Zelenskyy’s US visit reaf­firms part­ner­ship. But much work lies ahead.

The reac­tions in Ukraine to Pres­i­dent Volodymyr Zelen­skyy recent visit to the United States vary widely and are often politi­cized. They range from state­ments that the visit lifted rela­tions to a new level to those saying that it was a failure and that Zelen­skyy returned empty-handed. In reality, however, there neither is reason for eupho­ria nor for doom. Perhaps the most impor­tant thing is that the visit took place at all. The back­story is not rosy.

Read this article in German

On the Ukrain­ian side, Zelen­skyy expressed a strong wish for a US visit early on in his pres­i­dency in 2019, only to get a very luke­warm reac­tion from then Pres­i­dent Donald Trump. It got worse when Trump orches­trated a black­mail oper­a­tion press­ing Kyiv to take steps that would hurt his polit­i­cal oppo­nent Joe Biden. This cul­mi­nated in the now infa­mous phone con­ver­sa­tion between the pres­i­dents on 25 July 2019 and the block­ing of US secu­rity assis­tance to Ukraine until autumn of that year. This further led to acute polit­i­cal crisis in the US, cul­mi­nat­ing in Trump’s impeach­ment by the House of Representatives.

Portrait von Volodymyr Dubovyk

Volodymyr Dubovyk is an Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Inter­na­tional Rela­tions at the Odesa I. I. Mech­nikov National Uni­ver­sity. His areas of exper­tise are Ukraine, transat­lantic tela­tions, the U.S. and Black Sea security.

For the remain­ing part of the Trump pres­i­dency, Ukraine policy became some­what toxic and remained in limbo. Trump’s actions left a lin­ger­ing trau­matic effect on Zelenskyy’s team and its trust in bilat­eral rela­tions. Little wonder that Zelen­skyy had high hopes for the new Amer­i­can Pres­i­dent and an eager­ness to visit the US.

Another driving factor for Zelen­skyy per­son­ally was his deep antipa­thy towards his pre­de­ces­sor Petro Poroshenko, who visited the US several times and even addressed a joint session of Con­gress in Sep­tem­ber 2014.

On the U.S. side, Pres­i­dent Joe Biden has been pre­oc­cu­pied with an array of serious domes­tic chal­lenges, which resulted in a number of foreign policy tasks being put on the back burner. Plus, Wash­ing­ton did not feel urgency in address­ing specif­i­cally Ukraine. One excep­tion was during the massing of Russian forces on Ukraine’s borders in spring 2021, when Biden himself engaged in active diplo­macy in support of Ukraine. But apart from that, the new US admin­is­tra­tion thought that poli­cies towards and coop­er­a­tion formats with Ukraine estab­lished by the two pre­vi­ous admin­is­tra­tions are working fine and need no urgent overhaul.

This was coupled with a certain appre­hen­sion in Wash­ing­ton that Zelen­skyy was not doing enough domes­ti­cally in order to press for much needed reforms. Perhaps the Biden admin­is­tra­tion decided to give Kyiv more time to do more home­work before actu­ally moving forward with the visit.

More­over, the Covid pan­demic clearly upended plans as well. The fre­quency of foreign leaders’ visits to the White House has been really low. Zelen­skyy was only the eighth to be received there since Biden’s inau­gu­ra­tion, and the second Euro­pean leader right after German Chan­cel­lor Angela Merkel. Seen in this way, Zelenskyy’s visit actu­ally took place rather quickly, despite the wait.

It is through this prism of cir­cum­stances, back­ground and context that this visit should be viewed and its results must be assessed. It drives us to con­clude that the very fact of the visit taking place was a success in itself. Even the sudden crisis in Afghanistan, which led to the visist’s post­pone­ment by one day, did not alter its contents.

Joint State­ment is good news

Among the agree­ments signed the Joint State­ment on US-Ukraine Strate­gic Part­ner­ship stands out. It lays down the state of rela­tions, addresses major aspects and even sug­gests a very con­crete road map of what needs to be done next. It is both a guide­line and a check­list of things to be accomplished.

