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Ukraine's fight against corruption

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

More than a dozen top Ukrainian officials were removed from their posts this past week. It took place as part of a wave of anti-corruption actions taken by the country's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. That's a big deal because one key aspect of Ukraine's attempts to join NATO - the defense alliance between the U.S. and a number of European countries - will be the kinds of anti-corruption efforts they have in place and whether they'll be able to maintain them. We wanted to know what these ousters could mean for Ukraine's efforts to join NATO and if they could affect the kind of aid and support Ukraine is receiving from the West. To help us better understand this issue and NATO's broader role in Ukraine's self-defense, we've called Ambassador Julianne Smith. She is the United States permanent representative to NATO, and she's with us now from Brussels. Ambassador Smith, thank you so much for joining us once again.

JULIANNE SMITH: Thank you.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, a number of top officials either resigned or were fired this past Tuesday. Before we jump into, you know, what that means, I wanted to ask if you have a sense of how serious the allegations were, and what's your reaction to the removals? I mean, do you - from the U.S. perspective - from the NATO perspective, is this a step in the right direction?

SMITH: I think it's safe to say that NATO allies and certainly the United States looked at the quick and decisive actions that the Ukrainian government took, and they applauded those efforts because what that ultimately signals to all of us is that Ukraine already has important monitoring and accountability measures in place, and it also says something about civil society and the press and the media inside Ukraine. And these are the things that we want to see fully functioning. It essentially signals that President Zelenskyy and his team - they take accountability seriously. And so in all, I think it's safe to say that the United States and our allies looked at that and felt somewhat reassured.

MARTIN: So let me pick up on something you just said, that the allegations of corruption were uncovered by journalists, not through a governmental or international audit. So do the moves by Zelenskyy provide, you know, more confidence in his leadership, or does it tell you that there's a problem?

SMITH: Well, there are a couple of thoughts on that. One, we do have confidence in President Zelenskyy and the ways in which he's been able to handle a huge amount of assistance coming in from the West, both economic assistance and, of course, all the security assistance. And we have no reason to express any concerns. We don't have any evidence that there have been problems with the management of that assistance, and we do believe that the Ukrainians have measures in place - those monitoring measures that I mentioned that are important. But you also noted that this did stem from the media, and that's an important part of the functioning of civil society and one that we've certainly worked with the Ukrainians over many, many years, well before the war got started. There have been a number of Western NGOs and governments that have worked closely with the Ukrainians on some of the reforms that they've worked to undertake themselves.

MARTIN: So there's a lot of money and support going to Ukraine. You know, one of the - sort of the issues at play here is whether Ukraine could ever be a part of NATO. NATO is not a party to the conflict per se, but NATO member nations are contributing a lot of money to Ukraine's defense as individual member states. Recognizing that NATO itself is not a party to this, there's some restiveness on the part of the United States or some people in the United States, particularly in the Congress - in the new Congress - who have expressed a desire for more aggressive oversight. Does NATO have any role here as an entity?

SMITH: I think given the fact that NATO isn't providing direct support, either in terms of economic assistance or security assistance, NATO really isn't in a position right now to be monitoring the use of that assistance per se. I think you have heard, though, my colleagues in Washington talk about it from a U.S. perspective in terms of the bilateral assistance that the United States has donated. And in that case, we don't have any concerns. We don't have any evidence right now that we should have concerns about misuse.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, this whole question about NATO's unity in the face of Russia's attack on Ukraine, it's been kind of an ongoing conversation about whether NATO will stay united in the face of this. And, you know, as member nations' economies continue to experience the fallout from this - inflation, rising food prices, et cetera - I know it's a difficult thing to assess, but how would you assess kind of the state of the alliance's unity around this issue or how would you assess this? I know that we hear from our heads of state, like, you know, President Biden, that the alliance remains deeply united on this. But you do see sort of rest - I mean, the fact is that member nations' economies - some more than others - are experiencing this fallout. And I'm just wondering, as we go forward, as this conflict seems to sort of drag on, what do you think it will take to keep the alliance aligned on this question?

SMITH: Well, look, I sit inside the NATO alliance each and every day. We meet on the war in Ukraine every single week. And because we all bring different histories to the table and different perspectives, we have our differences. We have debates all the time. But I think that's why I personally celebrate the unity we've been able to maintain for the last year because despite those differences, we're still standing tall. We're standing in support of Ukrainians, the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian military. And folks seem to have this impression that somehow debates fracture alliances. And I can assure you that they don't. We make a living out of debating and working through our differences. And at the end, we view reaching consensus as one of our greatest strengths.

When the 30 allies of the alliance put their full weight behind something - in this case, Ukraine - it's very powerful and has a huge impact, certainly much more than if one of us expressed our view on any given situation or conflict. So I have been very impressed by what we've seen over the last year. I see no cracks in alliance unity. Instead, I see that we will keep coming in to that main room in NATO headquarters and keep working through any differences that bubble to the surface.

MARTIN: That was Julianne Smith. She's the U.N. permanent representative to NATO. She joined us from Brussels, which is where NATO is headquartered. Ambassador Smith, thank you so much for joining us once again.

SMITH: Thanks for the invitation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.