Efrem Lukatsky / AP
William B. Taylor is a former United States Ambassador to Ukraine. David J. Kramer, former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in the George W. Bush Administration, is Director of European and Eurasian Studies at the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs of Florida International University.
Almost lost amid the understandable focus on Afghanistan, the earthquake in Haiti and the resurgence of the pandemic is a critically important meeting scheduled to take place on Wednesday between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and President Biden. Zelenskyy’s visit to the White House will be the first by a Ukrainian leader in more than four years. It will be an opportunity for Biden to reiterate American support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russian aggression, its integration into the Euro-Atlantic community and its fight against corruption.
Zelenskyy’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, met former President Donald Trump in the Oval Office for a brief meeting in 2017. After Zelenskyy’s landslide victory over Poroshenko in 2019, Trump invited Zelenskyy to visit him – but the then became involved in US politics during the infamous July 2019 phone call, which led to Trump’s first impeachment.
Zelenskyy had to settle for an awkward meeting with Trump in New York two months later, and bilateral relations collapsed. It is a chance for the Biden administration to accelerate closer and deeper ties between the two countries.
The Biden administration’s record is uneven
So far, the Biden administration’s record on Ukraine has been uneven. Amid a build-up of the Russian military along the border with Ukraine and the Crimea, which Russia illegally occupied in 2014, the White House in April invited Putin to a summit and canceled plans in April. April to deploy two destroyers to the Black Sea for fear that such a move would provoke Moscow.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken paid a productive visit to Kiev in May, but this was followed by the administration’s decision to lift sanctions against an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin on a Russian gas pipeline project to transport gas. natural gas from Russia to Germany. Then, in a July meeting between Biden and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the administration abandoned its efforts to block the completion of the pipeline, known as Nord Stream 2.
Russia currently depends on gas passing through Ukraine for its exports to Europe in an amount equal to what would be sent through the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The current arrangement provides Ukraine with some $ 2 billion in costs. of transit and a leverage effect on a new Russian encroachment.
Biden invited Zelenskyy to Washington before leaving for his week-long trip to Europe in June, which included his one-on-one summit with Putin. The US and Ukrainian presidents have spoken to each other twice on the phone, and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba visited Washington earlier this month and met with US administration officials and lawmakers.
Last week, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm led a presidential delegation to Kiev to inaugurate the Crimean Platform – to draw international attention to Russia’s continued illegal occupation of the Ukrainian peninsula and to celebrate the Ukraine independence day.
Russia and corruption topped the list
When Biden sits down with Zelenskyy, two questions will certainly dominate their discussions. The first is Russia’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine, an existential and immediate threat, for which Kiev needs the United States in the ring with it. Ukrainians watched with dismay the hasty withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan. They need the United States’ help to counter Russian aggression and are desperate to hear President Biden reassure that the United States will stand firmly behind them.
The second problem is the critical and persistent problem of corruption – in which Ukraine is the main fighter, with the United States, the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank firmly in its corner.
Since taking office, Zelenskyy has wanted to visit Washington, but he was also eager to meet Putin, believing that such a session could help resolve the crisis Putin triggered in 2014 when he illegally annexed Crimea and invaded the Ukrainian region of Donbass. Earlier this month, Zelenskyy indicated that plans were underway for a meeting with Putin.
A Zelenskyy-Putin sit-down, however, is unlikely to produce a satisfactory outcome. Putin recently published a long rant on the Kremlin website claiming that Ukraine and Russia are “one nation”. (Ukraine has been independent since 1991, although in past centuries parts of it were ruled by the Russian Empire). Putin also questioned the usefulness of meeting Zelenskyy “if he has placed his country under full foreign control and key issues for Ukraine are not decided in Kiev but in Washington and, to some extent, in Paris and Berlin? “
What the United States can do
Instead of placing any hopes in Putin, Zelenskyy should push the United States to get more involved in the negotiations to end the war in the Donbass. For the past seven years, Ukraine has negotiated with Russia – with the presence of Germany and France – in a futile attempt to force Russian forces out of Ukraine. The Russians have shown themselves to be totally uncooperative, content to keep their forces and their puppet “republics” on Ukrainian territory. In the process, Putin sought to undermine and destabilize Ukrainian sovereignty, while denying any responsibility for the conflict. Meanwhile, some 13,000 Ukrainians, including more than 3,000 civilians, have died in Donbass, and more than 1.5 million Ukrainians have been displaced. The United States should join the negotiations to strengthen Ukraine’s position and bring them to a successful conclusion.
At the same time, the Biden administration should rally support from its allies to step up sanctions against the Putin regime – in addition to those put in place in response to the Russian invasion of Crimea and Donbas – in order to increase the costs of the continued violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. .
In light of the recent Sea Breeze military exercise involving more than 30 Black Sea countries, which took place over Russian objections, Biden is expected to order the release of an additional $ 100 million in US security assistance to Ukraine . (On Friday, he authorized the Secretary of State to pay $ 60 million of that total to help Ukraine with “Defense Ministry defense items and services, as well as military education and training.” )
This aid, which the United States froze before Biden and Putin met, would add to a previously earmarked package of $ 275 million. Such help is needed now, before the fighting resumes, not in the midst of a crisis, when it is too late. The United States should also strengthen its naval presence and that of its NATO allies in the Black Sea.
Washington should also grant Ukraine the status of a major non-NATO ally, which would give the country military and economic advantages and put it in the company of allies such as Australia, Israel, Japan and South Korea. He is at the forefront of democracy against a vengeful regime in Moscow, contributing to the security of Europe by potentially repelling even more Russian aggression.
In 2008, NATO promised Ukraine and Georgia that they would become members of the alliance, although no timeline is mentioned. Thirteen years later, the United States must reaffirm its support and pressure its European allies to honor this commitment, as long as Ukraine meets the criteria. The status of a major non-NATO ally would underscore US support for Ukraine’s eventual full NATO membership.
This will signal Putin that he does not have a de facto veto over Ukraine’s aspirations to join Euro-Atlantic institutions, which is especially important since Putin warned in the spring that Ukraine’s membership to NATO would be a “red line” for Russia.
Zelenskyy’s frustration with the lack of progress on NATO membership is understandable, but it would be premature to push for a membership action plan or outright invitation. ; the worst of all possibilities would be rejection by the alliance.
Zelenskyy also has work to do. As he began to fight corruption – last week he sanctioned two Ukrainians who collaborated with the Kremlin to try to affect the 2020 US presidential election – corrupt oligarchs have long been a drag on development economic and political economy of Ukraine. Left unchecked, corruption will weaken Ukraine and make it more vulnerable to Russian influence.
No person confirmed by the Senate has served as US ambassador to Ukraine since 2019, when Marie Yovanovich was unceremoniously sacked. President Biden is expected to appoint a qualified candidate as soon as possible to serve as the United States’ ambassador to Ukraine.
Biden is also expected to commit to a visit to Ukraine within the next 12 months. No US president has set foot on Ukrainian soil since President George W. Bush did so in April 2008. Biden was a regular visitor to Ukraine during his tenure as vice president and senator. A return trip as president would send a powerful signal of American support to Ukraine and its people, as well as to the Kremlin.