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As Washington Summit Nears, Disappointment Looms Over Ukraine-U.S. Relations

A combo photo shows Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (left) and U.S. President Joe Biden

Shortly after Joe Biden won the U.S. presidential election last November, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy expressed optimism the incoming occupant of the White House would be a better fit for his country than his predecessor.

Afterall, Biden oversaw Ukraine policy while serving as vice president from 2009-17, visited the country six times during that period, and knew firsthand its struggles against Russian aggression and domestic corruption.

Highlighting Biden’s “close ties to Ukraine,” Zelenskiy told The New York Times in December that his presidency “will really help strengthen relations, help settle the war in Donbas and end the occupation of our territory.”

That background contrasted sharply with outgoing President Donald Trump, who had expressed reservations about Ukraine during his turbulent four-year term. Trump accused Kyiv of interfering in the 2016 election on behalf of his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and pressured Zelenskiy in 2019 to dig up dirt on Biden's work in Kyiv, triggering an impeachment trial that all but brought bilateral relations to a standstill for the rest of Trump's term.

However, seven months into Biden’s term and just days before Zelenskiy makes his first official trip to the White House on September 1, the bilateral relationship appears just as strained as under Trump.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump
Former U.S. President Donald Trump

The Biden administration has repeatedly expressed disappointment over Ukraine’s perceived lack of progress in implementing Western-backed reforms and fighting corruption.

Meanwhile, Ukraine has been frustrated by a perceived lack of military support from the United States in the face of an existential threat from Russia, as well as by the Biden administration’s decision to waive sanctions on a Kremlin-backed natural gas pipeline that could deprive Kyiv of $2 billion a year in gas-transit revenues starting in 2025.

Zelenskiy has expressed disappointment with the Biden administration in interviews with U.S. media outlets in June and August.

Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the Kyiv-based New Europe Center, said Biden's Ukraine experience and his 2019 campaign comment that Ukraine would be a "foreign policy priority" made officials in Kyiv "too optimistic" about what his administration would do.

“There is slight disappointment," she said, adding U.S. domestic considerations could also be a factor. "It seems Biden is trying to distance himself from Ukraine.”

Much has changed at home and abroad since Biden made that campaign comment to the Council on Foreign Relations.

A deadly pandemic has damaged the global economy and left millions of Americans without work, while racial tensions in the United States have spiked following the killing of an unarmed black man by a white police officer in Minnesota in May 2020. Meanwhile, on the foreign policy front, U.S. tensions with China have increased.

Now, as Biden tries to push through $4.5 trillion in spending bills that could be the hallmark of his term, he is facing a mounting crisis in Afghanistan, where the U.S. military pullout has resulted in the fall of the government to the militant Taliban, completely destroying a two-decades-long attempt to build a viable, democratic state.

“Biden doesn’t want Ukraine to be on the front burner,” said William Pomeranz, deputy director of the Kennan Institute in Washington. “He has a lot on his plate, and I don’t think he wants to be entangled in another foreign policy situation.”

Pomeranz said it appears Biden wants "to be a domestic president."

Russian Aggression

The Biden administration expressed support for Ukraine when Russia amassed more than 100,000 troops on its border and in the annexed Ukrainian region of Crimea in March and April in what Washington called an attempt to intimidate Kyiv.

However, it dropped plans to send two U.S. destroyers to the Black Sea in April amid fears that doing so could escalate already high tensions in the region.

Russia seized Crimea and began backing fighters in parts of two eastern provinces in Ukraine after months-long protests in Kyiv caused Kremlin-leaning President Viktor Yanukovych to flee in February 2014.

Analysts say Putin is seeking to destabilize the country because he fears a successful, democratic, and Western-oriented Ukraine.

The seven-year war in parts of eastern Ukraine has taken the lives of more than 13,200 people and -- along with the annexation of Crimea -- devastated the nation’s economy.

Ukraine has expressed a desire to join NATO to protect itself against further Russian aggression, a move the Kremlin recently called a “red line.”

Biden in June said Ukraine is not ready for NATO, pointing to the high level of corruption, but he did not offer any guidance on how the country’s progress would be measured, leaving Kyiv frustrated.

Pomeranz said the United States “just doesn’t want to take the geostrategic responsibility for defending Ukraine” against Russian aggression.

Analysts say the Biden administration wants to stabilize relations with Russia in order to focus on China, which it perceives to be the bigger threat to the United States and the liberal world order. That would mean tiptoeing around the issue of Ukraine.

In support of that view, analysts point to Biden’s decisions to meet with Putin in Geneva in June before receiving Zelenskiy in Washington and to waive sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline over Kyiv's objections.

