Biden, facing challenges of his own, reaffirms support for Ukraine’s Zelensky


When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arrived at the White House on Wednesday, he became just the second European head of state to sit with President Biden in the Oval Office. It was a clear signal of the importance Biden places on protecting Ukraine in the 30-year-old democracy’s ongoing war with Russia. The U.S. is committed to Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and — and our support of Ukraine’s Euroatlantic aspirations,” Biden stated at the beginning of the discussion. He also highlighted new agreements that will increase cooperation in defense, energy, and economic development. But the meeting was delayed by Biden’s focus on the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the effects of a major hurricane. This came at a time when America’s inward turn is evident and its declining influence around the globe.

In remarks Tuesday marking the end of 20 years of conflict in Afghanistan, Biden espoused something of a foreign policy doctrine, stating that the “fundamental obligation of a president … is to defend and protect America, not against the threats of 2001 but the threats of 2021 and tomorrow.” He suggested that the $2.3-trillion U.S. investment in the Central Asian country cost the United States countless “opportunities” and “was no longer in the vital national interests of our people.”

For all of Biden’s impassioned rhetoric about the importance of democracies prevailing over autocracies, his desire to reassert American leadership around the world has been tempered by an acceptance of geopolitical realities and a determination to reduce America’s military footprint abroad while focusing on an economic recovery program at home. He is also trying to shift U.S. foreign policies away from the Middle East and Afghanistan, to face the growing threat of a new global power in Beijing. Experts say that these changes in focus have frustrated long-standing allies, and could make it difficult for Zelensky to establish deeper ties with Washington.

” The reality of the Biden administration has more unilateralism and more domestic focus that many allies expected,” stated Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group. This global risk assessment firm is based in the United States.

Zelensky, a former comedian, is already something of a household name in Washington, having played involuntary roles in then-President Trump’s first impeachment trial and in the 2020 election campaign. The famous telephone call in which Trump threatened Ukraine to end military aid was received by Zelensky, who is a Democratic rival and led U.S. efforts against corruption in Ukraine. The Ukrainian president arrived in Washington this week, the second European leader to visit Washington after Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor. He was eager to get Biden’s support for his country’s ongoing conflict against Russia. Moscow has occupied part of Ukraine’s territory, the Crimean peninsula, since 2014 and is backing separatists fighting in an eastern region of the country.

Zelensky, briefly addressing reporters in the Oval Office at the outset of a roughly two-hour meeting, offered Biden his condolences for the 13 service members killed last week in a suicide bombing attack outside the airport in Kabul, the Afghan capital. He expressed his willingness to talk about Ukraine’s desire to join NATO, which would require the alliance’s direct involvement in fighting Russia’s advances.

Although Biden’s presidency has brought relief from Trump’s pressure tactics, his administration has frustrated Kyiv. Ukrainian officials are most upset about Biden’s recent decision to not sanction Germany and others in Europe for their role in constructing a Russian pipeline that will transport Russian gas to Germany.

This was widely viewed as a boon to Moscow as Europe increases its dependence on Russian gas. It also hurt smaller countries like Ukraine, which stand to lose energy revenue. Biden said that although he disliked the pipeline project, Nord Stream 2, it was already 95% completed when he took office and it would be better to monitor and restrict it than to punish Germany, with which he wanted to repair ties damaged under Trump.

“They feel that the administration crossed them and owes it,” stated John Herbst, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, who is now the Eurasia Centre at the Atlantic Council. This nonpartisan think tank is based in Washington.

Republicans, who have thus far blocked Biden’s diplomatic nominees over his refusal to impose sanctions to stop the pipeline, took up Zelensky’s cause.

Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, urged Biden to “reverse course” on what he called the “recent betrayal of Ukraine.” He likened the president’s reluctance to take a stronger stance with Russian President Vladimir Putin to his determination to stick to his Aug. 31 Afghanistan withdrawal deadline, which McCaul said was to avoid antagonizing the Taliban.

“President Biden rolled over too many times to our enemies,” McCaul stated in a statement.

Although Biden reiterated his opposition to the pipeline in a joint communique after his meeting with Zelensky, he did not change his position on sanctions. Instead, he outlined a promise to engage diplomatically “to maintain Ukraine’s transit role and security of supply during this period of energy transition and to prevent the Kremlin’s use of energy as a geopolitical weapon.”

The White House also has asserted that Biden has given Zelensky and Ukraine what one senior administration official said was “as much, if not more, attention … than any other European country.” And although President Obama opted to not respond militarily to Putin after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, Washington has provided $2.5 billion in aid to Ukraine in the seven years since.

In another sign of the U.S. commitment to Ukraine, Biden signed off on new agreements that will include an additional $60 million in U.S. security aid, which comes on top of a $150-million aid package for Ukraine authorized in June, and a pledge to boost trade. According to the White House, the new security aid will include Javelin anti-armor and other defensive lethal as well as nonlethal capabilities.

The Pentagon also signed a revised strategic defense structure to improve cooperation in matters such as Black Sea security and cybersecurity, intelligence sharing and military support in the face Moscow’s use of force. Russia has planned military exercises in the region next month and has already deployed troops to its Ukrainian border.

On the commercial front, Biden was joined by Zelensky in a deal on commercial cooperation that included $3 billion of support from the Export-Import Bank of the United States.

A lot of the U.S. aid to Ukraine has been contingent on the implementation of reforms Zelensky has committed to in order to combat corruption and improve the nation’s judiciary. Though Zelensky got off to a good start after taking office in May 2019, the last couple of years have been disappointing, said Herbst, the former U.S. ambassador. Zelensky has been pushing legislation to improve Ukraine’s security agency. He recently fired two of his predecessors who tried to undermine his government’s fight against corruption.

” “It’s been mixed picture, but not one that would justify major new commitments in economic aid,” Herbst stated.

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