by Miceál O’Hurley
Washington, D.C. – Make no mistake about it, when United States President Joe Biden invited his counterpart in Ukraine, President Volodomyr Zelenskyy to the White House for 30 August it was a big deal. No Ukrainian President had been invited in over 4-years despite the incredibly close bonds and bilateral relations between Kyiv and Washington. Biden’s invitation to Zelenskyy in the first year of his administration, following his big domestic wins with Covid-19 relief and the bi-partisan infrastructure deal, and having to put out the plethora of fires created by the previous administration at both home and abroad, signals how important Biden believes his relationship to be with Ukraine and her President, Zelenskyy.
Despite being scheduled for 30 August, when Congress is in recess and Members of the House and Senate won’t be in Washington, Biden has used his personal prestige and the full weight of the White House to send a clear message that he values the American relationship with Ukraine. Moreover, coming on the heels of Russia’s Solar Winds hack of more than 33,000 corporate and government entities, including almost two-dozen U.S. departments and agencies, as well as Russia’s attack on Ireland’s Health Service Executive computers followed quickly by Russian submarines diving on the transatlantic data communications cables connecting the U.S., Ireland and Northern Europe, and a Russian spy ship now operating off of Ireland’s West Coast, Biden is making clear to the world that Ukraine’s continued heroic defense of their homeland after a Russian invasion and occupation in Donbas and Crimea, the West, including the U.S., are all targets of Russian hostility and Russia must be confronted collectively.
Aside from the important strategic partnership for security and defense, Biden’s invitation to Zelenskyy is nothing short of an endorsement that the U.S. fully believes Ukraine is capable (and expected) of achieving the reform necessary to fully integrate into the European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) communities. Given this week’s utter collapse of the un-reformed Kabul government, Biden is risk adverse where reform is critical so his embrace of Ukraine and Zelenskyy at this time is a signal of confidence in Kyiv.
In the final analysis, Biden’s invitation for Zelenskyy to visit him in the White House is a meeting is of two partners who understand they need and appreciate each other at a precarious time in world history. Placed in its proper context, the White House meeting is essentially a relationship building exercise between friendly nations and indivisible partners who value independence, democracy and civil society. Expectations that it will be anything more, or that significant decisions arise from it, are simply misplaced and unrealistic.
Russian and German Diplomats Working in Background to Undermine Zelenskyy
Russian and German diplomats are working feverishly to give every appearance that they are concerned that Zelenskyy will prevail upon Biden to reverse course on his pledge to German Chancellor Angela Merkel to remove U.S. barriers to the completion of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The coordination of these two nations makes for strange bedfellows considering vocal European Union opposition to Nord Stream 2. Their coordination is purely parochial in its interest and negligent of the wider implications.
Two media colleagues that cover Capitol Hill and the Administration told me only last week of how they have been courted at lunches and plied with telephone calls from Russian and German diplomats and interest groups. The timing is no mistake as the trope to which they were subjected was so similar it is as if both countries were reading was from the same script, “[Germany/Russia] are deeply concerned Biden will change his mind after meeting with Zelenskyy and stop Nord Stream 2 again with renewed sanctions.”
The Russia and German ‘deep background’ briefings for the media and staffers on the Hill have only one objective – to set up Zelenskyy for failure.
This is an old ploy (but then again, Russia has proven they love the tried-and-tested old tactics as seen by poisonings, murders, invasions, occupations, espionage that should be a relic of the Cold War and not current conduct by a supposedly civilized nation). By building high expectations of Zelenskyy in advance of the White House meeting with Biden both Germany and Russia hope count on advance coverage and analysis will create the illusion that Zelenskyy will gain significant concessions from Biden. Both Germany and Russia know this is not true, but if they are successful at any level on building expectations for Zelenskyy it only sets him up to fail when they concessions don’t materialize.
