January 22, 2021

External relations: a promising start to 2021 for Ukraine


The new year has gotten off to a good start for Ukraine, at least in the realm of external relations. Official Kyiv has welcomed the change at the helm in Washington and is hopeful that the new administration of U.S. President Joe Biden will be better not only for Ukraine, but for Europe and international affairs generally.

Already buoyed by a number of significant foreign policy achievements during 2020, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s team is looking forward to building on these accomplishments knowing that, if the country can deliver on reforms and combat corruption, it can rely on more consistent forms of support from the U.S.

The Ukrainian leader wasted no time in inviting Mr. Biden to visit Ukraine in his new role, for he has already been to Ukraine several times while vice president in the Obama administration.  As he watched the inauguration ceremony on January 20, Mr. Zelenskyy wrote on Twitter that “I’ll be glad to welcome Joe Biden in well-known Kyiv. I’m sure our relations will be enhanced.”

Enthusiasm in Kyiv for the change in Washington also suggests that Ukrainian officials feel a sense of relief that the country will no longer be used as a political weapon in the struggle between Republicans and Democrats.  On January 11 the U.S. Department of Treasury announced that it had sanctioned seven Ukrainian and four media entities for their role in a Russia-linked foreign influence network.  The move underscored that such a ploy would no longer be tolerated.

On the eve of Mr. Biden’s inauguration, the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office, Ihor Zhovka, announced the country’s main priorities in the relationship with the new U.S. administration.  Those priorities boil down to ensuring U.S. support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and of returning the country’s temporarily occupied territories to Ukraine, as well as intensified economic cooperation and cooperation in combating corruption.

Those priorities more or less square with the pledge Mr. Biden made as a presidential candidate on the occasion of Ukraine’s Independence Day last August.  He declared: “As president, I will make it clear to the Kremlin that it must end its aggression toward and occupation of Ukraine. A Biden-Harris administration will ensure that Ukraine gets the economic and military support that it needs, including lethal weapons, while urging Ukraine to pursue the essential reforms that are vital to its success.”

Kyiv is looking to both Washington and London to help it revive the stalled Normandy format negotiations with Moscow on ending Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.  After the last summit of its participants (Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine) was held in Paris in December 2019, the talks have once again floundered.  The only tangible achievement was the establishment of a cease-fire along the Contact Line which, though imperfect, has more or less held for longer than any since Russia’s military intervention in Donbas in 2014.

Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba said on January 11 that Russia “has done everything to fulfil nothing.” His latest attempts with his German counterpart “to hold another round of talks at the level of foreign minister were unsuccessful,” Mr. Kuleba said.  He said the continuing deadlock is a situation in which, “on the one hand, there is progress on Donbas, and, on the other, there is no progress.”

Mr. Kuleba nevertheless said that he believes that “a window of opportunity for negotiations with Russia is not closed.”  He suspects that the Kremlin was waiting to see how the U.S. presidential election would go.  Now that circumstances have changed it might be more inclined “to return to constructive talks,” Mr. Kuleba said.

The minister also acknowledged that all along Ukraine has made no secret that it would like to see Washington and London involved in the Normandy negotiations.  “Undoubtedly, a more active U.S. participation in resolving the issue of ending Russian aggression and de-occupation of our territories will be very useful and effective.”

But this requires the consent of all its participants and “is a matter for diplomacy,” Mr. Kuleba said. Understandably, Russia has opposed other states being brought in. But observers have pointed out that it has also been unclear to what extent Berlin and Paris would have agreed, or for that matter whether President Donald Trump, given his ambiguous relationship with his Russian counterpart, would also have accepted this role.

According to Mr. Biden, the new administration in Washington will no longer send “mixed messages” to Moscow. And London, after Britain “Brexited” from the European Union, last October concluded a historic Agreement on Political Cooperation, Free Trade and Strategic Partnership with Ukraine.  Furthermore, an official visit to Kyiv by French President Emanuel Macron is expected shortly.  This might also provide a convenient opportunity to discuss the future of the Normandy format.

Kyiv realizes that both Washington and London do not necessarily have to become participants in the Normandy format to help Ukraine stand up to Russia. Lisa Yasko, a lawmaker from the Servant of the People party, recently told the Atlantic Council that “it would be very encouraging if the incoming Biden administration chooses to appoint a new U.S. special envoy to Ukraine and revive the role previously held by Kurt Volker until his resignation in September 2019.  This would be a signal that Ukraine is a foreign policy priority for the Biden administration.”

Kyiv will look for help from its supporters in several other areas likely to become increasingly important.  One is its initiative to launch “the Crimean Platform” in August – a summit meeting focusing on the de-occupation of Crimea, which Russia annexed.  The other concerns the recent agreement earlier this month by Europe’s top human rights court – the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights – to examine allegations by Kyiv that Russia has committed human rights violations in Crimea.

An area of vital strategic importance for Ukraine is continuing its quest for integration into Euro-Atlantic structures, namely the EU and NATO.  British Ukraine-watcher Peter Dickinson stresses, also for the Atlantic Council, that “Biden was at the forefront of an anti-corruption reform agenda that aimed to facilitate Ukraine’s integration into the Euro-Atlantic community.” Here, Ukraine also has the support of Poland and Lithuania with which last year it formed an association for political cooperation – the Lublin Triangle.

In 2020 Kyiv made progress in enhancing its ties with both the EU and NATO.  Last June Ukraine received the status of “a NATO partner with enhanced opportunities,” and last October Brussels re-affirmed its continued support of Ukraine as a close partner and suggested it wanted to intensify their relationship.

Nearer home, Kyiv has several challenges and opportunities both new and old to address.  The unexpected national revolution in Belarus against the dictatorship of Aleksander Lukashenka continues to test the Zelenskyy administration.  On the one hand it has aligned itself with the position taken by the EU and Washington in not recognizing Mr. Lukashenka as a legitimately-elected president and condemned the repression he has resorted to. But, on the other hand, while the war with Russia continues, Ukraine has been wary of exposing itself to additional dangers, including the deployment of Russian forces on the Belarusian-Ukrainian border.

Relations with Turkey, Azerbaijan and Israel have also been strengthened over the past year, and Kyiv appears to be in a good position in the external sphere. But, looking ahead, one new potential tricky issue might arise.  Ukraine’s trade with China is booming, and given the extent of U.S.-Chinese competition, this will need to be handled tactfully so as not to antagonize the Biden administration.