(Bloomberg) -- The pressure is starting to take its toll on Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
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The Ukrainian president allowed a dispute with one of his biggest allies to spin out of control at the United Nations General Assembly this week, and that’s just a hint of the tensions building behind the scenes.
Zelenskiy has been leading his country through Russia’s brutal assault for 19 months, all the time fighting on another front to wring the weapons and finance he needs from his US and European supporters. Now he suspects that President Joe Biden’s commitment is wavering and other leaders may be taking their cue from the US, according to a person who met with him recently.
He grew very emotional at times during that discussion, the person said, and was scathing in his criticism of nations that he said weren’t delivering weapons quickly enough.
Ukraine’s allies are privately pushing the 45-year-old president to turn his attention to what kind of country will emerge from the war, even as his troops struggle for a breakthrough on the battlefield, according to other people familiar with the matter. As an incentive to tackle the graft that has plagued Ukraine for years, several countries are even set to link future financial aid to specific reforms including bolstering the anti-corruption prosecutor’s office, the people said, asking not to be named discussing private conversations.
Those shifts show how international support for Ukraine is moving away from crisis mode in search of a more long-term approach as the prospect of a drawn-out conflict starts to seep into the thinking of leaders around the world. In the background, there’s also increasing discussion of how long Zelenskiy can go on before he starts negotiating with the Kremlin, according to one western official.
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All of that means Zelenskiy is going to have to make progress on fixing the most corrupt state in Europe (other than Russia) if he’s to make it sustainable for his partners to keep financial aid flowing. Perhaps even harder, he’s going to have to accept that his problems, however gruesome, may not always be the top priority for allies like Biden and Poland’s nationalist president, Andrzej Duda, who both have elections to worry about at home.
It was a public fight with Duda over Ukrainian grain shipments that captured attention at the UN meeting in New York, evoking a clash with the UK at the NATO summit in July. The latest dispute led to Poland announcing on Wednesday that it had ended arms shipments to Ukraine, before making an abrupt reversal the following morning.
It’s Biden’s own reelection campaign next year, though, that is the biggest worry for Zelenskiy.
He was stung not to get an invitation to the Group of 20 summit in Delhi this month, according to the person who met with him recently. While that was a decision of the Indian hosts, Zelenskiy saw it as a sign that US support has become more limited and it compounded his concerns about how the 2024 election campaign could disrupt his supply of aid and weapons, the person said.
Biden is already battling Congress to secure more funding for Ukraine with the existing appropriations due to run out at the end of this month.
The western official agreed that there has indeed been a shift in the nature of support that Ukraine is getting from its allies in recent weeks.
A White House spokesperson said Biden’s commitment to Kyiv is as strong as ever and will last “for as long as it takes,” pointing to remarks at the UN in which he called for other nations to stand with Ukraine.
“We’re with you and we’re staying with you,” Biden told Zelenskiy during a meeting in Washington on Thursday. The US leader said he is authorizing $325 million in additional security aid and that next week the first Abrams tanks will be delivered to Ukraine.
The package “has exactly what our soldiers need now,” Zelenskiy said, as he offered repeated thanks to Biden and the American people for their help.
Ukraine’s supporters still recognize that Zelenskiy’s government is operating under extremely difficult circumstances and, despite that, has made some progress with reforms. They are also keen to distinguish between the strings attached to longer-term financial aid and immediate military support.
But leaks in the media from officials criticizing the progress of the counteroffensive have stung Zelenskiy while a string of corruption cases have started to whittle away at the widespread support he has from the Ukrainian people.Western leaders are sticking to their view that only the Ukrainians should decide when to negotiate with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. But they are also attuned to potential for their own voters to get tired of the cost and disruption of the war.
As concerns about the situation on the battlefield come together with those about Ukraine’s potential NATO and European Union accession and continuing support from the International Monetary Fund, murmurs about talks with the Kremlin are only getting louder. And that’s before you throw 2024’s US election into the mix.
One UK official said that it would be better to find some sort of resolution to the conflict before the presidential vote and that the most likely way for that to happen is for Ukrainian gains on the battle field to force Putin to negotiate.