Indeed, even if Zelenskyy walks away with any concessions at all, it would be surprising. The demonstrably capable Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has already engaged in his trademark pre-meeting preparation and negotiations with long-time Biden confidant, advisor and now Secretary of State Tony Blinken. Any expectation that Biden will conclude any significant new agreements with Zelenskyy at the White House are not grounded in reason or experience.
Biden’s Reputation for Remaining Resolute
Much to the ire of his former Senate colleagues, and against almost uniform opposition to lifting Nord Stream 2 sanctions favoured by both the House and Senate, where his Democratic Party hold the slightest of majorities, Biden proved that he was willing to risk significant good will and put his domestic agenda at some peril to deliver a gift to German Chancellor Angela Merkel during her farewell visit to the White House last month. Biden is a risk taker and he has proven that he is willing to swim against the tide to get his way if he thinks it important enough. Biden thinks repairing U.S.-German relations is that important.
Moreover, Biden fancies himself a foreign affairs expert. He served for almost 3 decades on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. Biden was also President Barrack Obama’s point man on Ukraine. He feels he knows the situation on the ground better than almost anyone (Secretary of State Tony Blinken also held the Ukraine portfolio in the Obama Administration). The likelihood that Biden reached the decision lightly to green light the Nord Stream 2 pipeline during his parting meeting with Merkel is fanciful. He was determined to do it and the outcry from friends and foes alike did not dissuade him. Absent new bad acts from Russia, Zelenskyy won’t either.
Another nail in the coffin of attempts to stop Nord Stream 2 too place only two weeks ago when Biden advanced the cause of the Nord Stream 2 project by appointing his old friend and Senior Counsel to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, and former Ambassador Mark Gitenstein, as his envoy to see the project come to fruition. The appointment of Ambassador Gitenstein, a 30-year personal friend, long-time advisor and a person who additionally served as Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, to carry-out Biden’s will only weeks in advance of the White House meeting with Zelenskyy could not be more abundantly clear – Biden won’t change his mind on Nord Stream 2.
Consider the invitation being timed for late August. Biden knew members of the House and Senate who stand opposed to Nord Stream 2 would be in their constituencies campaigning and fundraising. Away from the Capital, the timing would deprive Zelenskyy of the overwhelming presence of the widespread support Ukraine enjoys in Congress who continue to stand opposed to Nord Stream 2. A student of military history and geo-political negotiations, Biden knows the value of picking his terrain and timing his engagements. Biden wanted this to be ‘mano e mano.’
Consequently, Zelenskyy will face Biden alone, on Biden’s turf, without the 435 voting members, 5 delegates and 1 resident commissioner who make up the House of Representatives, nor the 100 United States Senators (the overwhelming majority of which stand opposed to Biden having lifted restrictions on Nord Stream 2 and placing Europe’s energy security in the hands of Europe’s biggest foes – Putin and his Russia). While the meeting is a significant demonstration of Biden’s and the U.S. fidelity and value of Ukraine and Zelenskyy, the White House limited expectations for major announcements well in advance of Zelenskyy setting foot in the Oval Office.
Events of the Last Days Are Worth Noting
If Russian and German interests are flogging the story they share concerns Zelensky will prevail in changing Biden’s mind, the din of their narrative rings through. In the last 10-days anybody that paid attention to the news cycle witnessed the Taliban take control of the entirety of Afghanistan at lightning speed. This left the U.S. to evacuate embassy personnel with Marine Chinook helicopters incredibly reminiscent of the fall of Saigon. On only 8 July, Biden told the press corps, “The Taliban is not the south—the North Vietnamese army. They’re not—they’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of a embassy in the—of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.”
Despite being incredibly wrong, and those very images blazing across television screens worldwide in yet another severe blow to U.S. prestige and credibility, Biden made clear in his prime-time address to the American people he would not waiver from his decision to end the American presence in Afghanistan. Biden believes in the ‘long-view’ and strategic goal attainment and is therefore willing to suffer in the short-term to seem them realised.
