Remarks by Vice President Joe Biden at the First U.S.-Ukraine Business Forum

THE VICE PRESIDENT:  Thank you, very much, Madam Secretary.  (Applause.)   Ladies and gentlemen, it’s an honor to be back here at the State Department.  (Laughter.)  That’s a joke.  Press, I know it’s not the State Department.  (Laughter.)  But more heads of state and Prime Ministers have appeared on this stage lately because they understand that America’s business is business, and that with all the government help that is available — both our government or any other government — there’s nothing that supplants the impact of foreign direct investment for the growth and security of a number of the countries who’ve you’ve hosted here.  So I want to thank Tom Donohue for providing this great forum.

And Prime Minister Yatsenyuk and members of his Cabinet, welcome.  I use the familiar term Arseniy because the Prime Minister and I have become friends, and I mean that seriously.  We are friends.  And he knew when he took this job that it would be an incredibly difficult job.  And he did what I advise young aspirants for high public office in this country, they say, what do I need to know?  I said, you need to know what you’re willing to lose over.  You need to know what’s so important to you that you’re willing to lose rather than walk away from what’s important to you.  That’s the measure of leadership.  Arseniy, the Prime Minister, he knows.  And he knew it from the beginning.  He knew it was going to be tough.  But you’ve navigated it incredibly well, and you’ve formed a great partnership with the President and, God willing, we will continue to move in that direction.

But just like we have something in common, the Prime Minister and I, we both have extremely strong American women that are guiding the economy for us.  (Laughter and applause.)  The best thing that happened — Madam Finance Minister, stand up.  Let everybody see you.  Stand up, please.  Stand up.  (Applause.)  I tell you what, if this isn’t proof that good things come in American packages, I don’t know what else you need.  But you’re doing a great job, I say to the Finance Minister and to the members of your government who are here.

You’ve had and you’ve heard from business leaders like Tom Donohue and you’ve heard about the remarkable opportunities that — and the incredible untapped potential that exists in Ukraine.  I have been involved with Ukraine the better part of my entire career having been the Chairman of the European Affairs Subcommittee and — in those days — in the United States Senate, and later as Chairman, dealing with the former Soviet Union and now the federation — the republic federation.  And I’ve watched the incredible moments of bravery and opportunity of the people of Ukraine beginning in the Orange Revolution.

The fact is that this is — maybe not the last but one — maybe the last genuine opportunity the people of Ukraine have to establish a democratic republic in a way that is economically prosperous and fully integrated within Europe.  But it’s being challenged.  It’s being challenged across the board.

You’ve heard from Secretary Pritzker, who is not only the Secretary of Commerce, but you businessmen and women here know a woman of immense business acumen who knows what’s it like to run a billion-dollar operation; one of the most prominent corporations and enterprises in the United States of America.  And it makes a difference.  It makes a difference.

As the Secretary has told you, the importance of the private sector in the nation’s commercial diplomacy and key investments our administration is making to help create lasting opportunities for investment, growth, and God willing prosperity in Ukraine.

The common theme to our commitment is to make Ukraine strong enough to be able to choose its own future.  That’s the principle and the reason this forum is so vital.

The fact of the matter is Ukraine is now under siege.  Russia is building military outposts on Ukrainian soil.  It relentlessly continues to send Russian troops, Russian hired thugs and mercenaries, Russian tanks, and Russian missiles into numerous parts of Ukraine — but particular the Donbass.  The brazen attempt to redraw the borders of Europe by force threatens not only Ukraine, but the shared aspiration for a Europe that is whole and free and at peace.

Ukraine is at stake, but much more than Ukraine is at stake.  Russia is not just intervening militarily, Russia is trying to squeeze Ukraine financially.  I know the Prime Minister made reference to that notion in his speech.  It’s using energy as a political weapon.  It’s attempting to export corruption and oligarchy as a tool of foreign policy.  It’s a new tool we’re seeing in the conduct in foreign policy.  Like any other, it’s the tool of corruption and oligarchy that eats away like a cancer at the countries in which it invades — corruption and oligarchs.

Russia is trying to undermine the stability and sovereignty of Ukraine by any means it can, including its attempt to create conditions that will cause Ukraine to economically collapse.  Matter of fact, that’s its first preference.  That’s its first preference.

But we can’t let that strategy succeed.  All of you who do business overseas know that corruption and coercion threaten an entire business community wherever it resides.  And just as surely as border violations threaten the entire community of nations.  And it’s profoundly in the self-interest of the United States to see Ukraine emerge from these attacks as prosperous, democratic, independent, reform-oriented — a nation unable to be bribed or coerced or intimidated.  Imagine, imagine what that kind of success would mean for the rest of Central and Eastern Europe.  (Applause.)

