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Opinion: Here's How Biden Should Strengthen Ties With Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks during a news conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, in May.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks during a news conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, in May.

William B. Taylor is a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. David J. Kramer, a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor in the George W. Bush administration, is director of European and Eurasian studies at Florida International University's Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs.

Nearly lost amid the understandable focus on Afghanistan, the earthquake in Haiti and the resurging pandemic is a critically important meeting set to take place Wednesday between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and President Biden. Zelenskyy's White House visit will be the first by a Ukrainian leader in more than four years. It will be an opportunity for Biden to reiterate U.S. support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russian aggression, for its integration into the Euro-Atlantic community and its fight against corruption.

Zelenskyy's predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, met in the Oval Office with former President Donald Trump for a brief encounter in 2017. After Zelenskyy's landslide victory over Poroshenko in 2019, Trump invited Zelenskyy to visit — but then embroiled him into American politics in the infamous July 2019 phone call, which led to Trump's first impeachment.

Zelenskyy had to settle for an awkward encounter with Trump in New York two months later, and bilateral relations floundered. This is a chance for the Biden administration to accelerate closer and deeper ties between the two countries.

The Biden administration's record is uneven

The Biden administration's record so far on Ukraine has been uneven. Amid a Russian military buildup along the border with Ukraine and in Crimea, which Russia occupied illegally in 2014, the White House in April invited Putin to a summit and reversed plans in April to deploy two destroyers to the Black Sea out of fear that such a move would provoke Moscow.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a productive visit to Kyiv in May, but that was followed by the administration's decision to waive sanctions on an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin over a Russian pipeline project to carry natural gas from Russia to Germany. Then, during a July meeting between Biden and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the administration dropped its efforts to block completion of the pipeline, known as Nord Stream 2.

Russia currently relies on gas transiting through Ukraine for its exports to Europe in an amount equal to what would be sent through the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The current arrangement provides Ukraine with some $2 billion in transit fees and leverage over further Russian encroachment.

Biden invited Zelenskyy to Washington before leaving on his week-long trip to Europe in June, which included his one-on-one summit with Putin. The U.S. and Ukrainian presidents have spoken twice over the phone, and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba visited Washington earlier this month and met with administration officials and U.S. lawmakers.

Last week, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm led a presidential delegation to Kyiv to inaugurate the Crimea Platform — to focus international attention on Russia's continuing illegal occupation of the Ukrainian peninsula and celebrate Ukrainian Independence Day.

Russia and corruption will top the agenda

When Biden sits down with Zelenskyy, two issues are certain to dominate their discussions. The first is Russia's ongoing aggression against Ukraine, an existential and immediate threat, for which Kyiv needs the U.S. in the ring with it. Ukrainians have watched with dismay the hasty U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. They need help from the United States to counter Russian aggression and are desperate to hear reassurances from President Biden that the United States will strongly support them.

The second issue is the critical and persistent problem of corruption — in which Ukraine is the main fighter, with the United States, European Union, International Monetary Fund and World Bank solidly in its corner.

Since taking office, Zelenskyy has wanted to visit Washington, but he also has been eager to meet with Putin, thinking that such a session might help resolve the crisis Putin started in 2014 when he illegally annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine's Donbas region. Earlier this month, Zelenskyy indicated that plans were being made for a meeting with Putin.

A Zelenskyy-Putin sit-down, however, is unlikely to produce any satisfactory result. Putin recently posted a lengthy diatribe on the Kremlin's website arguing that Ukraine and Russia are "one nation." (Ukraine has been independent since 1991, though in centuries past, parts of it were ruled by the Russian empire). Putin has also questioned the utility of meeting Zelenskyy "if he has put his country under full foreign control and key issues for Ukraine are decided not in Kyiv but in Washington, and, to a certain extent, Paris and Berlin?"

What the U.S. can do

Instead of placing hopes in Putin, Zelenskyy should push the United States to get more involved in the negotiations to end the war in Donbas. For the past seven years, Ukraine has been negotiating with Russia — with Germany and France in attendance — in a futile attempt to get Russian forces out of Ukraine. The Russians have been wholly uncooperative, content to keep their forces and puppet "republics" on Ukrainian territory. In the process, Putin has sought to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty and destabilize it, while denying any responsibility for the conflict. During this time, some 13,000 Ukrainians, including more than 3,000 civilians, have died in Donbas, and more than 1.5 million Ukrainians have been displaced. The United States should join the negotiations to bolster the Ukrainian position and move them to conclusion.

At the same time, the Biden administration should rally allied support to ramp up sanctions against the Putin regime — complementing those put in place in response to the Russian invasion of Crimea and Donbas — to increase the costs for continuing to violate Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

In light of the recent Sea Breeze military exercise involving more than 30 countries in the Black Sea, which took place over Russian objections, Biden should order the release of an additional $100 million in U.S. security assistance for Ukraine. (On Friday, he authorized the secretary of state to proceed with $60 million of that total to help Ukraine with "defense articles and services of the Department of Defense, and military education and training.")

This aid, which the U.S. froze before Biden and Putin met, would be on top of a previously appropriated $275 million package. Such help is needed now, before fighting flares up again — not in the middle of a crisis, when it would be too late. The United States should also beef up its naval presence and that of its NATO allies in the Black Sea.

Washington should also grant Ukraine major non-NATO ally status, which would give the country military and economic benefits and put it in the company of such allies as Australia, Israel, Japan and South Korea. It is on the front line of democracy against a revanchist regime in Moscow, contributing to the security of Europe by fending off potentially even further Russian aggression.

In 2008, NATO promised Ukraine and Georgia that they would become members of the alliance, albeit with no timetable mentioned. Thirteen years later, the U.S. needs to reaffirm its support and press its European allies to live up to this pledge, as long as Ukraine meets the criteria. Major non-NATO ally status would underscore U.S. support for Ukraine's eventual full NATO membership.

This will signal to Putin that he does not have a de facto veto over Ukraine's aspirations to join Euro-Atlantic institutions, especially important since Putin warned in the spring that Ukrainian membership in NATO would be a "red line" for Russia.

Zelenskyy's frustration with a lack of progress on NATO membership is understandable, but pushing for a membership action plan or an outright invitation now would be premature; the worst of all possibilities would be rejection by the alliance.

Zelenskyy has work to do, too. While he has started to move against corruption — just last week, he sanctioned two Ukrainians who collaborated with the Kremlin to try to affect the 2020 U.S. presidential election — corrupt oligarchs have long been a drag on Ukraine's economic and political development. Left unchecked, corruption will weaken Ukraine and leave it more vulnerable to Russian influence.

No Senate-confirmed person has held the position of U.S. ambassador to Ukraine since 2019, when Marie Yovanovitch was unceremoniously removed. President Biden should nominate a qualified candidate to serve as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine as soon as possible.

Biden also should commit to travel to Ukraine within the next 12 months. No American president has set foot on Ukrainian soil since President George W. Bush did in April 2008. Biden was a regular visitor to Ukraine during his time as vice president and senator. A return trip as president would send a powerful signal of American support for Ukraine and its people, and to the Kremlin.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

William B. Taylor
David J. Kramer