May 7, 2021

Ukraine consolidates partnerships with allies near and afar


The first week of May was an important one for Ukraine in the diplomatic sphere. It produced several significant results, paving the way forward not only for Kyiv, but for Eastern Europe as a whole.

Although the visit to Kyiv on May 5-6 of two key officials responsible for foreign policy in the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden tended to overshadow what had occurred in the preceding days in Warsaw, the fruits of President Volodymyr Zelens­kyy’s meetings in the Polish capital deserve to be properly appreciated. Similarly, the importance of a joint statement adopted there by the leaders of five Eastern European countries should also be appreciated.

While it continues to confront Russia’s aggression, Ukraine needs both the continuing strong support of the U.S. and its Euro-Atlantic partners and that of its Eastern European friends. The latter remain not only sources of political support, but also lobbyists on Kyiv’s behalf as Ukraine seeks to accelerate its integration into NATO and the European Union.

Although Russia set off alarm bells last month with a mass deployment of military forces on Ukraine’s eastern border and its effective closing off of the Sea of Azov, this bullying tactic appears to have backfired. These and other developments that have incriminated Moscow have raised concern among Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic partners about the need to more firmly stand up to Moscow.

The harsh treatment by Russia of opposition activist Alexei Navalny and his followers, the scandals resulting in the expulsion of Russian diplomats from the Czech Republic and other Western countries, followed by Moscow’s retaliatory measures, as well as the ferment in Belarus, have in fact created a situation in which Ukraine’s voice and aspirations may be better heard and received.

On May 3 two events at different ends of Europe provided a splendid opportunity for Kyiv to test the changing diplomatic temperature.

In London, there was the first meeting of the G-7 foreign affairs and development ministers in two years. Before the meeting began, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with U.K. Foreign Affairs Secretary Dominic Raab. At their joint press conference, Mr. Blinken stressed that “the U.S. is closely following Russia’s actions and maintains a clear and consistent position on its readiness to respond to the Kremlin’s malicious actions at any time.”

Mr. Blinked added that “President Biden’s been very clear for a long time, including before he was president, that if Russia chooses to act recklessly or aggressively, we’ll respond.”

For his part, while emphasizing that Britain and the U.S. share this approach toward Russia and support Ukraine’s sovereignty, Mr. Raab revealed that that the G-7 countries would consider a proposal from London to build a rapid response mechanism to counter Russian propaganda and disinformation.

The following day in London, Mr. Blinken met with French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian. According to the official U.S. account of the meeting, “the secretary and foreign minister… affirmed unwavering U.S. and French support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and agreed to monitor closely Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.”

Mr. Blinken also met with German Foreign Affairs Minister Heiko Maas. They emphasized the importance of supporting Ukraine in the face of Russia’s aggression. According to the U.S. account of that meeting, “The secretary also raised the Administration’s strong opposition to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline,” though Germany is determined to complete the project.

All of this boded well for Kyiv in advance of Mr. Blinken’s visit to Kyiv on May 5-6. He was to be accompanied by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, a seasoned American diplomat whose support for Ukraine in the past has drawn the ire of Moscow.

While the G-7 foreign affairs ministers were meeting in London, Mr. Zelenskky joined four other Eastern European presidents in Warsaw – all members of the EU and NATO – for what might turn out to have been a historic summit.

The occasion for the gathering of the presidents of Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia was to celebrate the 230th anniversary of the adoption of Poland’s historic May 3 Constitution. But before they all convened, the Polish and Ukrainian leaders met separately, and their continuing close partnership produced more important results.

At their joint press conference, both signaled that they were content with the current state of Polish-Ukrainian relations and the way they were developing. Polish President Andrzej Duda accepted Mr. Zelenskyy’s invitation to participate in the celebrations on August 24 of the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s declaration of independence and in the Crimean Platform initiative, which was designed by Kyiv to end Moscow’s occupation of Crimea.

