Donald Trump is no longer in the White House, but his presence is casting a shadow over President Joe Biden’s Oval Office meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Trump’s 2019 attempts to pressure Zelensky into announcing an investigation into Biden and his son Hunter in exchange for the release of $400 million in military assistance and a White House invitation ended in his impeachment by House Democrats in 2019. More than 18 months later, Zelensky will finally be able to pose for his desired presidential photo op as Biden looks to pivot pass Afghanistan and show his support for Ukraine over Russia.
Here are four observations before the Biden-Zelensky White House meetings, Biden’s second with a European leader in the Oval Office.
Will it be awkward?
Biden and Zelensky’s highly anticipated meetings, in the works for two years and delayed from Aug. 30 after Afghanistan’s implosion, will have three main agenda items, according to the White House.
“The message behind our visit is clear: The United States’s commitment to Ukraine sovereignty, territorial integrity, and Euro-Atlantic aspirations,” a senior administration official said of the pair’s expanded bilateral discussion and one-on-one talks.
The U.S.-Ukraine relationship “has never been stronger than it is now,” according to the administration official. But Biden and Zelensky’s phone calls in April and June failed to placate Zelensky’s frustrations with the president and NATO, which refuses to admit Ukraine, citing the country’s corruption problems. What the alliance does not articulate is the threat Ukraine faces from Russia.
Council on Foreign Relations’s Charles Kupchan, a Barack Obama and Bill Clinton administration National Security Council alumnus, dismissed speculation the tete-a-tete would be awkward. But he noted the U.S.-Ukraine relationship had been tested by Trump and Biden’s flip flop on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, despite spearheading Ukraine foreign policy under Obama.
“Biden will also welcome this meeting in the sense of not just supporting Ukraine, but returning to business as usual,” he said. “The last couple of weeks have been very difficult for the administration because of the chaos in Kabul, and a meeting with the Ukrainian president gives Biden the opportunity to change the conversation and to refocus the attention on a different region and a different dimension of American foreign policy.”
Andrew Lohsen, a Center for Strategic and International Studies fellow, predicted Zelensky would have his own military and energy demands but that the pair would strive to “put the past behind them and to focus more on the future relationship.”
“Zelensky wants to have some sort of a signal of the U.S. commitment to Ukraine, particularly after what’s happened in Afghanistan,” he said. “For Biden, though, this is an opportunity to demonstrate that the U.S. is still committed to its strategic partners. And it’s also a chance to emphasize the centrality of democracy and human rights as a part of his foreign policy agenda.”
Russia, Russia, Russia
The White House has already started touting its new $60 million pledge in Ukrainian security assistance before Zelensky personally updates Biden on Russia’s military buildup along their shared border. Javelin anti-armor systems will be supplemented by $45 million in humanitarian help this year alone, according to the White House.
But Zelensky has been burned by Biden when it comes to Russia after Biden bowed to German pressure regarding the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The 764-mile underwater project will permit Russia to bypass Ukraine, Poland, and Belarus, depriving Ukraine of transit revenue of up to $2 billion a year, 3% of its gross domestic product. Once completed, it will similarly deprive Ukraine of an economic deterrent against Russia, Lohsen explained.
“Zelensky recognizes that deeper partnership with the United States and closer integration with other Euro-Atlantic partners is the one option that Ukraine really has to counter the Russian Federation,” he said. “They can’t do it on their own.”
Biden will likely ease Zelensky’s concerns over the Nord Stream 2 development by concentrating on the deal’s compensatory and green energy funding provisions, according to Kupchan.
“I think he made a judgment that, everything else being equal, it was better to move it off the agenda and to invest in a strong relationship with Germany and a strong relationship with Europe,” Kupchan said of Biden.
The other foreign policy component is the eastern Ukraine conflict against Russia and the Minsk Protocol, Kupchan added. Zelensky will likely push for more U.S. involvement in the fraught diplomatic efforts, he said.
Corruption, corruption, corruption
Biden is expected to press Zelensky on cleaning up Ukraine’s reputation for corruption, inherited from its oligarchical political system, as allegations continue to plague the country.
Biden will specifically call on Zelensky, a former comedian, to ramp up his protections of anti-corruption institutions and human rights, in addition to other reforms, according to the White House.
Lohsen stressed that Ukraine should buttress an independent judiciary, a task complicated by the “disparate” factions that back him and his “Servant of the People” party.
“Unfortunately, Zelensky is still operating in a political environment that’s dominated by oligarchs and vested interests,” he said. “He’s forced to constantly try to balance these interest groups and the wishes and desires of both Ukraine’s international partners, as well as its own citizens.”
The prospect of Ukraine’s NATO membership is one agenda item that will not likely gain traction, according to both Kupchan and Lohsen.
Kupchan described Ukraine’s NATO membership, and even its European Union accession, as being “on the back burner.”
“There is no consensus within either NATO or the European Union about potential Ukrainian membership,” he said.
For Lohsen, Ukraine needed to convince NATO it “added value” to the alliance beyond being a buffer against Russia.
“But it is a country that still has a number of reforms that it has yet to implement,” he said.
Washington Examiner Videos
Original Author: Naomi Lim