Disappointment after NATO’s July 11-12 Vilnius summit runs deep for Ukraine’s most ardent backers. As one expert noted, the outcome, failing to offer a clear timeline for Ukraine, suggests “NATO [has failed] to show courage and strategic foresight, where a realistic and robust pathway to membership could have become part of a war-ending strategy.”
Frustration was vented not only by Ukraine’s president and political elite but also by long-time friends of Ukraine from the Baltics. In this storm of disappointment, one voice in Ukraine begged to differ – President Zelenskyy’s former spokesman, Oleksiy Arestovych.
“The fact that Western leaders are weak and unable to make serious decisions,” he tweeted on 12 July, “does not cancel the fact we depend on them. Our mistake . . . was in placing our stakes with emotional blackmail, the policy of performance, and heroic posture. Whereas we should have . . . placed our bets on the policy of improving our quality as partners and building our sovereignty . . . It is easier to be heroic than to do systemic nation-building.”
Arestovych is a master of hyperbole, but on this occasion, his point is worth considering: perhaps, after all, the language of sacrifice and heroism in Ukraine’s dialogue with the West should be more often supplemented by the down-to-earth language of reform. Progress in anti-corruption policies, for one, is expected both by the European Union (EU) and NATO. It is important to see that the emphasis is on policies, not on individual sensational charges and headline-grabbing arrests of highly placed corrupt officials. A systemic approach to governance is key, and Arestovych is right to link it to the actual, not symbolic, strengthening of sovereignty.
The unity of Ukraine in the face of aggression, the resilience of Ukrainian society, and its commitment to its democratic and geopolitical choices deserve our admiration. It is not difficult to understand that its leaders currently find less time to be enthusiastic about reforms, but there is enough evidence that society wants modernization of public administration to be at the heart of recovery. There are many committed reformers among Ukrainian civil society and MPs — but sadly, not so much among the presidential administration and the ruling party, Servant of the People’s leaders. The deputy prime minister responsible for EU and NATO integration, Olga Stefanishyna, is one such figure, but her influence is limited, especially compared to the powerful head of the President’s office, Andrii Yermak, who civil society groups believe lacks enthusiasm for reform.
Angry critics of the Vilnius summit suggested that Western governments were in no position to lecture Ukraine on corruption after years of energy deals with Russia. This may establish a base camp on the high moral ground, but it’s not very helpful when it comes to convincing voters in the EU and in the US to support their governments to continue spending on weapons for Ukraine.
It is critically important that our democracies have committed to continue supporting Ukraine as long as it takes. To strengthen this commitment and to make it sustainable, Ukraine needs to sustain its effort not only in war but also in reforms.
Marija Golubeva is a Distinguished Fellow with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). She was a Member of the Latvian Parliament (2018-2022) and was Minister of the Interior from 2021-2022. A public policy expert, she has worked for ICF, a consultancy company in Brussels, and also as an independent consultant for European institutions in the Western Balkans and Central Asia.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.