It’s not a U.S. presence in Ukraine that worries Russia — that’s what worries Russia.  That’s what worries Russia the most.  That’s why Putin — who is doing virtually everything in his power to see this new experiment with democracy and openness fail.  The people of Ukraine forced out a corrupt leader to win another chance at democracy.  They stood tall against Russian aggression, throwing literally their bodies in front of Russian tanks.

They passed laws to root out corruption.  They held the freest, fairest, and most widely monitored elections in Ukraine’s history.  So it seems to me we have an obligation to take advantage of this historic opportunity to build a new foundation for a sustained economic growth in Ukraine, and as I said, the region.

That’s why Secretary Pritzker detailed the United States has provided roughly $470 million to assist Ukraine; as well as $2 billion in loan guarantees, with a possibility of another billion dollars later this year if Ukraine continues on the path of reform.

This assistance is designed to restore confidence in Ukraine’s economy, enhance energy security, strengthen independent media, improve judicial accountability, fight corruption, support elections, and address humanitarian needs; and not the least of which to support OSCE monitors in the East.

U.S. technical advisors have been embedded within Ukrainian ministries to help implement the Prime Minister’s ambitious agenda.  Further proof he intends what he’s attempting to do to become a reality.

And the United States continues to provide Ukraine with security assistance so the Ukrainians can secure their territory and borders, and defend themselves against those little green men who come in in Russian uniforms without insignias on them.

This includes both equipment and training program in western Ukraine for the Ukrainian National Guard.  That’s also why President Obama and I have worked closely with European leaders to ensure sanctions remain in place until — until — Russia fully, completely, fulfills its obligations under the Minsk agreement.  (Applause.)

And the most important element to that agreement includes the return of Ukraine’s international border to Ukrainian control by the end of this year.  (Applause.)  So finally, we’ve worked with Ukraine to enhance its security — its energy security.

In the face of Russian cutoff of gas supplies to Ukraine last year, we worked very closely, and as the Prime Minister can tell you, I was on the phone with an awful lot of Eastern European leaders to convince Ukraine’s neighbors to increase reverse flows of gas to Ukraine.  And we will continue to try to maximize those flows as winter approaches.

We’ve achieved a lot.  In Ukraine, gas directly imported from Russia has — did amount to 63 percent of Ukraine’s consumption in 2010.  Today, it accounts for 15 percent.  And if Ukraine takes the right decisions today it can continue to reduce that alliance, and thereby, the stranglehold that Russia has on Ukraine.

But the ultimate verdict of the success of these efforts will come not from nations, soldiers, activists, but from investors.  Because strong sustainable democracies require strong sustainable economies.  Put another way, any experiment the last 100 years in democratization and that is not followed by economic growth, has failed.  It has failed.  It does not occur where economies fail.  That is democracy.

And attracting both foreign and domestic investment requires the creation of institutions and the codifications of values that foster trade and investment.  Just like the basic rules of physics, there are certain immutable rules or laws that comprise the path to stability and prosperity for any nation in the 21st century.

Among other things, they include transparency, a rule of law, consistent enforcement, protection of intellectual property, a functioning state institution that serves the people.  Without these institutions, the business leaders from all across this room and across the world are unlikely to invest in Ukraine or anywhere else where these rules do not pertain.  To attract the type of investment that will allow Ukraine to survive and thrive, the changes being enacted now have to be real and have to be lasting.  They cannot just be reforms on paper.  They have to be tangible for business people, for civil society, and for ordinary citizens on the street for any of it to work.

Above all, Ukraine needs to confront the corruption that has kept this country from taking advantage of the tremendous human capital it possesses.  It doesn’t seem like 36 calls, it seems like 100 probably to Arseniy and to the President, but that’s a topic of almost all of our calls.  Corruption siphons away resources.  It weakens economic growth.  It destroys trust in government.  It hollows out militaries.  And it’s an affront to the dignity of the people of Ukraine.

And as Ukrainians know in their bones, it’s not enough to talk about change; we have to deliver, you have to deliver change.  That’s why I commend the Prime Minister and President Poroshenko for undertaking real reforms.  Ukraine has a strategy and new laws to fight corruption, a new head of independent national anti-corruption bureau.  Now, they’ve got to put people in jail.  They’ve got to actually do it.  And you’ve got a number-two guy there who is really first-rate and I believe was your suggestion, Mr. Prime Minister.  He happens to be a Georgian.

