Late on a muggy evening in mid-July, Samantha Power, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, and Bridget Brink, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, boarded a night train from Kyiv to Odesa, accompanied by a few staff members and a discreet security detail. Earlier that day, Ukrainian naval drones had damaged the bridge connecting Russia to occupied Crimea, the second such attack of the war. Hours later, the Kremlin announced it would not renew the Black Sea Grain Initiative, a deal brokered last year by Turkey and the United Nations that, in a little less than a year, had allowed Ukraine to export nearly 33 million tons of grain from its three major remaining ports.
By the time the train pulled into Odesa the next morning, the city and surrounding areas had endured a night of ferocious Russian attacks: approximately 25 Iranian-made drones and several cruise missiles, according to a Ukrainian official. The attacks would keep coming, blowing off the roof of a cathedral, destroying a wholesale market, and — roughly 24 hours after Power’s own visit to it — damaging a stately Sea Port Administration building near the seafront.
The port itself was silent: no ships, no cargo, no people. Odesa is a principal lifeline not only for Ukraine’s heavily agricultural economy, but also for millions of people in some of world’s poorest countries. In Vladimir Putin’s effort to blockade Ukraine, he’s also pushing millions of vulnerable people toward hunger.
The Odesa Transfiguration Cathedral was severely damaged in a Russian missile attack in July.Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times
I joined Power on her trip through Ukraine as both a believer in and skeptic of the American development agency’s work. I have been a fervent advocate of arming and assisting Kyiv going back to Russia’s first invasion, when it annexed Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014. In May 2022 the government of Russia barred me for life; I took it as a badge of honor and framed the notice.
But I’ve also long had doubts about the efficacy of foreign aid, which can do as much to fund corruption and promote dependency as it can to advance good governance and economic development. Years ago, during the George W. Bush administration, I shadowed another U.S.A.I.D. administrator, Henrietta Fore, on a visit to Afghanistan. Despite some notable gains, especially in areas such as girls’ education, it was clear the agency was struggling.
Security concerns prevented many of its people from visiting the projects they were funding — one staff member I met had never left the American Embassy compound except to go to a nearby restaurant. Afghan governors and ministers knew how to grab their share of aid. Corruption was rampant among not only Afghans but also the U.S. contractors — the notorious “Beltway bandits” — who were supposed to build schools, roads and other critical pieces of infrastructure on Uncle Sam’s behalf.
In the end, approximately $145 billion in assistance — about $20 billion of which was administered by U.S.A.I.D. — went down the drain. Would the story turn out similarly in Ukraine, a state that last year ranked alongside Angola in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index? At least until the war, the heavy hand of oligarchs was felt in nearly every national institution, from the judiciary, Parliament and the presidency to military contracting, the media and virtually every major industry, and even in recent weeks the continued power of corruption has been apparent.
A lot depends on the fortunes of war. But two additional factors are crucial: The quality of our aid, as opposed to the mere quantity, and the readiness of Ukrainians to use it wisely and honestly. That’s what I went to Ukraine to see for myself.
At the Port Administration, Power spent several hours with Ukrainian cabinet ministers, local officials, business leaders, farmers and representatives of volunteer organizations — talking a bit, listening a lot, and scribbling everything down. “One of the things I’ve always believed in terms of anything you want to do in the world, you have to meet people where they are,” she told me later that afternoon over beers at an outdoor cafe. “That’s why I take so many notes. I want to understand who they are, what they need, how they prioritize.”
There are senior U.S. officials who prefer to leave details to subordinates. Power isn’t one of them. She peppered Ukrainian officials with precise questions about alternative routes for moving Ukrainian grain, mainly through smaller ports on the Danube. She drilled down on logistical costs, dredging requirements, and the expense of reloading grain from river barges to larger cargo ships in the Romanian port of Constanta. A little later, at a round table with farmers and agribusiness leaders, she got into the nitty-gritty of sunflower-oil exports, which have gone down significantly since the war began.
In my notes of the conversation, I wrote: “She brings star appeal to questions like the cost of fertilizer.”
Power, who is 52, is probably better known for her past work than for her current job: She was Barack Obama’s U.N. ambassador, a cabinet-level post, in his second term; she also won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for her book, “‘A Problem from Hell,’” which looked at why American policymakers so often failed to act against genocide. Less known is that she got her career start in the 1990s as a young freelance journalist covering the wars in the Balkans. There she witnessed the work of Fred Cuny, a larger-than-life humanitarian who made an indelible impression when he figured out how to sneak water-filtration systems into Sarajevo as the city was under siege by Serbian forces. (In 1995 Cuny disappeared in Chechnya, where he was probably murdered.)
“I was in awe of what Fred had done,” Power recalled in her memoir. “By improvising a water system, he had helped blunt the impact of one of the cruelest tactics in the Bosnian Serb siege. He had also enhanced his relevance in Washington.”
To be U.S.A.I.D. administrator may not be the most prominent post in Washington. But it is very much a job suited for a pragmatic idealist, particularly one with a “reporter’s heart” and a “MacGyver brain,” as she described herself in our conversations. “This idea of getting close — you always come back with something very different,” she said, pointing to the bustling street scene in Odesa.
The challenge is how to combine firsthand knowledge with workable solutions. After leaving the Port Administration building, Power held a news conference in which she pledged $250 million for upgraded transport infrastructure, new grain elevators, loading equipment and port refurbishment. At other stops on the trip she also pledged $500 million in new funding for emergency humanitarian assistance and $230 million in financing help for Ukrainian businesses.
This, in turn, was on top of close to $3 billion in American humanitarian assistance, $3 billion in development assistance, and $20.5 billion in direct-budget support. Other countries, mostly European but also Canada and Japan, have piled on billions more, not counting the roughly $44 billion in American military aid for Kyiv.
It’s a lot of money. But an additional lesson from the aid fiasco in Afghanistan is that pouring money into a country that lacks the mechanisms to absorb and distribute it responsibly and effectively is a recipe for failure. Will Ukraine prove any different?
The administration’s loudest critics think not. “Biden Is Sending Our Treasures to Corrupt Oligarchs,” was the title of a Tucker Carlson screed on Fox News in early April, shortly before his own oligarch sent him packing. Vivek Ramaswamy, the Republican presidential candidate, has suggested that President Biden’s support for Ukraine is somehow connected to money his son got from the Ukrainian energy firm Burisma.
Such attacks, made in bad faith, are wildly overwrought. But they aren’t baseless. Last September, Ambassador Brink wrote a diplomatic cable warning the State Department of her concerns. “There are, for instance, severe limits on the number of American officials in the field and a number of security constraints on their movements,” Politico reported, summarizing Brink’s cable. “It’s also hard to find contractors willing to work in high-risk regions or set up in-person meetings with government officials, civil society leaders and others receiving the aid.” Both concerns echo the kinds of problems that plagued American aid efforts in Afghanistan.
A month after my visit to Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky fired all of his top regional military recruiters following revelations of extensive bribery schemes. Then he fired his defense minister “as financial improprieties in the ministry came to light,” according to The Times’s Andrew Kramer. Ihor Kolomoisky, the oligarch who helped launch Zelensky’s political career, was arrested on suspicions