Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian troops in a conflict that has killed more than 14,000 people.

The real US-Russia battle over Ukraine

The Putin-Biden summit could spin on the future of Ukraine and the ability of local activists to achieve clean governance.

When President Joe Biden meets Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 16, their most hotly contested issue may be Ukraine. Will the United States and its NATO allies decide to defend the country of 41 million from further Russian encroachments by making it the 31st member of NATO?

For Mr. Putin, such action would cross a “red line.”

Moscow took the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, and its military supports rebels fighting in Ukraine’s eastern region. It wants to keep Ukraine in its geopolitical orbit. While the Biden administration says the U.S. backs “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” it’s not clear what that means. Mr. Biden says he wants to put Ukrainians “in a position to maintain their physical security” by increasing military assistance to the country. But beyond that, the U.S. commitment is vague.

Mr. Biden is far less ambiguous about what Ukrainians must do. “The fact is they still have to clean up corruption,” he says. For NATO to protect a member’s democracy by force, the integrity of that democracy must be worth defending.

Since a 2014 democratic revolution in Ukraine and the election of a reformist president in 2019, Ukraine has made some progress in bringing transparency and accountability to government. It has digitized more than 30 public services, opening up information for activists to catch corrupt officials. It has digitized the government procurement system and reduced the state role in private enterprise. Corruption in the military has dropped dramatically.

Other measures have helped reduce official bribery. A decade ago, nearly 40% of Ukrainians reported paying bribes. That number has fallen to 23%. The country has also improved its standing on Transparency International’s corruption perception rankings.

Yet the pace has slowed with the low-level war with Russia and COVID-19. The International Monetary Fund is withholding a $5 billion loan until it sees substantial reform. Top-level change remains weak, especially against powerful oligarchs. This has left much of the anti-corruption effort at the grassroots levels.

While institutional change remains important, the key criteria for reform may be a cultural shift in local communities to demand honesty and accountability in leaders. Civil society groups “are conducting corruption investigations, monitoring local decision-making, publishing information, and filing appeals about cases of corruption,” according to a study published in March in the academic journal Demokratizatsiya.

Based on dozens of interviews with local anti-graft activists, the study finds that legal provisions on transparency, access to public information, and open data have substantially improved, providing activists with more tools to fight corruption.

Local watchdogs have discovered they are more effective when they use nonconfrontational tactics with authorities, opening a dialogue rather than using the tactic of “naming and shaming.”

A good example of a cultural shift is a development project in the western city of Ivano-Frankivsk where entrepreneurs are converting a large factory into an “innovation center.” Some 900 private investors have put money into the project with the key criteria being that none of the money can come from Ukraine’s oligarchs. Investments must be open and legal.

“Autocrats and oligarchs cannot concentrate power without concentrating wealth through illicit means,” said Samantha Power, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, on June 7 in announcing a new initiative to improve Ukraine’s anti-corruption efforts.

In the strategic struggle between the U.S. and Russia, Ukraine’s local reformers may help determine the outcome. Their expectation of honesty in governance could be the strongest defense against Russian aggression.

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