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Mr Zelenskyy goes to Washington

Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s trip to Washington and his meeting with US President Joe Biden will be essential not just for Ukraine, but for Europe as a whole. It may help determine the shape of an emerging Biden Doctrine and frame the approach of his administration’s foreign policy following the dramatic events in Afghanistan.

September 1, 2021 - Vladyslav Faraponov - Articles and Commentary

The then Vice President Joe Biden during an official visit to Kyiv in 2015. Photo: Drop of Light / Shutterstock

“The meeting of the year” – this is how some Ukrainian media outlets have described the Biden-Zelenskyy meeting in Washington this week. Definitely, this is the case for Ukraine. The visit is more than a one-day summit and beyond the one-on-one discussion of presidents. In fact, Zelesnkyy is in the US meeting with many different groups and representatives to broadly discuss US-Ukrainian relations. His voyage will conclude in California. 

Ukraine has designated the US as a strategic partner according to the newly adopted foreign policy and national security strategies. It goes without saying that Washington will remain a major ally for Ukraine to counter Russia’s aggression, assist Ukraine to modernise its security sector, assign financial and military aid, etc. Therefore, Kyiv expects to achieve a lot on this trip.

Yet, some unfortunate signals emerged before Zelenskky left Kyiv. First was the postponement of the meeting with Biden (from July to late August; and then from August 30th to September 1st). Second was the level, which was lower than expected, of the US delegation attending the Crimea Platform Summit last week. These signals led many to question whether Zelenskky could achieve any of his aims or if his visit would rather turn into a series of working meetings. Moreover, the dramatic shift of the Biden administration’s approach towards the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline created as an additional unpleasant surprise for Kyiv, as Ukraine expected the US to prolong sanctions on its operator. Zelenskyy now faces a dilemma, namely whether to raise this topic at all and if yes, how to mitigate its impact on progress regarding other issues.

However, there is no indication that the Politico headline regarding the US request for Ukraine to keep silent on the Nord Stream 2 was true. The US reached an agreement with Germany over the pipeline’s completion and promised to support Ukraine’s energy system instead. That is why it is, nevertheless, important for Biden to at least demonstrate strong support for Ukraine during this uneasy time for Kyiv.

The current bilateral US-Ukraine relations could be briefly described as “there is always room for improvement”. Kyiv sees the US as its key ally and the strongest “voice” in the battle with Putin’s Russia. Zelenskyy has been vocal about the need to enlarge the existing Normandy Format on Donbas by inviting the US as a member. And it goes without saying that Ukraine desires to have more financial and military aid from Washington in the face of the threat coming from the Kremlin’s aggression.

Therefore, Ukraine’s primary goal is to show that it is a reliable partner for the US. It is worth mentioning that Zelenskyy is the first Eastern European leader to visit the White House under this administration. In order to grab the Biden team’s real attention and interest, Ukraine should imply a regional dimension in its meetings and think in which particular areas it may serve as a US partner alongside other countries in Eastern Europe.

Ukraine expects to sign several strategic documents with the US during this visit. However, most importantly for Kyiv would be the US administration designating Ukraine as a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA). Despite public statements, Kyiv understands that a path to NATO is still a long and complicated one, which requires consensus of the Alliance’s member states, which Kyiv lacks at the moment. 

What is clear is that the US establishment and media are focused on Afghanistan after the final withdrawal on August 31st. However, such a situation could prove also a valuable opportunity for Biden to show that not all US allies would share the Afghan fate. It should be noted that US assistance to Ukraine since 2014 (3.7 billion US dollars) and to Afghanistan over the last 20 years (2.25 trillion US dollars) are incomparable. Ukraine is a relatively new country which just celebrated its 30th anniversary of independence. Kyiv ultimately aims to finish the war on its territory, get back lost territories, proceed with reforms and join the European Union and NATO. Therefore, it needs assistance on this path the most when Russia attempts to disrupt it. 

In that regard, Ukraine seeks to and can become a success story for US foreign policy under the Biden administration. At the same time, certain issues like Crimea or peace talks on Donbas will take many years to resolve, and require consistent US involvement and guidance. This is why Zelenskyy’s central message should be the reiteration of Ukraine’s credibility as a US ally during his meeting at the White House. 

Vladyslav Faraponov is an analyst and journalist at the Kyiv-based Internews-Ukraine and UkraineWorld.

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