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Biden’s trip to Ukraine and Poland reaffirms special approach toward Eastern Europe

On the eve of the first anniversary of Russia’s full-fledged war against Ukraine, US President Biden made a surprise visit to Kyiv before embarking on a scheduled trip to Poland. Both visits are full of messages and symbols, but broader policy implications may not be so visible at first glance. This article will look at US foreign policy priorities during the time remaining before the US presidential elections in 2024.

March 1, 2023 - Vladyslav Faraponov - Articles and Commentary

Joint news briefing in Kyiv on February 20, 2023, with US President Joe Biden and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Photo: Photowalking / Shutterstock

Joe Biden definitely caught the entire world by surprise with his secret trip to Kyiv. This was arranged with the help of Ukraine’s railways, as the country’s airports still do not operate. His walk in downtown Kyiv alongside his counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, amid air-raid sirens signalling Russia’s missile threat, may go down in history as a great act of courage in the fight for democracy over darkness and autocracy.

A surprising visit kills two birds with one stone

The US president came to Kyiv to underscore America’s enduring commitment to support Ukraine “as long as it takes” before his trip to Warsaw. But more importantly, this visit was designed to send specific signals to different actors in several parts of the world.

First, Biden’s opponents, including some in Congress, have started to question the possible future allocation of various types of aid to Ukraine. This became more clear after the US midterm elections changed the dynamics present in the US House of Representatives. That is why it was vital for the president in terms of domestic polling to reassure both major American parties that it is in Washington’s interests to provide Kyiv with weapons and tools to repel Moscow’s plans.

Second, Biden’s first destination and timeline were very accurate. The US president outplayed Putin totally with the visit, as Putin had his speech scheduled for the next day. In the end, the entire world was discussing the significance and bravery of Biden’s journey and largely forgot about the fact that Putin would make a speech.

While the Russians and Russian soldiers had been told a year ago that Kyiv would fall in three days, now they were forced to watch two of their worst enemies walk alongside each other. More symbolically, Zelenskyy and Biden walked close to the central street in Kyiv, where the Russians allegedly planned a victory parade. In light of that, Russian state propaganda, led by Putin’s proxies, had not been lazy in reminding Russians that it was the West that provoked the war, not Moscow. Russia’s propagandists tried to promote the idea that Biden is old and clumsy, unfit to be leader. However, the 46th US president reaffirmed that he is in good shape given the challenging logistic route to Kyiv.

Third, Biden meant to set an example to other European leaders, but not only them. After a year of massive diplomacy work led by Ukraine’s foreign ministry, parliament and president’s office, Biden’s triumphal visit reaffirmed that Kyiv is still a go-to destination for international democratic leaders. What is more, it showed that democracy’s future will be decided in the country. This was the message to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, whose top diplomat visited Moscow precisely at the time Biden appeared in Ukraine’s capital. Given Antony Blinken’s warning about China-Russia military cooperation, China decided to prove those warnings were quite relevant.

Therefore, this trip to Kyiv was a way to prove the long-lasting and deep bond of cooperation between the US and Ukraine. The trip was an excellent symbol for Ukrainians, as the country’s top diplomats have kept campaigning internationally to get more aid, including fighter jets and long-range missiles. Biden also apparently brought some hope that the US will assist Ukraine until victory, which in Kyiv is seen as recovering the country’s borders as of 1991 at least. Of course, as the war approached its first anniversary, severe psychological trauma affected many Ukrainians.

A second chance for Biden to strengthen the US-Eastern European bond

But even more exciting and less public at the same time was Biden’s visit to Poland. It was announced in advance and, in some way, was very similar to his speech a year ago. In March 2022, Biden delivered remarks in Poland’s capital as well, but under different circumstances. In early 2023, Ukraine was in a strong enough position to regain many of its territories that Russia captured, especially in the country’s eastern and southern regions. However, there are many more areas to be liberated, including Crimea.

In light of this, Biden’s third trip to Europe as president has more regional implications for US foreign policy. The American president met with the leaders of the Bucharest Nine, which represents NATO’s eastern flank. The group was bolstered by the establishment of four new battlegroups in Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania to deter the threat from Russia.

It would be wise to assume that, following this comprehensive visit, the Polish authorities will expect deepening US-Poland military and financial cooperation to help Ukraine. Warsaw will also hope that America will provide Poland with the necessary means to strengthen its defence capabilities. It should be noted that the current Ukraine Democracy Defence Lend-Lease Act of 2022 expires at the end of the American fiscal year, which is September 30th. This allows President Biden to allocate military equipment and weapons to not only Ukraine but other Eastern European countries as well.

Interestingly, when Biden delivered his speech, the Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs at the US House of Representatives Michael McCaul hinted at a greater chance for Ukraine to receive F-16 fighter jets to defend its land. This was due to Russia’s counteroffensive in the country’s East. Consequently, Poland’s role as a transferring party may well be requested by Washington.

Poland’s role may be increased through the transfer of more Patriot air defence systems or at least through assurances of more military aid from Washington, which Warsaw can deliver to Ukraine’s front line if needed. The same technique worked quite well in the spring of 2022 and saved some precious time on the battlefield. What is more, Poland and the United States just launched cooperation on civil nuclear energy projects, so these issues have been addressed during the president’s visit as well. In that sense, the president’s trip to Poland represents another opportunity to strengthen the bilateral bond.

Moreover, Biden’s visit sends a clear message to China and other autocrats worldwide that there is now no place for a non-aligned European state, as he said that Putin “thought he’d get the Finlandisation of NATO. Instead, he got the NATOisation of Finland — and Sweden.” So, it is likely that America will look for specific ways to deepen its cooperation with Eastern European states and, more likely, seek good proposals in line with its own strategy. That is why it was important for Washington to outplay Beijing when it sought ways to expand its economic influence over Europe.

It may be crucial for the region’s security as well, and for America in particular, to keep the Moldovan government stable amid concerns about the pro-Russian coup plot. At least in public, President Biden welcomed pro-European efforts led by the country’s President Maia Sandu. Given the country’s importance in stabilising the situation around another potential front in Transnistria, the Moscow-backed region bordering Ukraine, the US and the EU will likely increase economic support for the current government in Chișinău.

Vladyslav Faraponov is an analyst and journalist at the Kyiv-based Internews-Ukraine and UkraineWorld. He also co-hosts the Solutions from Ukraine podcast by Rubryka.

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