the sway of shadowy tycoons.

But some analysts remain unconvinced.

"The adoption of even the best and highest-profile decisions that 'suit Biden' only underscores the absence of a coherent strategy for reforming our country," Ukrainian political commentator Yevgen Magda said. – Dmitry Zaks, AFP/