US-Ukraine relations under Joe Biden: security and domestic reforms as mutually rein­forcing pillars

Foto: IMAGO /​ Xinhua

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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