October 1, 2021

Musings on current state of U.S.-Ukraine relations

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U.S.-Ukraine relations are back on solid ground. Despite U.S. President Joe Biden’s ill-advised decision earlier in the year to lift the waiver on Nord Stream 2 sanctions, the overall trajectory is in a positive direction, especially following Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s recent Washington visit.

Some words that came to my mind in describing the visit are “encouraging,” “reassuring” and “heartening,” especially after some of the turmoil, neglect and even exploitation that our bilateral relations experienced under our previous president.

The visit represented a return to normality and stability. It was a solid, if not spectacular success, with concrete, tangible results that included not only the White House tete-a-tete, but other meetings with Cabinet officials in areas of key importance for Ukraine, such as Mr. Zelenskyy’s meeting with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm. This assessment seems to reflect the broad consensus in Washington, with some politicians, journalists and experts more enthusiastic and others less so, depending on their own world views and – not surprisingly – at times their own political leanings and agendas. But, while I did not hear choirs of angels singing Hallelujah, I did not hear anyone call the visit a failure.

The joint statement on the U.S.-Ukraine Strategic Partnership offers a robust roadmap for revitalizing and expanding our bilateral engagement. It sends an unambiguous message to our friends and foes alike that the United States is committed to Ukraine’s success and will not only continue to support Ukraine in its struggle against Russia’s ongoing, relentless aggression, but the U.S. will intensify this support.

Underscoring America’s compelling interest in Ukraine is the powerful assertion that “Ukraine’s struggle is central to the global struggle between democracy and autocracy.” This makes clear that Ukraine is among our foreign policy priorities – recognizing, of course, that there are competing priorities, given that the U.S. remains the world’s only superpower (Sorry, China, you are not there yet).

The joint statement includes substantial commitments in a wide variety of areas. Don’t take my word for it – read it. Among these commitments are those to security and defense – standing up to Russian aggression, including support for the recently established Crimea Platform to focus attention on the humanitarian and security costs of Russia’s illegal occupation of the peninsula. Other provisions include deepening strategic defense cooperation and providing Ukraine with security assistance. Hopefully, this will mean more aid for Ukraine’s navy and air force. The section on security and defense also covers cooperation on research and development, space, threat-reduction, enacting defense and security sector reforms and further collaboration on cybersecurity matters, which, given Ukraine’s experiences with Russian cyberattacks against Kyiv, can also be quite helpful to the U.S.

Another section of the statement encourages Ukraine’s economic growth and prosperity. This includes helping Ukraine reform state-owned enterprises and create a fair business and investment environment, something that would facilitate badly needed foreign investment, and the expansion of commercial cooperation and trade.

The section on advancing Ukraine’s energy security includes, very importantly, language on addressing the impact of Nord Stream 2. Clearly, there is still much work to be done here. There is also language on facilitating energy reforms and on attracting foreign investment to help the country achieve energy independence, decarbonization and clean energy goals. This includes reducing greenhouse gas emissions and helping to develop renewable energy. And another brief section covers humanitarian assistance and fighting COVID-19.

And then there is section II, titled Democracy, Justice and Human Rights, which supports rule of law reforms, including justice reforms, more effective governance and the effort to combat corruption. These underpin everything else. While we have seen significant progress since Euro-Maidan, there is still a long, long way to go. Frankly, I have tired of some members of the diaspora downplaying corruption or comparing corruption in the United States with that of Ukraine. This is comparing apples to oranges. The fact of the matter is that corruption has a much more corrosive effect on Ukraine than it does on the United States. Corruption not only has negative consequences for Ukraine’s social and economic development, but also greatly harms the country’s national security. After all, no country has benefitted more from Ukraine’s weaknesses in rule of law and corruption than has Russia. The cold, hard reality is that progress on the rule of law will greatly determine not only the success of U.S.-Ukraine bilateral relations but ultimately, the future security and prosperity of the Ukrainian people.

Could more have been achieved during Mr. Zelenskyy’s visit? Of course. For instance, many in the Ukraine policy world in Washington, including myself, would have preferred larger additional assistance funding, especially in the military security and even the humanitarian spheres. However, if things develop the way we hope and expect they will, I am confident we will see more funding, including, for instance for Ukraine’s navy and air force.

As generally upbeat as I am about U.S.-Ukraine relations following Mr. Zelenskyy’s Washington visit, I firmly believe that they would be more successful if it were not for the Biden administration’s deferential posture to Germany, with Nord Stream 2 serving as exhibit A. This makes it imperative that the administration act in a manner more consistent with its stated opposition to Nord Stream 2 (not to mention the will of Congress).

And while the administration could have shown stronger support for Ukraine’s goal to join NATO, the main brake here is that some of our NATO allies – notably Germany and France – are not enthusiastic about the prospect of NATO membership for Ukraine any time soon, and NATO is, after all, a consensus-based organization. Therefore, the Biden Administration is unwilling to go out on a limb to push for even a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Ukraine – something which on its own merits Ukraine should have received by now.

This makes it more incumbent upon NATO in general, and the United States in particular, to enhance military, security, intelligence and strategic support for Ukraine that will make Ukraine ready for NATO membership if and when the time comes. Although in all fairness, thanks to U.S. leadership, Ukraine is much further along the path to NATO membership than it would have been otherwise.

Nevertheless, in general, we are off to a good start – or re-start. As with anything else, follow-up and implementation are an absolute must. The reinvigoration of the Strategic Partnership Commission, which has been dormant for more than a decade, will be crucial to bolstering the relationship. There is plenty of hard work ahead to give content and meaning to the commitments made. This may be especially true on the Ukrainian side, as this is, after all, about helping Ukraine in its ongoing historic process of transformation – a difficult and uneven process, but one so essential to Ukraine’s success. It is a success that, to be sure, is also very much in U.S., European and global interests.

 

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