Biden has no intention of reversing course on Nord Stream 2. Russia knows that. Germany knows that and their ‘deep background’ briefings to journalists all over Washington, D.C. and in the international press are for the sole purpose of setting-up Zelenskyy to look like a failure. Don’t nurture any expectations for Zelenskyy no matter what is written or who writes it.
Zelenskyy and Ukraine Win by Virtue of the White House Invitation
Biden’s decision to invited Zelensky to the White House, under any circumstances, is simply a huge win for Ukraine by its very virtue. Few world leaders get invited to sit with a U.S. President in front of the Oval Office fireplace and have full and frank discussions of issues of importance to both leaders and their nations. Zelenskyy will be one of only a handful of world leaders to be given this honour in Biden’s first year of office. Beyond the invitation itself, coming so soon in his Administration, Biden is telling the world that he place Ukraine and Zelenskyy near the top of his international priorities agenda.
For all the reasons it may not be the visit Zelenskyy might have hoped for, it is his to make the most of it. An embrace of White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s official statement announcing Biden’s personal invitation to Zelenskyy might well serve as the meeting’s agenda, “President Biden looks forward to welcoming President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine to the White House on August 30, 2021. The visit will affirm the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression in the Donbas and Crimea, our close cooperation on energy security, and our backing for President Zelenskyy’s efforts to tackle corruption and implement a reform agenda based on our shared democratic values.”
Biden Dictated the Agenda for Those Who Listened
Of paramount importance is Biden’s use of “…the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
True, there are those that would say that the U.S. used similar words about Vietnam and Afghanistan. They are not mistaken.
It would be mistaken, however, to think Biden is anything like LBJ, Nixon or Bush, whose wars those were. Biden, however, was Vice President when Russia invaded and temporarily occupied Donbas and Crimea. Obama appointed him as the Administration’s point-person for Ukraine. Biden feels ownership of the issue and his natural dislike of Putin and what Russia has devolved into under Putin’s reign of terror only bolsters Biden’s resolve to help Ukraine. Nor is Zelenskyy a Diệm, Thơ, Karzai or Ghani. Zelenskyy has used Executive Authority effectively to push forward the reform agenda demanded by the Ukrainian people. Despite difficulties with reform, any comparison between the steadfastness of U.S. support for Vietnam or Afghanistan being analogous to Ukraine is baseless. The ferocity of Ukraine’s defence against the Russian onslaught, pushing-back one of the mightiest armies in the world, all while continuing to enjoy a society with a functional economy and democratic government working towards reform is a story of determination and success failed States do not share nor is typical of a country under partial occupation.
Beyond Russia, the White House Statement also mentions energy security. This is of paramount importance to Biden as energy security, affordable resources and a determined march towards carbon-neutral emissions are dear to Biden. Zelenskyy should not fail to notice that this area is so important to Biden that he appointed his long-time colleague, friend and former Secretary of State John Kerry to work on climate change – intrinsically linked to the underlying issue of energy security. There is room to build on the relationship in this area.
Reform Remains the Constant Clarion Call
Finally, Biden returns to the mantra that underpins and determines the level of U.S. special relationship with Ukraine – reform. I will mention it again in case anyone wasn’t paying attention – reform. One more time for those in the back who might not have heard – reform.
Certainly, one of the take-aways from the past few days that should have been evident over the past 20-years is that in Afghanistan reform was anathema. Indeed, for all of his academic prowess, Afghanistan’s former President (who fled the country leaving its people in the hands of the Taliban after broadcasting a pre-recorded message) Ashraf Ghani proved as corrupt as he was incapable of administration. His sheer hubris in having given TED Talks and writing the book ‘How to Save a Failed State’ ranks somewhere between Putin denying he had Alexei Navalny poisoned and Lukashenko denying he stole last year’s election from Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Last night’s announcement that Ghani left the presidential palace in Kabul with $130m in suit cases and arrived with them in the United Arab Emeriates where he was given asylum only underscores the reason Afghanistan fell so quickly and easily – the Afghani people never embraced reform and its leaders exploited their misery for personal benefit.
