February 12, 2021

Advancing U.S-Ukraine relations in the Biden Administration

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Part I

The advent of the Biden Administration brings with it the promise of more robust ties between the United States and Ukraine.

No incoming U.S. president has had the knowledge and track record of support and commitment for Ukraine that President Joe Biden does. His foreign policy team is also second to none when it comes to Ukraine. This especially holds true at the State Department, where the three most senior officials – Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, and especially Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland – all have familiarity with Ukraine and the challenges it faces, external as well as domestic. Also, the many officials below this level who deal with Ukraine on a daily basis, and therefore are critical in the formulation and execution of Ukraine policy, are among the best that I have seen. This isn’t a superficial observation, but based on my own interactions with the Department with respect to Ukraine throughout my 35-year career at the U.S Helsinki Commission and since, including with some of these officials. They are deeply committed to making our relations with Ukraine more meaningful and dynamic.

Nor do I see a foreign policy team that better understands the dangers posed by Moscow’s aggression and malign influence throughout the world. One can rest assured that existing Russia sanctions, including those related to the occupation of Ukrainian territory and the relentless, multifaceted efforts to destabilize the country, will not only be maintained but will be more effectively enforced, and expanded as necessary.

Within days after coming into office, Mr. Biden made clear his support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in a phone call with Vladimir Putin. Similarly, Secretary Blinken indicated his support in a phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart, Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba. In addition to emphasizing strong bipartisan support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and Euro-Atlantic aspirations, Mr. Blinken pledged to continue robust U.S. economic and military assistance to Ukraine.

Notably, he also “highlighted the importance of Ukraine maintaining progress on fighting corruption and implementing rule of law and economic reforms.” In addition to concrete anti-corruption and rule of law assistance, don’t be surprised to see additional measures, including conditionality on some assistance. You can also expect more sanctions against Ukrainian oligarchs, including those with a pro-Moscow bent.

Congress also plays a crucial role in U.S. policy towards Ukraine. Despite the turbulence and antics connected with Ukraine that we witnessed during the Trump presidency, there continues to be a well-spring of strong, bipartisan consensus in Congress. It certainly helps that several senior members of the leaderships of the House and Senate have a history of support for Ukraine. To cite one example, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), current House Majority Leader (i.e., the top Democrat after Speaker Nancy Pelosi), has been a strong advocate of Ukraine going back to Soviet times. While Chairman of the Helsinki Commission in the mid-to-late 1980s, Mr. Hoyer was a leader in the House in calling out the Soviet Union for its repression of Ukrainian Helsinki Monitors and other political prisoners and in consistently pressing the Soviet authorities to legalize the then-banned and suppressed Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church. On the Senate side, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has for decades made a point of participating in the annual Holodomor commemoration at New York City’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The second-ranking Democrat, Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), is the co-chairman of the Senate Ukraine Caucus. And on the Republican side, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was for a time during the mid-to-late 1990s sometimes referred to as “Mr. Ukraine.” As the Chairman of the Senate Appropriation Committee’s Foreign Operations subcommittee in the early post-independence period, he played a key role in providing Ukraine with badly needed assistance.

Significant support also remains within the U.S. foreign policy community, including many think-tanks and non-governmental organizations engaged with Ukraine, as well as, of course, the Ukrainian-American community which has been a staunch advocate for more than a century.

One group, Ukrainian Americans for Biden (UAB), which quite actively campaigned for Mr. Biden last year, has submitted recommendations to the administrations on U.S-Ukraine relations, both for the first 100 days and long-term. These recommendations fall into three categories: political/diplomatic, sanctions, and assistance, both military and non-military. Readers can find them at ukrainianamericansforbiden.com. (Full disclosure: As a member of the UAB Steering Committee, I helped to write the recommendations). I am confident that the Biden Administration will take these – as well as the recommendations of other “friends of Ukraine” which broadly track with UABs – seriously. Indeed, a good number of the recommendations reinforce what the administration has already indicated it intends to do.

Notwithstanding the positive promise of the new administration regarding Ukraine, we need to recognize that there are many other competing priorities. The new administration – and Congress – are confronting a plethora of problems on the domestic front. The January 6 siege of the Capitol represented a fundamental assault on our democracy, underscoring the notion that even an established democracy constantly needs to be defended. Overcoming the deep divisions in our politics and in society is a serious threat that needs to be urgently addressed. Other challenges need to be confronted, including the COVID-19 pandemic, racial equity, the economy, infrastructure, climate change, immigration. And one that fails to get the attention it deserves – from both Democrats and Republicans – is the ever-soaring national debt, which could have tremendous negative consequences in the future.

To reach agreements on these issues one will have to go back to old way of doing things, which means bipartisan compromise. Given the existing political polarization, this will not be easy, to say the least.

Let us also not forget the many competing priorities besides Ukraine on the national security and international relations front. The United States, after all, is the pre-eminent global power with incredible challenges and responsibilities. These include NATO and EU relations, China, Russia, Afghanistan, the Middle East, climate change, cybersecurity/disinformation, terrorism, promoting human rights and democracy. The Biden administration – and Congress, for that matter – have a lot on their plate.

So as supportive as Mr. Biden has been and most assuredly will be on Ukraine, Kyiv and its friends need to be mindful that the administration will be dealing with multiple problems in the coming years.

In my next column, I will also address the other side of the equation – what Ukraine needs to do to deepen its partnership with the United States.

 

Orest Deychakiwsky may be reached at odeychak@gmail.com.