It has improved parliamentary elections to make local elections this October even more fair and more free.  It’s passed laws to make politicians and government officials disclose their assets.  It has cut wasteful gas subsidies — hard to do under any circumstance, particularly hard to do when much else is going on.  And it is closing the space for corrupt middle men who rip off the Ukrainian people.  I understand you spoke to that again a little bit today, Mr. Prime Minister.  And it has stood up a new police force in Kyiv that is serving and protecting the people.  It has eliminated eight regulatory agencies and consolidated 11 others, making it easier for small businesses to begin to operate and operate.

But you have to keep moving forward, as you know.  You have to use the new laws in the books and new leadership in place to investigate and prosecute corruption, past and present, at all levels.  And there’s no better way to prove your determination to end business as usual than to do just that.  You’ve got to get rid of monopolistic behavior where a select few profit from so many sweetheart deals that has characterized the country for so long.  And next week, we hope the Rada will consider the most important, substantial reform of all so far, the series of consititutional amendments to achieve real decentralization and build a modern and democratic European Ukraine that the Ukrainian people deserve.

As you embark on this journey, Mr. Prime Minister, this process of constant reform, keep listening to your people.  Make sure that your work remains transparent and civil society continues to have a voice in the process.  That’s what it takes for an economy and a democracy to succeed in the 21st century.  And achieving that success will not only provide and pay dividends for the people of Ukraine and the businesses invested in this future; it will also deter and defeat those who believe that sowing economic chaos and social disruption is a legitimate exercise of foreign policy, as is the case with Russia.

Ladies and gentlemen, you’ve heard many facts and figures today that argue for the benefit of investing in, working with, and building up the future of Ukraine.  And while these arguments are compelling, with all due respect I have a greater reason for optimism than even that.

I visited Ukraine many times — and just last year, three times.  Each time, I met young activists from the Maidan.  I’ve gone to the Maidan.  I’ve gone to the memorial markers.  And each time I’ve met so many young people.  And I left a meeting, each of those meetings, inspired by the remarkable intelligence, dedication, and patriotism of so many Ukrainians.

Now, as they make the journey from protest to politics, it’s always a difficult journey in every country where it occurs.  They hold the promise of turning Ukraine into an example of an educated nation that finally unleashes its human capital through the right combination of reform and investment.  And when others seek to use corruption, oligarchy, and weak institutions as tools of coercion, reform isn’t just a matter of good governance; it’s literally self-defense.  It’s a patriotic act.

I think of a young woman who I spoke with who gave up a lucrative career in the financial sector to work on reforms in one of your government ministries, Arseniy.  I asked her why.  You may actually been with me; I don’t recall.  I asked why did she do it.  And here’s what she said.  She said, I have two small children and I cannot fight in the east, so this is what I can do for my country, and I’m doing it.  And there are so many others like her who are fighting for a new Ukraine in every way they can, using whatever talent they have.

That’s a foundation worth building on.  That’s a future worth investing in.  And that’s why I say again to our Ukrainian partners — you’ve heard me say this so many times — as long as you keep faith with the commitment to build a more democratic, just, and prosperous Ukraine, you will never be alone.  America will be with you.  America will be on your side.  And you know we are on your side.

Because, as I said, one — maybe not last, but for a long time, the one last chance, as the Ambassador knows better than anyone — and, by the way, we’ve got an incredible Ambassador.  We’re fortunate to have one of the best that we have in the entire foreign policy establishment.  (Applause.)

This is it, Mr. Prime Minister.  This is it.  The next couple years, the next couple months will go a long way to telling the tale.  If you do what I believe you will, your country will owe you, Europe will owe you, and we will owe you.  Because the cumulative impact of Ukraine economically secure and sound will have a profound impact.

The Ambassador has heard me say many times when I’ve pushed for these loan guarantees, it’s a matter of “pay me now, or pay me later.”  A matter of “pay me now, or pay me later.”

So, folks, all of you in this room — the business elite of this country — have an opportunity which is the only basis in which you should make a decision to benefit your shareholders because of real opportunity.  But in the process, I would think you should take some sense of satisfaction — you’re also making a judgment that is profoundly in the foreign policy interests of the United States of America.  A successful Ukraine will tell the story about what Europe is going to look like, I believe, for the next 15 or 20 years.

So, Mr. Prime Minister, I wish you all the luck in the world.  I’ll be seeing you a little bit later in my office.  I’m looking forward to seeing you again.  And God bless your efforts.  God bless the people of Ukraine and may God bless the United States of America and protect our troops.

Thank you so very much.  (Applause.)