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Post-Trump, Ukraine's leader to push Biden for US support

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Washington — The Ukrainian leader who found himself ensnarled in Donald Trump’s first impeachment comes to Washington on Wednesday to see a new U.S. president, seeking increased military aid and backing for his country’s bid for NATO membership.

The White House says the meeting between President Joe Biden and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is aimed at showing support for Ukraine’s sovereignty in the face of Russia’s seizure of Crimea and backing of armed separatists in the country’s east. Biden also intends to encourage Zelenskyy’s efforts to tackle corruption and reassure him that the U.S will help protect Ukraine’s energy security.

In advance of the sit-down, the Biden administration said it was committing up to $60 million in new military aid to Ukraine. The administration said in a notification to Congress that the aid package for Ukraine was necessary because of a “major increase in Russian military activity along its border” and because of mortar attacks, cease-fire violations and other provocations.

Zelenskyy is expected to bring up Washington’s decision not to block the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would carry Russian natural gas directly to Germany, bypassing Ukraine. The pipeline is vehemently opposed by Ukraine and Poland as well as both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, with Zelenskyy describing it as a powerful geopolitical weapon for Russia.

The White House meeting was postponed two days while Biden and his national security team were consumed by the American military withdrawal from Afghanistan. The withdrawal, which concluded Monday, left behind many Afghans who had worked with the Americans and their allies and who now fear Taliban rule. This led to criticism that the U.S. was less than a reliable international partner, something Biden may be eager to counter.

Zelenskyy, a television actor new to politics, took office in May 2019 anxious to firm up his country’s relationship with the United States. Instead, he almost immediately found himself under pressure from Trump envoys and soon Trump himself, who in the phone call that led to his first impeachment asked Zelenskyy to “do us a favor.”

In that now famous July 2019 call, Trump asked Zelenskyy to announce an investigation into Biden and his son Hunter, who had served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.

Trump’s European Union envoy, Gordon Sondland, later told impeachment investigators that Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani explicitly sought a “quid pro quo” in which an Oval Office visit would be contingent on Zelenskyy announcing the politically charged investigation Trump wanted.

“Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’” Sondland asked. “With regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”

Besides the coveted invitation to the White House, Sondland also said it was his understanding that Trump was holding up nearly $400 million in military aid until Ukraine announced the investigation.

The allegations that Trump withheld congressionally approved military aid while seeking Ukraine’s help for his reelection campaign formed the basis of the the first impeachment case against him. Trump was acquitted by the Senate. The Oval Office meeting with Zelenskyy never happened.

With Biden, Zelenskyy now has a president with a long history of involvement in Ukraine, one who has supported its determination to break free from Russia, shore up its young democracy and be more fully welcomed into the Western club.

As vice president, Biden was the Obama administration’s point person on Ukraine and pushed for tougher action against corruption. He once boasted of his success in getting Ukraine to fire its top prosecutor, who had blocked some corruption investigations. Trump later twisted this by insisting, wrongly, that Biden had done so to protect his son and the energy company on whose board he served.

Zelenskyy is the latest Ukrainian president to promise to tackle systemic corruption and then struggle once in office. On Wednesday, Biden will want assurances that Zelenskyy remains committed to following through on a range of reforms, a senior U.S. administration official said.

Zelenskyy also is looking for new economic and military assistance as Ukraine faces a hostile Russia on its eastern border. And he has said he wants a clear statement from Biden on whether he supports eventual NATO membership for Ukraine. NATO members are wary given Ukraine’s simmering conflict with Russia.

The $60 million security package will include more Javelin anti-tank missiles, which Kyiv sees as critical to defending against the Russia-backed separatists who have rolled through eastern Ukraine. The U.S. has overall committed more than $400 million in military aid this year.

The official, who briefed reporters before the meeting on the condition of anonymity, would not say whether Biden would support Ukraine’s NATO aspirations, noting only that the U.S. believes that Ukraine has more work to do to reform its defense sector and the U.S. remains supportive of Ukraine’s efforts.

Biden and Zelenskyy will have “significant” discussions on the status of Ukraine’s various reforms and what still needs to be done, the official said. This includes steps to protect the independence of the anti-corruption agency, legislation on human rights and other efforts to strengthen democracy. The U.S. will be looking for “concrete results,” the official said.

Nord Stream 2, the pipeline being built under the Baltic Sea, also will be on the agenda. By allowing Russia to bypass Ukraine, it could potentially deprive Ukraine of the billions of dollars in transit fees it now earns for pumping Russian gas to Europe.

While the U.S. also opposes the new pipeline, worried that it would give Russia too much power over European energy supplies, Biden agreed in July not to penalize the German company overseeing the project. Under the terms of the deal, the U.S. and Germany committed to counter any Russian attempt to use the pipeline as a political weapon and to support Ukraine by funding alternative energy and development projects.

Biden will discuss with Zelenskyy ways to improve corporate governance at state-owned energy companies and attract more foreign investment to help Ukraine achieve energy independence and meet clean energy goals, the senior administration official said. The two leaders also will discuss plans for protecting Ukraine’s energy security once Nord Stream 2 becomes operational, the official said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin published a lengthy essay in July defending his statement that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people” and accusing the West of working methodically to destroy Ukraine’s historic links to Russia and turn it into a bulwark against Moscow. “I am convinced that the true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia,” Putin concluded.

Alexander Vershbow, a former NATO deputy secretary general and U.S. ambassador to Russia, argues that ensuring Putin doesn’t succeed is essential to the security of the United States and its European allies.

“That is why Ukraine’s fight for freedom is our fight as well. For if Putin does succeed, Ukraine will not be the last victim of Russian aggression,” Vershbow wrote last week in a piece for the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.