"Doing Business in Ukraine” Keynote Remarks by Secretary Penny Pritzker, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine’s Economic Recovery

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This transcript is from a CSIS event hosted on September 21, 2023. Watch the full video here.

Daniel F. Runde: OK. Thanks again, Director Ebong. I’m so grateful for your partnership.

So I think you all are aware by now that Secretary Penny Pritzker was last week appointed as special representative for Ukraine’s economic recovery. It’s really timely to have her speak at this conference. I don’t know if this is her first public address, but it’s – if it’s not her first public address, it’s her first public address in Washington in this role. So we’re really grateful that she’s here today. She has significant family ties to Ukraine and brings important experience as a business leader, in addition to her time as the 38th United States secretary of commerce. So she knows business and she knows government.

We’re really enthused to hear her thoughts on Ukraine. So, Secretary Pritzker, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine’s Economic Recovery, the floor is yours. Please come on up. (Applause.)

Secretary Penny Pritzker: Dan, thank you very much. Thanks for inviting me. And thank you for that kind introduction. And to CSIS for, frankly, hosting this Doing Business in Ukraine Conference. I really appreciate CSIS’s U.S. Economic Reconstruction Commission, and the leadership of your cochairs – of Paula, of Greg, of Michael – you know, for chairing this initiative and convening today’s discussion. It’s really, really important. And it’s such a pleasure to be here with you today and to see so many friends in the audience. So thanks for coming.

I’m a little over a week on the job. So hopefully, I’ll have something relevant to say here. But I could not imagine a greater honor than to be President Biden’s representative leading the U.S. efforts to help Ukraine, the country, the economy, the people. You know, help them to unleash economic recovery and allow it to emerge stronger from Russia’s brutal and senseless destruction. The president is consistently – has consistently said that the United States will stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes. As an American of Ukrainian descent, that makes me humbled, and proud, and, indeed, inspired.

This role is extremely personal for me, as Dan alluded to. Roughly over 140 years ago my 10-year-old great grandfather, Nicholas Pritzker, fled Kyiv to escape Jewish persecution at the time. He came to the United States, taught himself English, grew up, became a pharmacist, and then a lawyer, and raised a family. My family found opportunity in the United States in my beloved hometown of Chicago. Seven years ago, when I had the privilege to serve as Commerce secretary, I led the U.S. delegation to a commemoration of the Babi Yar massacre in Kyiv, a place where more than 33,000 Jewish people were brutally murdered by Nazis 82 years ago.

I was struck as a – to see up close this ravine – and I don’t know how many of you have been there – that was a mass graveyard. And it was clear to me, had my family not fled when they did, there’s a good chance they would have been murdered there. Today, the people of Ukraine are experienced at a whole new terror. Since 2014, Russia’s forces have been for trying to forcibly take over parts of independent sovereign nation. And for the last year and a half, Russia has undertaken a full-scale invasion, designed to wipe independent Ukraine off the map. Putin’s forces have brutalized and murdered civilians, while deliberately, ruthlessly, and methodically attacking Ukraine’s economic and energy infrastructure.

Russia has mined Ukraine’s fields and agricultural land as well as blocked its shipping lanes, ports, and other infrastructure, to prevent crop exports to the Global South, where it’s desperately, desperately needed. Russia is trying to systematically destroy the Ukraine economy. Russia has also attacked schools. Russia has kidnapped children from Ukraine and tried to indoctrinate them with the Kremlin’s propaganda. Russia must pay a price for its brutal and violent aggression. And we cannot be blind to the responsibility that Russia will have to pay for the damage it has caused.

Russia has done its best to break Ukraine, the will of its people, their identity, and their future. But as we have all seen with the strength and resolve the people of Ukraine have put into defending their land, they are also putting in to rebuilding what Russia has destroyed. Every day the Ukrainians are fighting tirelessly to protect their ability to thrive as economic innovators, entrepreneurs, and workers. The CSIS commission’s report starts with a hypothesis, to secure a durable peace Ukraine must transport transform itself after the war. Dan, I hope you’ll allow me to say this, but with all due respect, I suggest we, collectively, amend this statement just slightly. I believe, like most Ukrainians, that to secure a durable peace, Ukraine must transform itself economically during the war. (Applause.)

So make no mistake, Ukraine cannot wait. We cannot wait. Despite all the challenges, I believe Ukraine’s economic dynamism in technology, in green energy, in agriculture, in metals and mining, can succeed now. The hard and important work to facilitate investment has begun. Ukraine is laying the groundwork now, including with many of you in this room, for its future as an independent, secure, sovereign, and prosperous economy that is part of Europe.

And let me be clear, the commitment to the Ukrainian economic recovery is fundamentally geopolitical. So what do I mean by this? It’s about transforming centuries of supply chains and ways of doing business that had been tainted by its authoritarian past, a past tied to Russia, to a post-Soviet legacy of corruption, to oligarchs with an anti-competitive stranglehold on key industries.

Today, Ukraine has asked the United States, the EU, and other allies to help it realign its economic future, its trade routes, its competitive business practices, its infrastructure, and the immense innovative talent of the Ukrainian people toward the democratic West, the European Union, and global markets. Our collective effort to support Ukraine’s aspiration to thrive as a prosperous, independent country integrated with Europe, where Ukrainians can reach their full potential. Together, we can help shape a brighter future for Ukraine that is Ukraine driven, Western facing, and American backed.