Afghanistan’s rapid fall to the Taliban had little to do with the Taliban’s policies or military prowess – they proved repeatedly they were not afraid of B52 strikes (they remain, however, scared to death of women and small girls availing of basic liberties). The fall of Afghanistan’s government had everything to do with it being led by crooks the likes of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani who looted the country, engaged in rank patronage and instead of instilling confidence in their government, the military and police, exploited their people such that soldiers and police were reduced to mere mercenaries, in it for the paycheck.
Here a comparison between Afghanistan and Ukraine is instructive. When Trump invited the Taliban to Camp David and brokered a deal with them in exchange for a U.S. withdrawal, the government only lasted as long as the tap that proved to be an endless pipeline of money was finally turned-off. By contrast, when the pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanokovich fled to Moscow with crates of money (having already funneled States funds to bank accounts throughout Russia) the Ukrainian people rose-up, took control of their destiny and demanded reform, good government, continued independence and to integrate into Europe. Biden understands the difference and as long as Ukraine engages in real reform, Biden and the U.S. will stand by them.
Reform remains of paramount importance to the Biden Administration as much as it does for Ukraine’s supporters in Congress. The same is true for the EU and NATO. Unless Ukraine implements reform measures, and quits acting by increments, all of the U.S., EU and NATO aid and support will only result in another failed state. However, his invitation for Zelenskyy to meet with him in the White House, his home and the seat of American power is a clear acknowledgement that the U.S. believes Ukraine capable of making reform and good government part of their enduring national ethic.
For his part, Zelenskyy has pushed forward with aggressive attempts at reform by Executive Authority. Those efforts have probably gone as far as they can. It is now incumbent upon the Verkhovna Rada (the Ukrainian parliament), to aggressively take-up, implement, evaluate and re-implement a truly reform agenda.
What Might Be on Zelenskyy’s Agenda?
This is, after all, a bilateral meeting. Biden fully expects Zelenskyy to put his own items on the agenda. Senior U.S. and Ukrainian diplomats have been preparing for the meeting. Ukraine’s talented and intelligent Foreign Affairs Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, (a young man, Kuleba is exemplar of the talented, young Ukrainians that have risen as rapidly as they have deservedly to counter the many seasoned veteran, nemesis in the Kremlin) will have prepared Zelenskyy well. Both Zelenskyy and Kuleba are well aware of the opportunity at hand and, despite the limited expectations, will do their best to make the most of it.
1. Clear and Defined Concessions and Undertakings from Germany
Zelenskyy could press Biden to get Germany to agree to significant and meaningful steps it will take if (and when) Russia exploits its soon-to-be high position of commanding energy security in Europe. To date, Germany has stated that after Nord Stream 2 comes online, it will stand ready to “assist Ukraine” in the event of any Russian aggression (economic or physical). Albeit, to date Germany has remained reticent to indicate what those steps would actually be or what would trigger them. Ukraine needs to know what to expect and Russia needs to understand where the ‘red lines’ are set.
2. Trilateral Relations with U.S., Ukraine and Germany
A transcript of the after action briefing of the White House teleconference between Biden and Merkel on 14 July is worth recalling:
“[Senior Administration Official:] So the President did actually have conversations with Zelensky before he went to Europe, before he saw Merkel on the margins of the G7, and before he met with President Putin there as well. When — and Chancellor Merkel, it’s worth flagging, has also been engaging with President Zelensky who was in Berlin earlier this week. And so we very much support the conversations that the Germans and the Ukrainians are having directly about Ukraine’s concerns about Nord Stream and stuff that the Germans might be prepared to take in response to that.”
