While failing to provide any real solutions for Ukraine’s ailing economy, choosing instead to air vacuous platitudes and call Ukraine’s government “courageous” and “inspiring” at any given opportunity, the Obama administration proves once again its complete lack of leadership on any foreign policy matter. But what makes Ukraine’s case more unnerving is not Washington’s impotence in pushing back Russia, but the unyielding determination of State Department officials to reap profits and settle political, and sometimes personal, scores.
Indeed, leaked phone conversations that took place during the Maidan between US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland and US ambassador to Kiev Geoffrey Pyatt revealed that the State Department was largely involved in canoodling with Ukraine’s opposition with the aim of manipulating the direction of the Ukrainian government in accordance with US interests. But why has the Obama administration gone out of its way to protect Ukraine? Was it to uphold the fundamental rights of freedom-loving Ukrainians, oppressed by the evil Russian bear? Not in the slightest. Washington, rather than developing a strategy for Kiev and its future, has instead been opting to secure its own geopolitical and strategic interests. Oil and gas, rather than freedom and democracy, can largely be considered the reasons why Washington has got its panties in a twist over Russia’s grip on Ukraine. For a Democratic party that has consistently and obsessively blasted the Iraq war as Bush’s crusade for oil, the Obama administration seems to do exactly that in Ukraine.
A war for oil?
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In November 2013, before the Maidan Revolution, which saw former President Yanukovich ousted from power and a new group of “European” and “reform minded” leaders enter the scene, US oil and gas majors were already busy marking their territory. Chevron was quick to sign a $10 billion deal with Kiev for the exploration and production of shale gas in western Ukraine’s Oleska Field. Meanwhile, Royal Dutch Shell also inked an agreement to explore shale gas reserves in eastern Ukraine. A more recent US State Department report confirmed these companies’ interests in the country, underlining that “Ukraine’s strategic location between the main energy producers (Russia and the Caspian Sea area) […] its large transit network, and its available underground gas storage capacities make the country a potentially crucial player in European energy transit.” However, since the conflict in eastern Ukraine led both Chevron and Shell to pull out of the projects, it comes as no surprise why the US is really trying to cozy up to Ukraine’s leadership given the “game changing” opportunities for energy cooperation the country has to offer.
The war-torn east and relentless fighting between both sides hasn’t stopped Obama administration grandees from exerting their influence and lining their pockets. In May 2014, Joe Biden’s younger son, Hunter Biden, was appointed to the Board of Ukraine’s largest independent oil and gas company, Burisma Holdings. Biden, along with Devon Archer (who was John Kerry’s advisor during his 2004 presidential campaign and the college roommate of Kerry’s stepson, Christopher Heinz), claimed that their appointment to Burisma’s Board was solely to provide strategic guidance. However, Biden’s arrival on the scene coincided with that of David Leiter, former Senate Chief of Staff to Kerry, whose company (ML Strategies) signed up to lobby for Burisma in Washington. Owned by a former Yanukovich government minister, Nikolai Zlochevskyi, Burisma’s ties to the White House have led some to believe that while trying to promote cleaning up corruption in Ukraine’s state, Washington is trying to secure its own special deals in the state. According to Ed Chow, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “it maybe sends the wrong message that Westerners are just hypocritical.”
But gaining allies isn’t enough for the Obama administration – eliminating potential rivals and competitors has been a key strategy in ensuring US dominance over Ukraine’s energy market. In March 2014, just several days after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Justice and State Departments via the FBI filed an extradition request in a Vienna court against Dmitry Firtash, Ukraine’s prominent gas and chemicals bigwig. Faced with allegations of bribing Indian officials, Firtash contended his arrest was nothing more than a political game played out by Washington, which felt threated by his influence in Ukrainian politics. With no evidence presented by the FBI, the Austrian judge deemed the US charges “politically motivated– and Firtash walked. But as a key player in Ukraine’s gas industry through his companies, Firtash’s woes are far from over. The Ukrainian government has recently confiscated 500 million cubic meters of gas belonging to Firtash and announced that it would be willing to cooperate with US investigators, who plan to appeal the Austrian decision.
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Despite calls to make Ukraine an attractive place both for domestic and foreign businesses, it appears that, with the never-ending support of the Democratic Party, Ukraine is more occupied with settling political scores at the State Department’s behest than bringing about economic and institutional change.
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