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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