Ukraine feels it has “been treated badly” by the Biden administration over the Nord Stream 2 decision, said John Herbst, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006 and an analyst at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.

In a further setback for Kyiv, the Biden administration set the meeting with Zelenskiy for late August, days before Congress is due to return from summer recess, making it nearly impossible for the Ukrainian leader to meet with U.S. lawmakers.

Congress has shown strong bipartisan support for Ukraine in its efforts to combat Russian aggression and overwhelmingly approved mandatory sanctions on Nord Stream 2.

The last two Western-leaning Ukrainian presidents -- Viktor Yushchenko and Petro Poroshenko -- addressed joint sessions of Congress during their first official visits to Washington.

The Biden administration has rejected suggestions it purposely sought to limit Zelenskiy’s interaction with lawmakers.

White House Meeting

Zelenskiy’s visit comes as the U.S. is pulling out troops from Afghanistan ahead of an August 31 deadline, potentially overshadowing the meeting of the two leaders.

Biden and Zelenskiy are not expected to field questions from the media following their talks.

The United States and Ukraine are expected to announce a new defense framework agreement that could include expanded training and greater participation in joint military exercises. There should also be an agreement on economic cooperation.

Under the 2016 U.S.-Ukraine defense agreement that expires this year, Washington has been helping Kyiv enhance its military and reform its defense sector in line with NATO standards and principles.

Ukraine receives approximately $400 million annually in U.S. security assistance, including training and education, according to the State Department.

However, the new defense agreement is expected to fall short of Kyiv’s demand for more tangible support, such as air and naval hardware, something that could provoke Russia.

Getmanchuk said on the surface, U.S.-Ukraine relations “look fine, but what is lacking [from the Ukrainian point of view] is some concrete actions.”

Orysia Lutsevych, a research fellow and manager of the Ukraine Forum in the Russia and Eurasia Program at London-based Chatham House, said the meeting will still be important symbolically as it shows that the United States stands by Ukraine.

Putin, she said, wants the United States and Europe “to give up on Ukraine.”

Corruption, Reforms

During the meeting, Biden is expected to push Zelenskiy to carry out the nation’s Western-backed reform agenda and tackle corruption, including improving management of large, state-owned companies.

The United States and European allies have given Kyiv billions of dollars in financial and largely non-lethal military support since 2014, but have conditioned part of it on political and economic changes that would improve the rule of law and put Ukraine on a path toward Western integration.

Ukraine has made some progress with reforms over the years, including in procurement, banking, and agricultural-land sales, but it has been slower than its Western backers had hoped.

Observers say the Biden administration may be disappointed with developments under Zelenskiy, a political novice who won the presidential election in 2019 in a landslide on a promise to tackle corruption and take on the nation’s tycoons.

Zelenskiy in March 2020 fired his reformist government and prosecutor-general after just six months, raising concerns he was taking a step backward.

Then his government in April dismissed the head of Naftogaz, the state-owned natural-gas company, in a manner inconsistent with Western corporate governance standards, angering Washington.

Naftogaz has been at the center of Ukraine’s biggest corruption scandals over the past three decades and its cleanup has been a major focus of Western government attention since 2014.

Zelenskiy’s government defended its decision, saying the previous head of Naftogaz failed to deliver on profits and production growth.

Following meetings in Washington in July, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Ukrainian prime minister from 2014 to 2016, told an Atlantic Council conference that he sensed a “real lack of trust right now” toward Kyiv.

Lutsevych said the Biden administration sees reforms and defense against Russian aggression as “two sides of the same coin.”

From the U.S. point of view, “corruption is closely linked with malign [Russian] influence,” she said.

However, Lutsevych said that Zelenskiy will have something concrete to show Biden on this front when he arrives in Washington, pointing out a series of measures the Ukrainian president has taken to address some of the nation’s problems.

Zelenskiy in February sanctioned tycoon and Russia-leaning lawmaker Viktor Medvedchuk and took down three of his television stations on suspicion he was supporting the Moscow-backed rebels in parts of eastern Ukraine. The television channels have been accused of promoting Russian disinformation within Ukraine.

The president later sanctioned Dmytro Firtash, an influential businessman wanted by the United States on charges of corruption that he calls politically motivated, and submitted a law that attempts to rein in the influence of such tycoons.

Zelenskiy’s party in July passed judicial reform legislation that Ukrainian civil society has called a “potential landmark."

The Ukrainian parliament is now working on a bill to reform the security services.

The United States will be watching closely to see how the legislation is implemented.

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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.