Under Pressure, Ukraine Leader To Seek Aid On U.S. Visit

KIEV, Ukraine -- Seeking elusive military and economic aid from the United States, President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine headed to North America on Tuesday, while also facing increasingly skeptical questions both here and abroad about the slow pace of change.

A White House meeting with President Obama and an address to a joint session of Congress on Thursday is likely to generate fresh moral support, if little else, for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia.

“It is a clear sign of solidarity and support from the United States,” Pavlo Klimkin, the foreign minister, said in a brief interview before leaving.

Photo opportunities alone are enough to help Mr. Poroshenko domestically, although given its raft of problems, Ukraine would like more.

Winter looms with gas supplies from Russia cut off; it is unclear that limited self-rule for Russian-backed separatists regions is enough to satisfy the Kremlin; and the country is spending itself toward bankruptcy.

Ukraine’s leaders tried to put a celebratory face on new laws pushed through Parliament on Tuesday, even if they were mostly symbolic at this stage.

One ratified closer economic and political ties with Europe, while the second tried to cement a recent truce with the separatists by supporting temporary self-rule for the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk.

“We are fixing the 350-year-old mistake: Ukraine is Europe,” Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, the prime minister, told Parliament, known as the Rada.

“It’s a shame that this agreement is sealed with blood. But that was the choice. That was the price of independence.”

Despite the warm public embrace Mr. Poroshenko can expect in Washington, behind closed doors there will be questions about whether the February revolution is slouching toward the same failure as the 2004 Orange revolution, with public demands for change smothered by the personal ambitions of its staggeringly wealthy, isolated political class.

“There are too many signs of politics as usual, Ukrainian style,” Thomas O. Melia, the deputy assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Law, said at a weekend conference here.

The February overthrow of Viktor F. Yanukovych, the previous president, and the May presidential election were expected to usher in a transition period to address significant issues of corruption and economic reform, he noted.

“So that is where we are after six months? We almost have our first major law through the Rada, but not yet,” Mr. Melia said.

“In order to keep the coalition intact to defend Ukraine from military aggression, you have to make progress on the domestic reforms,” he added.

“It is not two different battles; it is the same battle. If the domestic institutions and habits don’t get fixed now, then the consensus and support for defending Ukraine against Russian aggression will disappear.”

Mr. Poroshenko sought to portray the laws passed Tuesday as triumphs for Ukraine.

But in reality Russia holds the keys to both.

Because of Kremlin opposition, the measure on forging closer economic ties with Europe will be delayed for at least 15 months.

The autonomy measures will be meaningless without Russian approval, since Ukraine does not actually control the territory addressed by the law.

Separatist leaders in Donetsk and Luhansk reacted by stressing that they would still seek independence.

Political critics accused the government of abandoning the southeast in the face of Russian aggression, with the death toll above 3,000 people.

Russia denies direct involvement, but President Vladimir V. Putin seems bent on keeping Ukraine destabilized to prevent it from moving out of Moscow’s orbit.

In an embarrassing blow to the Ukrainian president, Parliament failed to pass what Mr. Poroshenko had advertised as the cornerstone of his anti-corruption campaign: laws meant to establish an anticorruption bureau.

A recent Gallup report found that one in three Ukrainians had been asked to pay a bribe last year, and that eight out of 10 paid.

Even after 23 years of independence, Ukraine still has a highly centralized, Soviet-style government.

Farmers must ask government permission to change their crops, for example, while universities won the right to order their own supplies — like pencils — only in July.

Rebuilding the judiciary and the police is considered essential.

“The bribes start with payments to the local doctor and end with bribes to the president,” said Tamara Trafenchuk, a retiree who was touring the opulent estate built by the former president, Yanukovych, on Kiev’s outskirts.

“We want more decisive steps on corruption and economic reforms.”

In their own defense, government officials have said they are trying to carry out a herculean task: delivering radical reforms while fighting a war, even as the economy collapses.

A gas dispute with Russia and lack of coal from the separatist areas means winter fuel supplies are uncertain.

The International Monetary Fund, which has agreed to lend Ukraine about $18 billion over two years, estimates that the economy will shrink by more than 6.5 percent this year.

The top Democratic and Republican senators on the Foreign Relations Committee introduced a proposal to increase aid to Ukraine and impose more sanctions on Russia.

The bill will be voted on by the committee within hours of Mr. Poroshenko’s speech to Congress, according to its sponsors, Senators Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, and Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee.

But Mr. Obama is not expected to go beyond the $70 million in training and nonlethal aid like night vision goggles that has already been pledged.

Given the deepening crisis, Ukrainian political leaders issue frequent calls for national unity.

But each key leader is running a separate slate for Parliament.

Some analysts have suggested that the war might actually abet the reform process, because military veterans will insist on reforms so that their fellow soldiers will not have died in vain.

“If you want to die for this country, you will work honestly in Parliament,” said Capt. Pavlo Kyshkar, a candidate on the slate of an independent party.

Source: The New York Times