It is by no means accidental that Russia is working actively to prevent Joe Biden from becoming president of the United States. Among the reasons is Mr. Biden’s strong, demonstrated support for Ukraine throughout his long political career. And I have no doubt whatsoever that as president he will remain a committed supporter of Ukraine, understanding that Ukraine is the lynchpin of European security. Mr. Biden will most certainly not be afraid to stand up to Vladimir Putin and hold him accountable, in contrast to Donald Trump, whose persistent obsequiousness towards the dictator boggles the mind.
No vice-president – or president, for that matter – in U.S. history has been more deeply and actively engaged with Ukraine during his term in office as our 47th vice-president. This is in no way meant to take away from other vice-presidents such as Al Gore or Dick Cheney who stood out in their support of Ukraine. Noteworthy also is the fact that during his 36-year Senate career, especially as either chairman or ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Biden was a solid friend of Ukraine.
As vice-president, Mr. Biden’s engagement with Ukraine was extraordinary. He traveled to Ukraine six times – more than any president or vice-president, and six times more than either President Trump or Vice-President Mike Pence – and frequently spoke with Ukraine’s top leadership. Vice-President Biden was on the phone with President Petro Poroshenko so often that he joked that he talked more often with Mr. Poroshenko than with his own wife. Mr. Biden oversaw the U.S. endeavor to bolster Ukraine in its struggle against Russian aggression – including spearheading the effort to send American troops to train Ukrainian special-ops and other forces and providing critical equipment, and to extend other valuable security and intelligence support. Mr. Biden favored the provision of Javelins and other lethal weapons, but President Barack Obama held back, although he did authorize some small shipments of lethal weapons.
It was well known among those of us in the U.S. government (including this writer at the U.S. Helsinki Commission) working on and advocating for more robust support for Ukraine that Mr. Biden was a strong proponent of more decisive action against Moscow – including Javelins. Mr. Obama, along with National Security Advisor Susan Rice – although more supportive of Ukraine than some critics assert – took a more cautious approach than did Mr. Biden and many others both in the Executive Branch and Congress.
But such is the reality that in a democracy even vice-presidents do not always get what they want.
As vice-president, Mr. Biden played a key role in U.S. sanctions policy to punish Russia for its illegal annexation of Crimea and intervention in the Donbas. He worked hard to encourage the European Union to develop and stick with sanctions and maintain pressure on Russia – not always an easy task with some EU countries.
As the Obama administration’s point-man on Ukraine, Vice-President Biden oversaw efforts in 2014 following the Revolution of Dignity and Russia’s invasion to provide Ukraine with more than $2 billion in assistance, including loan guarantees to enable the new government to get the economy back on track. He also oversaw efforts to make sure that Ukraine got the gas it needed to survive the winter.
Mr. Biden did something else that is extremely important to Ukraine’s future, which was to vigorously support the rule of law in Ukraine. He pushed Ukraine’s leaders hard to combat the corruption that tears at Ukrainian society’s moral fabric, distorts its economy, discourages vital international investment and profoundly harms its national security. Mr. Biden and his foreign policy team well understand that it is precisely Russia that most exploits the corruption and weak rule of law to Ukraine’s serious disadvantage.
A Biden administration would not only greatly increase lethal aid – including Javelins and other weapons to counter the growing Russian presence in the Black Sea – it would provide other critically important security assistance such as military training. In addition, it would also step up efforts to encourage political and economic reforms in Ukraine, including with concrete assistance.
In a recent Politico article, Mike Carpenter, who was Mr. Biden’s chief policy advisor on Ukraine and Russia at the White House and later deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and the region, puts it well: “We have to promote Ukrainian sovereignty in a holistic way, which means both military support and security assistance, but also helping Ukraine beat back this – growing, by the way – Russian covert influence within its politics.” I should note that, since leaving the Obama administration, Mr. Carpenter, a key foreign policy advisor to the Biden campaign, has continued to maintain his keen interest in Ukraine as a member of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation’s Friends of Ukraine Network (FOUN) and as a speaker at various conferences on Ukraine, most recently the Center for U.S.-Ukraine Relations (CUSUR) annual Report Card on Ukraine conference.
During his long Senate tenure, Mr. Biden was a reliable supporter of Ukraine, holding hearings when he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) and often supporting various Helsinki Commission and other congressional initiatives on Ukraine. One that stands out in my mind is the first ever Senate resolution, introduced back in 2003 by then-Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, explicitly calling the Holodomor a genocide. For a variety of reasons this was controversial at the time. [See my July 2018 Weekly column: https://www.ukrweekly.com/uwwp/congress-and-the-holodomor/]. Sen. Biden, at the time the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was one of our most ardent advocates.
Sen. Biden also was also clear-eyed in supporting human rights and democracy in Europe and Eurasia. He was a strong Senate advocate for another piece of legislation with which I was deeply involved at the Helsinki Commission: the Belarus Democracy Acts of 2004 and 2006 supporting the Belarusian people’s fight for freedom and human rights. This legislation has relevance to this day given what is going on in that country right now. In the 1990s, Sen. Biden was a forceful proponent in encouraging stronger action against Serbia’s unconscionable aggression in Bosnia. And, lest we forget, he was a Senate leader in advocating for NATO expansion who perfectly understands the continued importance of this remarkable alliance.
In Joe Biden, Ukraine has a proven friend. The contrast between Mr. Biden and the current occupant of the White House could not be greater – not only when it comes to Ukraine, but to peace, security, democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Europe, Eurasia and, indeed, the entire world.
Orest Deychakiwsky is a member of the Ukrainian Americans for Biden Steering Committee.