The White House is signaling that it already considered Ukraine’s position prior to Biden’s meetings with Putin and Merkel and yet still green-lighted Nord Stream 2. There is maneuver room, however. The U.S. is willing to help Ukraine obtain specific guarantees from Germany with regard to Nord Stream 2 if motivated to do so – keeping Ukraine from having to deal with Germany alone. Zelenskyy should ask for specific U.S. help in gaining significant economic and deterrence guarantees from Germany. The U.S. can also help Ukraine with clean energy transformation and environmental clean-up, much of which will be required because of the environmental disasters caused by Russia’s occupation, neglect of infrastructure, flooding of mines, poisoning of ground water and environmental exploitation.
3. Cooperation on Black Sea Freedom of Navigation
Beyond Nord Stream 2 and energy security, Zelenskyy can use the meeting to forge enhanced cooperation and commitment on continuing U.S. naval exercises and support designed to ensure freedom of navigation in the Black Sea. Given the U.S.-China sparring in the South China Sea, both Ukraine and the U.S. have a vested interested in continuing to defend this right. Supporting the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) is critical.
Russia has proven itself willing to act in an overtly hostile manner on the high seas. Claiming waters surrounding occupied Crimea as Russian territorial waters, boarding Ukrainian naval craft, illegally imprisoning sailors and impeding freedom of navigation are only a few of Russia’s bad acts on the seas. In July, Russia even claimed to have fired ‘across the bow’ of a British naval vessel and ‘buzzing’ it with fighter aircraft while it operated in Ukrainian territorial waters on Black Sea. Keeping the Black Sea free for navigation, and restraining Russia from asserting a ‘creeping border’ on both land and sea is essential to Ukraine’s freedom and economic interests.
Assuring the legal principle of freedom of navigation is in the U.S. interest. Keeping the U.S. actively engaged in the region on an ongoing basis would bolster Ukraine’s defense posture and serve both nations.
4. Advancing NATO Membership
NATO integration is an area where Zelenskyy can make a compelling case for the U.S. to use its standing to promote full membership. President George W. Bush first floated the idea of supporting Ukraine in joining NATO in the hopes it would counter Russia’s ambitions. Bush’s half-measure failed. It is now in NATO’s best interest, as much as it is Ukraine’s, for NATO membership bid to be encouraged, supported, enhanced and finally realised in the near-term.
It is long-overdue that NATO engage Ukraine with a Membership Action Plan. Continuing to allow Russia to dictate foreign policy and the make-up of NATO by simply making threats about Ukraine’s, Georgia’s, Moldova’s or any other neighbouring country’s accession into NATO wholly undermines the foundations of Western democracy. Moreover, Russia perceives the lack of Ukrainian membership in NATO as a reward for their threats. Neither NATO nor the U.S. can continue to subsidise Russia dictating the self-determination of neighbouring States. A NATO Membership Action Plan now would serve as a carrot to counter Russia’s stick and further motivate Ukraine to fully embrace reform and make it an intrinsic part of its governance ethic.
Ukraine has shed its blood, resources and demonstrated its commitment to independence and democracy. Its time for it to be a NATO member.
5. Trilateral Contact Group and Normandy Format Engagement
Biden can use the weight of U.S. policy and pressure to continue to move Russia into finally cooperating with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The OSCE is routinely denied access to the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine under effective Russian control and occupation. Russia’s refusal to work effectively with the OSCE only serves to ratchet-up tensions, promote and obfuscate their continued breaches of the cease fire agreement and thereby keep the OSCE from promoting peace, observation of the rule of law, protecting Ukrainian citizens in the Russian occupied territories, assist prisoners and captives and assess military threat to thwart continued escalation of the conflict.
There is also something fundamentally troubling about the idea that Germany, along with France, functions as one of the Normandy Format ‘mediators’ for resolution of the Russo-Ukrainian war. The clear conflict of interest in Germany acting as a ‘mediator’ in the stalled Normandy discussions while concomitantly pressing Russia’s goal of completing the Nord Stream 2 project to feed Germany with cheap energy would not meet a basic ‘conflict of interest’ test. Germany simply can’t be an honest broker in a conflict where they have immeasurable self-interests and a huge financial stake. Between Germany’s conflict of interest and Russia’s lack of real engagement, the Normandy negotiations run the real risk of becoming wholly inoperative.