The fight with Poland over grain is a clear indication of the sort of tensions in Ukraine's future, according to one senior European official involved in those discussions. That spat is in many ways a typical bust-up driven by one of the European Union’s core constituencies: angry farmers. And there will be more of those debates as Ukraine’s EU membership plans move beyond the aspirational phase.
The bigger issue though for the president’s supporters in the EU and beyond is tackling the corruption that has plagued Ukraine since independence from the Soviet Union a generation ago, said people with knowledge of conversations between Kyiv and its allies. The scale of that challenge is more unique to Ukraine and it's a topic that threatens to weaken Zelenskiy’s support among his own voters.
Graft is an everyday occurrence in Ukraine, where people may be asked for kickbacks to get their home hooked up to the power grid. Dealing with the tax office can also involve the solicitation of a bribe, as might getting a ruling from the courts. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index ranked Ukraine 116th out of 180 nations last year, citing systemic abuses of power.
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After winning power on an anti-corruption platform in 2019, Zelenskiy personally lobbied lawmakers to prevent one of his key backers, media owner Igor Kolomoisky, from regaining control of the nationalized lender PrivatBank CJSC. But other measures to crackdown on bribe-taking — including among the judiciary — never materialized. Reports of fresh abuses by those involved in the war effort have started to hurt morale.
“Anger over corruption is absolutely fair,” says presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak in an interview. “It increases the risks for us because it undermines the sense of solidarity among the people and that weakens the Ukrainian state.” He said Zelenskiy is fully aware of those risks.
The president has been stepping up his efforts in recent months.
In August, he fired the army officers responsible for drafting Ukrainian men for the war, following reports of kickbacks. He’s also dismissed some of his own lawmakers and replaced Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, who had struggled to rein in graft (Reznikov himself is not being investigated, according to a person familiar with the case). Kolomoisky is now in jail facing accusations of embezzlement.
Still, an opinion poll published this month by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiative Foundation showed that 78% of Ukrainians view Zelenskiy as directly responsible for state corruption and 55% even said Ukraine’s allies should tie military support to the government’s anti-corruption policies. The survey was criticized by Zelenskiy’s ministers, who said the methodology was unfair.
“Kyiv has made real and meaningful progress in closing space for corruption before the war but some of the systemic issues remained: monopolies, weak judiciary, underpaid civil servants,’’ said Orysia Lutsevych, a research fellow at Chatham House in charge of its Ukraine program. Ukraine’s dependence on western financial aid makes corruption more of a threat, she added, since allies could be deterred by the idea that their funds are being squandered.
The EU has given Zelenskiy until the end of September to show progress in seven areas if its membership application is to advance next year. The International Monetary Fund, which approved an unprecedented $15.4 billion package for Ukraine, requires reforms in the same areas.
“We need to get a positive assessment from the European Commission,” said Ihor Zhovkva, Zelenskiy’s deputy chief of staff focused on foreign affairs. “We do not have any other options — the president doesn’t accept that we will deliver anything less than 100%.”
Among the demands are progress on rule of law and judicial reform, measures to guarantee freedom of speech in the media and to curtail the power of the country’s oligarchs — reforms that would be tough enough to push through during peacetime.
Legislation to beef up the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office was rejected by the Ukrainian parliament in February, with lawmakers reluctant to hand too give much power to an agency that could end up investigating them.
That measure is one that Ukraine’s allies have demanded in return for financial aid, according to people familiar with those conversations. It’s also part of the IMF program.
Longer-term security pledges which Group of Seven nations are negotiating bilaterally with Ukraine this year will also include a list of reforms Kyiv will have to commit to, the people said. Such reforms would also be a condition for NATO membership.
Among the Polish delegation at the center of the fight with Zelenskiy in New York, there was a degree of sympathy, but also confusion at the way the Ukrainian leader is struggling to appreciate that his partners also have domestic concerns to be mindful of.
“There is a phenomenon of a certain fatigue, but it’s normal, it’s just human,” Duda, the Polish leader, said in an interview in New York. “We also have our own citizens, we have to care for their interest.”
--With assistance from Alberto Nardelli, Natalia Ojewska and Jennifer Jacobs.
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