US-Ukraine relations under Joe Biden: security and domestic reforms as mutually reinforcing pillars
The recent visit of the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Kyiv has generated some interest in Ukraine and beyond. This face-to-face meeting was a good opportunity for the United States and Ukraine to send and receive messages and signals in the most direct way. The agenda for the bilateral relations had been set prior to the meeting and yet the symbolism of Blinken coming with a message of continued support (and, also, perhaps, for some “inspection”) was an important one, not to be undervalued.
Security and domestic reforms go hand in hand
Formally, the US-Ukraine relations are those of the strategic partnership. There have been ups and downs over the years, but mostly ups as Washington has stood behind Kyiv in its attempts to improve its security and introduce much needed (and often delayed) reforms. The intensity of cooperation and the scale of American support has increased dramatically since 2014, when Russia launched its aggression against Ukraine.
Ever since that time the US position has been one of unwavering support. This has manifested itself in diplomatic activities at the UN Security Council and other international forums. It has included the defense and security assistance which has amounted to more than US$ 2 billion over the past seven years. This now includes the supply of lethal weapons, among other things.
But another significant realm has always been that of the Ukraine domestic policies, reforms, economic transformation, and the struggle against corruption. It is here where there has been some success, but also enough disappointments, both for Ukrainians themselves and for their international partners, including the Americans.
The duality of the American approach has not always matched the approach of power-brokers in Kyiv, whose preferred stance was often for Washington to deliver support without asking too many questions or attaching conditions. However, there is a logic in how Washington sees these two critical “fronts” — the one against Russian aggression and the domestic one — as entwined, deeply connected and in impacting on each other.
Consistency and continuity
The American approach and the agenda was set under the Obama administration. Despite the disruptiveness of Donald Trump they remained mostly unchanged under his administration. While Trump himself often acted in his own peculiar ways, much of the rest of his administration stuck to the guidelines of its Ukraine policy, following the established track of support.
One episode that reverberated on both sides of the ocean was certainly Trump’s attempt to coerce Kyiv to play a part in his scenario of American domestic politics. President Trump applied pressure on Kyiv to open investigations into the activities of Joe Biden and his son Hunter in Ukraine. In the process, US security aid to Ukraine was blocked for several months on White House orders. The outrage this caused led to its unblocking and further investigations of the episode in the Congress, culminating in Trump’s impeachment in the House of the Representatives. This relatively brief episode has somewhat eroded trust. Moreover, it was the first thing that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s administration saw from Washington when it came to power. So it had a lingering effect, and left officials in Kyiv rather suspicious of their American counterparts.
There is no ambiguity in the stance of Joe Biden’s administration concerning Ukraine. Words match actions. There is a unanimity within the executive branch, the important inter-agency process is back. Congress, which played a pivotal role in driving the Ukraine policy, remains solidly on board with its acts of support for Ukraine and punishment of Russia for its aggression.
It was already quite clear what Biden’s Ukraine policy would be, even during his presidential campaign, and there have been no shifts since he was inaugurated (as can sometimes happen). These policies are deeply rooted in those of the Obama administration. Many of the current policy-makers are veterans of that administration, including the president himself. Moreover, Biden was Washington’s point man on Ukraine for the eight years of his vice-presidency. This was not that long ago and the memories and reflections are fresh. He has accumulated a unique understanding of Ukraine, how its politics work and who are its most influential players. It remains to be seen how much Biden will be personally involved in the Ukraine policy now that he is in the Oval Office. But he will undoubtedly deliver his opinions and will have an impact on strategic issues, even if not tactical ones.
US – the reliable security partner
The security bloc of the relationship remains crucial and is very relevant these days. US financial assistance in that regard comes in handy to Ukraine. Much progress has been made regarding Ukraine’s military preparedness since 2014, and yet the weak points are still there and American aid is instrumental in addressing these. This now includes a more diverse set of aspects, such as the needs of the Ukrainian navy and its anti-aircraft capabilities, among other things. The training mission is there. The frequent calls of US naval vessels to Ukrainian ports and various training exercises are useful and send an important message that Ukraine is not alone. However, Russia still has the upper hand over Ukraine in terms of numbers and resources in what remains a highly asymmetrical conflict.
Russia’s preparedness to inflict more harm on Ukraine has been demonstrated recently with a massive concentration of Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders. It was also, most probably, intended to send a message to the incoming US administration, and has become one of the first tests for the Biden administration. Not only did Washington respond with a clear voice to this, including directly to Moscow. It has also mounted a process of intensive coordination with its transatlantic allies. This wasn’t seen during the Trump presidency. It remains Biden’s intention to keep this coordination intact.
The recent Blinken visit has reinforced certainty about American security support for Ukraine. This was clear enough prior to the visit with many statements and practical steps too. But bringing this message to Kyiv in person has probably had an added value. The US Congress is in the process of introducing the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, which has a strategic outlook for the support for the years to come. This new legislative act follows a number of others directed to support Ukraine and punish Russia for its aggression. It stipulates the need for strategic assistance in the field of security for the period of 2022–2026. It also calls for periodic reports of the executive branch on its activities to support Ukraine. It proposes that the United States should coordinate this aid to Ukraine with its European allies, and offers to reinstall the position of the Special Representative on Ukraine.
Domestic reforms not to be compromised
On Ukraine’s domestic “front”, however, lingering questions remain. There was some hope for the political outsider Zelenskyy when he came to power two years ago. Much of that hope has now dissipated. Some signs of this were visible during the recent Blinken visit. The anti-corruption activities often appear stalled. There is a noticeable lack of progress in the reform of the judiciary. The most recent change of a top man of “Naftogaz”, Ukraine’s major energy player, which was implemented in an abrupt and non-transparent manner, raised some warning flags. Secretary Blinken had to address the issue when he spoke of a need for more transparency in corporate governance.
The pervasive influence of Ukraine’s oligarchs has always been seen as a problem. They impede Ukraine’s progress and this needs to be addressed. This is easier said than done though. This time Washington did not limit itself to nudging Kyiv into action. It actually offered a helping hand. It initiated the process most visibly by imposing US sanctions on one of the oligarchs — Igor Kolomoysky. Some also see American encouragement behind the Ukraine government’s recent pressuring steps against another oligarch — Victor Medvedchuk (which, perhaps, coincides with Zelenskyy’s domestic political agenda).
All in all, the US-Ukraine agenda is full. The dialogue is ongoing on a daily, cooperative basis. Washington still has to make some tactical decisions of its own, for instance who is to be its new ambassador to Kyiv, or will there be a new US special representative on Ukraine (the position which has been vacant since Kurt Volker’s resignation in September 2019). It is not entirely clear at the time of writing when the first meeting between the presidents of two countries might take place.
One thing is clear, though, and this was reinforced by the Blinken visit: the United States stands with Ukraine, it is ready to provide leadership for the international support effort for Ukraine, but it will also look to Ukraine to do its own homework, proceeding with much needed work in the domestic realm.
Dr. Volodymyr Dubovyk is a Professor at Odesa I. Mechnikov National University
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