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Ukraine's Zelenskiy Gets His White House Meeting. Was It Enough?

U.S. President Joe Biden (right) meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in the Oval Office of the White House on September 1.
U.S. President Joe Biden (right) meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in the Oval Office of the White House on September 1.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy made it abundantly clear what he hoped to get out of his first official visit to the White House: more guns, missiles, armor, and other U.S. equipment to aid in his country's fight against Kremlin-backed separatists.

He got some: a $60 million increase in military aid, bringing the total U.S. aid for this year alone to more than $400 million.

Was it enough?

"It is a good package in terms of the strategic defense framework, but I think the situation is urgent enough to call for a bigger U.S. commitment," Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, told RFE/RL.

The bigger question is whether Zelenskiy managed to accomplish a wider reset of relations between Kyiv and Washington, a bilateral relationship that has been turbulent even as Washington remains the largest single foreign supplier of military aid.

That aid has been crucial as Ukraine's standoff with Russian-backed fighters in eastern Ukraine continues in its eighth year -- with well more than 13,000 dead. "We want support not only in words," Zelenskiy said the day before the September 1 White House meeting.

Biden is deeply familiar with the contours of the relationship. As vice president under President Barack Obama prior to 2016, Biden was the administration's point man on relations with Kyiv, offering rhetorical backing as the war intensified, and also rhetorical bludgeoning as Zelenskiy's predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, failed to check the country's endemic corruption.

Biden nodded to that history in his opening remarks alongside Zelenskiy in the Oval Office. "The United States remains firmly committed to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russian aggression and -- and -- our support for Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic aspirations," he said.

A Long And Bumpy Road

The road for Zelenskiy to get to the White House was bumpy, to say the least.

Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump, held up military aid in 2019, conditioning it on Zelenskiy helping Trump's allies dig up dirt on Biden and his son, to damage Biden politically ahead of the 2020 presidential election. The effort resulted in Trump's first impeachment.

Following Zelenskiy's visit, the White House announced a joint program to reset and deepen its strategic relationship with Ukraine. It's a plan replete with things like cooperation on security, democracy, human rights, energy, and economic development -- much more than strictly guns and ammunition.

However, there was no joint press conference following the meeting, which would have afforded a photo op with the two leaders standing side by side, raising speculation Biden wanted to avoid uncomfortable questions about his administration's decision not to block the Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, or other nettlesome issues.

Angela Stent, a former U.S. national intelligence officer on Russia, said the meeting was nonetheless "very important" for Kyiv, including the joint declaration of U.S. support for its territorial integrity and the additional aid.

Some U.S. analysts have called for hundreds of millions of dollars, even as much as $1 billion, in military aid, saying that would send a strong signal to the Kremlin. The increased military package was nowhere near that. Still, the Kremlin reacted dimly.

"We believe this could potentially cause unpredictable actions by the Ukrainian side in terms of attempting to resolve the...Ukrainian force. This is very dangerous," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying. The term "Ukrainian conflict" is a Kremlin euphemism to deny its role in backing the separatists.

"Simply put, we're talking about a Ukrainian-American friendship that is directed against Russia," Peskov said. "This can only cause regret."

Not What He Hoped For?

The joint statement released by the two leaders mentioned strengthening democracy and rule of law in Ukraine -- something analysts say the Kremlin fears could inspire its own citizens. It also references helping Kyiv defend its borders.

Still, there appeared to be disappointment from Zelenskiy's side of things.

Zelenskiy had signaled that his country needs more Western financing to help it rebuild its naval fleet and bolster its missile defense program -- something he said would cost as much as $22 billion. "I tell you frankly: cheap money, cheap loans [for national defense].... This is important for us," Zelenskiy said on the eve of the White House meeting.

But one Zelenskiy aide told RFE/RL that the additional aid, which included more for sophisticated anti-tank Javelin missiles, was too small to have any real impact on Russia's military calculations. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal deliberations among Zelenskiy advisers.

From the Biden administration side, the small size of the package was due to concerns about Ukraine's capacity to effectively utilize so much aid, according to a senior State Department official who also spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity. The official also said significant U.S. aid to Ukraine could increase tensions between Kyiv and Moscow.

Vershbow, now an analyst at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, disagreed with that notion, saying U.S. air-defense weapons, such as surface-to-air missiles, would ensure Russia refrains from using aircraft to support the separatists in eastern Ukraine. Such high-ticket weapons, he said, "would be a major advantage for Ukrainians in holding the line.

Ben Hodges, a former top U.S. Army commander in Europe, said anti-ship missiles would help Ukraine on the Black Sea. After Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, Ukraine lost most of its naval fleet, and now relies on a flotilla of smaller, coastal ships, many of which are no match for Russian destroyers and corvettes.

Stent, who is now a professor at Georgetown University, said the United States could be doing more to counter Russian activities in the Black Sea, where she said it is trying to win to de facto recognition of Crimea's annexation. She said she expected Washington and Kyiv to enhance cooperation in the region.

No U.S. Role Offered

The joint declaration had at least two other setbacks for Zelenskiy. While it stated U.S. support for peace talks to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine, it made no mention of U.S. plans to directly participate in them. Zelenskiy has repeatedly said he wants the United States to join the talks, which currently include Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France.

Some Ukrainian officials are skeptical of the support received from Berlin and Paris and have pushed for more involvement by Washington to breathe life into the now-dormant peace talks.

Also, the Biden administration does not plan to relaunch the position of special envoy to Ukraine for peace talks, a State Department official told RFE/RL. That position was created under Trump but has been vacant since September 2019, when Kurt Volker stepped down in the midst of the scandal that led to Trump's impeachment.

Stent said that while the special-envoy position would be symbolically important to the Ukrainians, the Biden administration probably does not think it would be productive. That's especially so after Biden's June summit with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, during which Biden sought to reach some understanding with Moscow on a range of issues.

The joint declaration also stated both leaders' opposition to Nord Stream 2, but it made no mention of plans by Washington to stop it.

Zelenskiy had pushed the Biden administration to impose sanctions on the pipeline, which will carry Russian natural gas to Germany under the Baltic Sea, circumventing Ukraine and depriving it of almost $2 billion a year in transit revenue.

Despite the lobbying, Biden instead waived mandatory congressional sanctions on the pipeline builders in order to improve relations with Germany, a key NATO ally.

Keeping Washington Committed

The joint declaration also committed Ukraine to carry out judicial, anti-corruption, and security-service reforms-- crucial for Ukraine to meet its aspirations of someday joining the European Union and NATO.

Zelenskiy said Ukraine had done everything necessary to earn a NATO membership plan. "There was support, but no deadlines," he told reporters later. "I feel that the president personally supports Ukraine in granting NATO membership, but it is difficult for me to say what the path will be."

Russia is vehemently opposed to any ex-Soviet state -- particularly those with whom it shares a border -- joining NATO.

While Ukraine has recently passed important judicial reform legislation and is debating bills to overhaul the security services and rein in powerful tycoons, the country has historically struggled to implement such reforms.

Daniel Vajdich, the president of Washington-based lobbying firm Yorktown Solutions, whose clients include the powerful state-owned gas and oil company Naftogaz, said the outcome of the meeting will have consequences far beyond Ukraine.

In the weeks leading up to the meeting, the United States pulled its forces out of Afghanistan ending its 20-year war there. But the pullout and chaotic evacuation raised questions about Washington's commitment to other friendly countries at war

That includes Ukraine.

"In the wake of Afghanistan, the world is watching whether the U.S. stands by its partners that are facing internal and external enemies," Vajdich said.

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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.

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