September 17, 2021

The White House summit


In the history of U.S.-Ukraine relations, it was a long-time coming. The Biden-Zelenskyy summit did happen within the language of “this summer.” There were two brief postponements, but, if anything, they contributed to the duration of a meeting scheduled for only one hour but one that actually lasted for two. At least Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy boasted that the length of the meeting was indicative of success. More likely, length was irrelevant, at best a concession to or reward for President Zelenskyy’s patience.

Cynicism in geopolitical analysis is not inappropriate here since the partners appear much disparate. Ukrainians should not be satisfied simply because this was a White House meeting, one which never took place under former U.S. President Donald Trump. The joint statement was political rhetoric and symbolic at best, matching what came from Ukraine’s NATO Enhanced Opportunities Partnership accord in 2020.

“We intend to continue our robust training and exercise program in keeping with Ukraine’s status as a NATO Enhanced Opportunities Partner,” read a portion of the joint statement issued by the White House following Mr. Zelenskyy’s meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden.

Five other countries have such enhanced opportunities specific to their own issues, Australia, Georgia, Finland, Jordan and Sweden. None of them, except Georgia, are legitimate NATO candidates or have expressed even a desire for membership. And, certainly, Georgia has very little firepower to offer.

According to this NATO EOP, Ukraine would participate in planning operations, have access to all exercises, hold sessions at NATO headquarters and command structures, and, perhaps most importantly, have an opportunity to cooperate in maintaining security in the Black Sea.

In reality not much has changed with Ukraine-NATO training since 2020, but Black Sea exercises would be a welcome addition where the U.S. has been largely lacking, and security in the Black Sea is of great concern to Ukraine. Additional Javelins are important as is the additional 60 million dollars in lethal and nonlethal aid that came from Mr. Zelenskyy’s trip to the U.S. However, reiterating meaningless language in the 2021 NATO Summit from the 2008 Bucharest Summit in fact was a slap in Ukraine’s already red face.

In essence while this White House summit was not a nothing event, it was certainly less than Ukraine hoped, wants and needs. Most definitely, Ukraine deserves better. The phrase “beggars can’t be choosers” comes to mind. Well, militarily Ukraine is not a beggar, even if it often behaves as such. It has the second largest military in Europe. In Ukraine’s case, this is diplomacy to an extreme.

There were amusing moments during the summit. Ukraine was probably disappointed by the lack of a joint press conference, but this was not Ukraine’s call nor its fault. President Biden would not have been able to handle a press conference during which the press would have excoriated him for a bungled pull-out from Afghanistan.

“Ukraine plans to continue taking steps to enhance democratic civilian control of the military,” read the joint statement issued by the White House following Mr. Zelens­kyy’s meeting with President Biden.

It is always amusing when the United States attempts to teach others about the theoretical need for civilian control over the military. Waivers notwithstanding, U.S. Gens. Jim Mattis or Llyod Austin should never have qualified as Defense Secreta­ries in that case. As to the most recent commanders-in-chief in both countries, that is quite suspect in terms of their capability. President Trump was a military buffoon, often embarrassing the Pentagon and he was considered totally incompetent by the generals there.  President Biden is a little more astute with no military background. President Zelenskyy’s military background is non-existent and even his political expertise stems only from having played a president on television.

The bottom line is that such political public events ought to be more straightforward with less grandstanding, less spin and more substance, if only to gain credibility. It appears that the script was written entirely in Washington by some relatively inept but overbearing screenwriters. This takes the blame away somewhat from the two presidents.

Having levelled these criticisms, nevertheless I feel this event was politically effective even if lacking in real substance. Interestingly, despite American proclamations of support for Ukraine measured in billions since 2014, the real modus operandi, and properly so, for President Zelenskyy is and should be to wear down the Biden administration on Ukraine’s NATO membership. After all the meeting did not go down well in Russia. The topics of Crimea, Donbas and U.S. participation on the highest level in peace talks in the ongoing war with Russia were peppered throughout the talks and President Zelenskyy’s press conference.  Russian President Vladimir Putin could not have been happy.

Hopefully, that redline of NATO membership, seemingly so distant, yet on the horizon, is becoming more visible. Summits are momentary events. Their follow up reveals their efficacy. Much remains to be done, but this was a step in the right direction.


Askold S. Lozynskyj is an attorney at law based in New York City who served as president of the Ukrainian World Congress in 1998-2008.