Zelenskyy can encourage the U.S. to take part in the Normandy Format negotiations. If Nord Stream 2 was important enough for Biden to appoint his long-time aide and friend, Mark Getenstein, to see the Nord Stream 2 pipeline completed surely appointing an equally capable person and prestigious person to be the U.S. envoy to the Normady Format negotiations and Trilateral Contact Group would be in the Biden Administration’s best interests. Its time for the Normandy discussions to move beyond the size-and-shape of the table disputes that kept the Paris Peace Accords from bringing the Vietnam War to a close and create a dynamic where real progress can be made to restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity and address myriad attending issues.
Russia thrives on creating uncertainty on its borders and enduring both condemnation and sanctions to continually destabilising its neighbours. Assuredly, Russia can be expected to oppose U.S. involvement in any process that would fairly and speedily resolve the conflict. After all, Russia’s interests are served by the stalemate and inactivity as well as by having the thirsty-consumer of their new gas pipeline, Germany, serve as one of the ‘mediators’. The situation cries out to be made functional. With more than 14,000 dead and more than 1.5 million internally displaced people in Ukraine, with Russian boots illegally occupying Donbas and Crimea, inaction is not an option.
Biden can assist Ukraine, all while furthering U.S. policy goals and objectives, by using the Normandy forum and Trilateral Contact Group to hasten Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine and return the region to stability and prosperity.
6. Hosting Biden in Ukraine
Zelenskyy will undoubtedly use his White House visit to invite Biden to visit Ukraine (again). Biden is no stranger to Ukraine. In January 2017, while still Vice President, Biden last visited Kyiv. Obtaining a commitment for the U.S. President to visit again (and soon) would not only reiterate the “unwavering commitment” of the U.S. to Ukraine but would serve to bolster the Ukrainian people’s spirits and encourage their reform aspirations.
Given the delays in the reform agenda, those Ukrainian people deserve a morale boost. After 7-long-years of sacrificing the flower of their youth and suffering un-ending misery at the hands of the Russian invaders, Ukrainians have stood as the bastion between Putin’s designs on Europe and his building a Russian Empire anew. They have kept their economy functional. They have continued on the bumpy path to reform. The have promoted an inclusive, civil society. They managed the incredible feat of conducting free elections and managing a peaceful transition of power all while fighting a world-power invading and occupying their homeland. These are no small fetes – Ukrainians deserve the world’s support and admiration.
Biden’s very presence in Kyiv and across Ukraine would serve to inspire the aspiring and belay the bandits on Ukraine’s borders.
How Will the Success of the White House Meeting Be Measured?
Biden’s personal invitation for Zelenskyy to visit him in the White House, so early in his tenure, marks the incredible importance Biden places on Ukraine and his personal relationship with Zelenskyy. By any measure, an invitation to the White House, at any time, is a true sign of success. Coming now, it is tantamount to making it to the Olympics. Whether Ukraine wins a Gold, Silver or Bronze will depend largely on Ukraine’s performance at the meeting and its future conduct.
The real measure of the Biden-Zelenskyy White House meeting will only be demonstrated in the months and years to come. The U.S. commitment will be judged by its willingness by 4 major benchmarks, 1 – Sustaining its position in defending Ukraine’s territorial integrity; 2 – More robust advocacy for Ukraine to become a NATO member; 3- Remaining demonstratively supportive of Ukraine’s continue to progress towards integration into the EU; and, 4 – Remaining ready to use sanctions, military assistance, financial aid and diplomatic strength to assist Ukraine.
The future is squarely in the hands of Ukraine and her brave daughters and sons who demonstrate daily their love for independence, freedom and democracy.