Nat­u­rally, given the ongoing aggres­sion against Ukraine, the joint state­ment starts with secu­rity and defense. It is here where US support for Ukraine perhaps man­i­fests itself most visibly. Since 2014 the U.S. has pro­vided Ukraine with secu­rity assis­tance worth 2.5 billion dollars. It was on track to provide 400 million dollars this year alone, when Wash­ing­ton added another 60 mil­lions on top, just days before the visit.

The Strate­gic Defense Frame­work agree­ment was signed during the visit as well. While it is hardly moving bilat­eral rela­tions in this domain to a qual­i­ta­tively new level, it can serve as a useful mech­a­nism to facil­i­tate more coop­er­a­tion in this field.

The good thing for Ukraine is that Crimea is men­tioned fre­quently in the joint state­ment, includ­ing Washington’s pledge to support the Crimea Plat­form, Kyiv’s latest ini­tia­tive to raise inter­na­tional aware­ness for the peninsula’s occu­pa­tion. More gen­er­ally, the Black Sea region is rec­og­nized as an area where many threats remain for Ukraine’s secu­rity and where the US is deter­mined to offer assistance.

Future US role in Donbas nego­ti­a­tions unclear

As for Donbas, where fight­ing actu­ally rages on a daily basis, there was no break­through of any sort during the visit. However, this does not mean, that there will be no news on this front in the coming months. Zelen­skyy appar­ently asked Biden to con­sider a greater US role in the nego­ti­a­tions for a res­o­lu­tion. This may take the form of Wash­ing­ton joining the so-called Nor­mandy format — even though it is not our expec­ta­tion that it will do so – or the launch of another format or simply a dou­bling down of the US efforts in this regard. Whether Biden will fill the posi­tion of Special Rep­re­sen­ta­tive for Ukraine (respon­si­ble for Donbas), which has been vacant since Kurt Volker’s res­ig­na­tion in Sep­tem­ber 2019, remains to be seen.

The Joint State­ment also reit­er­ates Amer­i­can support for Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspi­ra­tions. This means that Wash­ing­ton believes that Ukraine should be in NATO some day – but not any time soon. By only sup­port­ing a per­spec­tive, the current admin­is­tra­tion (like the two before it) refrains from pro­mot­ing the prospect of Ukraine receiv­ing a Mem­ber­ship Action Plan (MAP) as of now. This is based on the under­stand­ing that mul­ti­ple NATO states still oppose such a move. This is the long legacy of the 2008 NATO Bucharest summit, when the admin­is­tra­tion of George W. Bush pushed for grant­ing MAP to Ukraine only to find itself without proper support from other alliance members.

The Joint State­ment becomes most spe­cific where it speaks about the future of Ukraine’s reform effort, specif­i­cally in the judi­ciary. Here it actu­ally resem­bles a home­work with clearly stated par­tic­u­lar tasks. This makes this doc­u­ment rather unprece­dented in the history of US-Ukrain­ian rela­tions, really putting Kyiv on the spot. Ukraine’s leaders no longer can allow them­selves to say or pretend that they did not know what is expected of them.

Prevent Nord Stream 2 from becom­ing a per­ma­nent bone of contention

Finally, the crit­i­cal issue of energy is also addressed. The Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline has become a major point of con­tention between Kyiv and Wash­ing­ton in recent months. The Biden administration’s deci­sion to waive sanc­tions against the pipeline’s con­struc­tion, which will deal a severe blow to Ukraine’s posi­tion as a tran­siter of Russian gas, caused quite an uproar in Ukraine, with Zelen­skyy adding his voice to it. This was a moment when Ukraini­ans were bluntly reminded that the US has other vital inter­ests and pri­or­i­ties, some of which may not coin­cide with Ukraine’s. It is our view that every­thing should be done to prevent Nord Stream 2 from becom­ing a per­ma­nent bone of con­tention between both part­ners, pre­vent­ing coop­er­a­tion in many other vital areas.

All in all, this was an inten­sive meeting, which some­what jolted Ukraine-US rela­tions in a pos­i­tive way, reaf­firmed the strate­gic part­ner­ship (along with reviv­ing the Strate­gic Part­ner­ship Com­mis­sion), showed that common inter­ests are many and left us cau­tiously opti­mistic for the future of bilat­eral relations.


Dr. Volodymyr Dubovyk is Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor at the Inter­na­tional Rela­tions Depart­ment of the I. I. Mech­nikov National Uni­ver­sity in Odesa

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