By Ostap Yarysh
U.S. President Joe Biden assured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy at a White House meeting Wednesday that the United States remains firmly committed to Ukraine’s sovereignty in the face of Russian aggression in its eastern region.
As they opened talks, Biden said the two leaders would discuss how the U.S. can assist Ukraine, once a Soviet satellite state, as it develops its democracy and integrates with Europe. Zelenskiy said security issues were the most important item on the agenda.
The Congressional Ukraine Caucus also met with Zelenskiy on Tuesday, as did Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. Austin congratulated the president on Ukraine’s 30 years of independence, also offering his support for Ukraine’s sovereignty “in the face of Russian aggression.”
Kyiv’s troops have been fighting pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine since Moscow unilaterally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. The Biden administration notified Congress last week of an additional $60 million security assistance package to Ukraine, which includes missiles and other lethal and non-lethal defense capabilities, a senior Biden administration official said.
Zelenskiy’s visit to Washington comes two years after his name unexpectedly became central to a U.S. investigation that led to former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment.
Trump, hoping to dig up compromising information on then potential opponent Biden, in July 2019 asked Zelenskiy to investigate Biden, along with his son Hunter’s lucrative business ventures in Ukraine, in the lead-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Trump was acquitted of wrongdoing at a Senate trial linked to the Ukraine call and nothing came of his request to investigate Biden and his son.
Senior administration officials said the message behind hosting Zelenskiy is the U.S. “commitment to Ukraine sovereignty, territorial integrity, and Euro-Atlantic aspirations.”
The White House officials also told reporters the agenda would include security issues, energy and climate policy, and anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine.
Additionally, the officials also said the two sides would be announcing several agreements, including security assistance for Ukraine, humanitarian aid for those “impacted by the crisis with Russia in the east” and coronavirus aid.
Analysts say there are both challenges and opportunities in the meeting between Biden and Zelenskiy in Washington.
Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S., Oksana Markarova, expressed optimism about the meeting, saying it sends an important message about the U.S.-Ukraine relationship.
“After [German] Chancellor [Angela] Merkel, President Zelenskiy is the second leader the U.S. is inviting to the White House with a visit to discuss some strategic issues,” Markarova told VOA. “So, I believe it shows the level of attention, focus and importance of our bilateral relations for both Ukraine and the United States.”
American experts agree the Biden-Zelenskiy meeting is an opportunity to strengthen Ukraine-U.S. relations. Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, says the outcome of the meeting will depend to a great extent on Zelenskiy.
“It seems to me, though, that part of the ability to make this a successful meeting will depend on what President Zelenskiy asks for,” Pifer told VOA. “He should moderate some of his requests because, if he asks too much, he may be disappointed. You do not want to ask the question unless you are sure the answer is going to be ‘yes.’”
Among the more sensitive subjects are NATO membership and the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline between Russia and Europe, which Ukraine opposes. Experts say it is important that Zelenskiy remain realistic and balanced when discussing these issues.
“He should not expect any commitment from the United States regarding Ukraine and NATO. He should also not expect any change in the Biden position on Nord Stream 2,” said John Herbst, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and the director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. “Zelenskiy has to make clear that he still opposes [Biden’s] decision [to support the pipeline] and would like to see a change without antagonizing the president. So, he can do that, I think, by mentioning it, but not in a confrontational way in their White House meeting.”
Daria Kalenyuk, the executive director of the Ukrainian Anti-Corruption Action Center, says Zelenskiy should remain assertive when discussing the Nord Stream 2 issue. She said the White House decision to waive sanctions on Nord Stream contradicts Biden’s statements on fighting corruption abroad.
“The right thing would be to talk, not only about corruption in Ukraine, but also about geopolitical corruption and strategic corruption,” Kalenyuk said. “We can and should ask why Nord Stream 2 is being finished despite it being the symbol of strategic corruption.”
Regarding security cooperation, the Biden administration has decided to support providing additional military aid to Ukraine in case of a possible escalation of its longstanding conflict with Russia in eastern Ukraine.
“I would think that additional American military assistance would be good,” Pifer said. “First of all, because it would help improve Ukrainians’ defense capabilities. That’s the practical step. But, second of all, it would be a way to send a strong message of American support for Ukraine.”
Ambassador Herbst said Biden also should be interested in supporting Ukraine through strong rhetoric.
“He needs to demonstrate in very clear ways that the United States has Ukraine’s back — is supporting Ukraine — as Moscow continues this war. And Biden has even more reasons now to do it, after his administration’s disastrous handling of the pullout from Afghanistan. He needs to show that, in fact, he is a strong international player.”
At the same time, the White House has repeatedly emphasized it expects Ukraine to deliver tangible results in the country’s fight against corruption. Pifer said the biggest thing Zelenskiy can bring is a credible, compelling message of Kyiv’s commitment to reform.
“And that means a more open and competitive economy. It means rule of law, including reforming the judicial sector,” Pifer said. “It means reducing the outsize political and economic influence of the oligarchs. It means combating corruption.”
Ambassador Markarova is convinced the two presidents will see eye to eye, even on the more complex issues.
“We know that both Ukraine and the U.S. are strategic partners and friends,” she said. “So, the two leaders will discuss all the issues on the agenda like partners — sincerely and earnestly. And they will find solutions that are acceptable for both sides.”
Myroslava Gongadze contributed to this report.