I’ve devoted my life to unleashing the dynamism of one of our greatest assets, the American private sector. I’ve launched successful companies, served on boards of the top American corporations. And I understand the conditions necessary to help the private sector and workers succeed. One of my first acts as Commerce secretary was to hang an “open for business” sign on my office door at the Commerce Department. My message was – you have no idea what it took to be able to hang a sign on that door. (Laughter.) You put a nail in a very old door in a building that people are trying to protect, I’m not sure why, very difficult.

Anyway, my “open for business” sign. My message was, we at Commerce want to be an enabler of the private sector’s power as the true engine of the American economy. Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting with Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, Oksana Makarova. She also proudly displays, and I hope you’ve seen this, an “open for business” banner in the front of her embassy. The message is clear, that even during war there is a significant economic opportunity in Ukraine. Our mutual goal of revitalizing the Ukrainian economy to benefit – to the benefit of both her people and ours, cannot be more perfectly aligned.

So today in my new role as President Biden’s special representative for Ukraine’s economic recovery, I want to begin a conversation with you about how we can accelerate Ukraine’s economic recovery together. So first, we need to help fortify the enabling environment for business in Ukraine to succeed. It’s crucial that the government reform its judiciary, improve its corporate governance, and establish independent anti-corruption institutions. As a businesswoman, I can tell you corruption is an innovation killer. It’s an investment killer. It’s a job killer.

We must ensure Ukraine’s efforts to fight corruption continue, and that the country builds on the progress to date. The choice between transparency and corruption has intense, long-term geopolitical ramifications. As President Zelensky said at the London Recovery Conference, the more transparent – the more transparent Ukraine is, the uglier any corruption model in Russia will look.

So, just as important, though, is repairing and rebuilding the country’s physical infrastructure, including its housing, its schools, its hospitals, and its energy sector. To do so, that requires sound risk management principles and policies, insurance, and capital. All of which are vital instruments to incentivize business commitments to Ukraine. Even as the fighting continues, Ukraine is making consequential decisions now to both win the war and win the future, cognizant that you cannot win the war in the absence of economic recovery.

Second, we need to mobilize the private sector, in Ukraine and around the world. The United States and its allies, along with the international donor community, have given tens of billions of dollars of vital humanitarian, economic, and security assistance to address Ukraine’s most urgent needs. But assistance alone will never be enough to rebuild Ukraine. Ukraine’s long-term recovery could cost more than $400 billion over the next 10 years. And that number, unfortunately, is continuing to grow.

The private sector is a critical factor to mobilize the innovation, the creativity, and the investment necessary to meet the country’s massive needs. I’ve seen firsthand as Commerce secretary, and in my own businesses, the positive impact, the dynamism and values that American and Western companies can bring to an economy. We need to look no further than the dynamic economies of many of our allies who are assisting Ukraine’s recovery as an example. In fact, many of them who are collaborating on Ukraine’s economic recovery today benefited from post-war reconstruction initiatives.

We have the power to leverage the expertise and ingenuity of the private sector to transform Ukraine’s economy. To do so, we must focus the effort on key sectors like agribusiness, technology, energy, critical materials including steel and titanium, as well as logistics and transportation, where Ukraine’s natural advantages are ripe for greater investment and new joint ventures with international companies.

There’s no doubt that this effort will also involve some hard choices in order for Ukraine to move along its path of recovery towards EU accession. As President Biden and Secretary Blinken have stated clearly, the people of Ukraine want good transparency and governance. International investors expect a strong and predictable regulatory environment, open and fair competition, transparency, and a strong rule of law in order to participate in Ukraine’s recovery. Again, we find the interests of American and Ukrainian peoples are aligned.

The third point that I want to make is how important it is to work in concert with the international community, including the G-7 and other partners, through initiatives like the Multi-agency Donor Coordination Platform. Our combined donor efforts must remain coordinated, working with Ukrainian authorities to define, prioritize, and direct support towards Ukraine’s recovery. It needs to remain Kyiv-centered. It must be a Kyiv-centered process aimed at shaping a stronger enabling environment for businesses. And we must encourage international partners to keep stepping up their support for Ukraine’s immediate economic recovery and ensure that the international efforts are complementary and mutually reinforcing.

Importantly, our government support needs to fast track shovel-ready projects that accelerate Ukraine’s economic healing now. (Applause.) The bottom line, building momentum is critical. Ukraine’s economic momentum, already begun in wind energy, tech hubs, and innovative farming, it will build on itself. It’s important for the Ukrainian psychology. It’s important so that the diaspora returns.

Finally, like President Biden, I want to express my gratitude for the commitment of Congress, the American people, and the Ukrainian American diaspora. America’s support for Ukraine is not new. You only have to go up the street to Dupont Circle to see the statue and quote of the great 19th century Ukrainian poet, and brave critic of Russia’s brutal imperialism, Taras Shevchenko. He said, “Our soul shall never perish. Freedom knows no dying.” That spirit – that spirit lives in Ukraine’s fight for victory today, on the battlefield of course, and also in the wheat fields, the green steel mills, and the tech incubators. The Shevchenko memorial was made possible by the grassroots effort of tens of thousands of Ukrainian Americans, and led by Lev Dobriansky, father of your Commission Chair Paula.

They, like us, stood with Ukraine. We know Ukraine’s economic future must be driven by the country’s own intrepid workers, its innovation, trade and commercial dynamism, and its will to reform. But today, Paula and I, like so many other Ukrainian Americans and Americans more broadly, are ready to work with the Ukrainian people and government to help the country recover economically. I look forward to working with all of you, and thank you for being here today. (Applause.)