The Polish leader declared his country’s support for Ukraine’s quest to join the EU and NATO. Poland has therefore become the second country after Lithuania that has signaled it is ready to openly support Ukraine on the issue of membership in the European Union.
Mr. Duda affirmed that Poland and Ukraine’s other NATO friends support the provision of a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Ukraine in the nearest future.

Mr. Duda said the two leaders had “discussed the upcoming NATO summit to be held in Brussels in mid-June … The summit participants will discuss a formal definition of the path which Ukraine should follow towards membership in the North Atlantic Alliance – a roadmap to this membership.”

According to Mr. Duda, this is now “a fundamental cause” for which Ukraine is fighting. Poland and “other friends from this part of Europe” support Kyiv on this path.
Mr. Duda also noted that in a week Bucharest would host a summit of the leaders of the Bucharest Nine (Eastern European NATO member states Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic) to discuss security issues.

“Ukraine and Belarus will be very important topics, especially Ukraine and the Russian presence near the borders of Ukraine,” the Polish leader emphasized.

President Zelenskyy expressed his country’s gratitude. “Poland always supports Ukraine, the Ukrainian people. And so, I had to be here. … I also want to thank Andrzej Duda, for once again assuring Ukraine of support, in advocacy of our country regarding NATO membership. This is a very important signal for us.”

Strong support for Ukraine was also voiced during the subsequent meeting in which the presidents of the three Baltic states also participated.

Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid affirmed that her country and Poland should demonstrate solidarity with, and support for, their partners in the east, in particular Ukraine. One of the mechanisms to support Ukraine, she suggested boldly, is to provide assistance with funds from the Three Seas Initiative.

This arrangement involves 12 countries located between the Baltic, Black and Adriatic seas. Those countries are Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Austria, Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria. Although Ukraine is not a member of the EU, it could benefit from the funding schemes linked to it.
“We can use our possibilities to help Ukraine get closer to our economies and to our understanding of Europe’s future. The Three Seas Initiative can help in this context,” the Estonian president explained.

But the highlight of the summit was the adoption of a joint statement encapsulating the principles uniting the five countries that underlie their cooperation and vision of the future. It was groundbreaking on several levels.

First, as an expression of the growing solidarity and cooperation of Eastern European countries frustrated with their effective marginalization by Brussels and the major Western European players, such as Berlin and France, who want to be recognized as forces to be reckoned with. The statement also reaffirmed core civilizational values which the EU is supposed to represent. And, importantly, it recognized the legitimate right of other Eastern European nations trapped between the EU and Russa (Ukraine, Moldova and, by implication, Belarus), but which also share these values required to be accepted into the European fold.

Moreover, in this case, four EU members invited a non-EU country – Ukraine – to join them in making such an emphatic declaration.

Quoting key excerpts from the declaration, the five presidents said they “consider that the solidarity of nations under current threats to common security is one of the cornerstones of peace, stability, development, prosperity and resilience.”

The statement also said that they “express the conviction that the prosperity of our common heritage and common home, rooted in the European civilization, demands that, just like home, Europe also be built on the basis of fundamental values and principles. These are with no doubt freedom, sovereignty, territorial integrity, democracy, the rule of law, equality and solidarity. A uniting Europe should remain open to all countries and nations which share the above-mentioned values.”

Buoyed by this display of solidarity, Mr. Zelenskyy responded in the more forthright tone that he has adopted in recent weeks.

The EU should demonstrate real support for the European aspirations of Ukraine, which continues to fight for its independence, he said during the discussion held by the presidents before the press. “Ukraine is a powerful state that will only strengthen the European Union,” he said. “We should be seen in the EU as an equal and integral partner.”

While Ukraine’s direct and indirect neighbors in Eastern Europe remain supportive, doubts remain about the extent that Germany, France and others within Europe are prepared to move from words to deeds in backing Kyiv and antagonizing Moscow. The Ukraine side will be looking to Washington, London and Ottawa to help it overcome these obstacles in the crucial months ahead.

The preliminary results of Mr. Blinken’s meetings in Kyiv with the Ukrainian leadership on May 6 were reassuring. They reaffirmed that if Ukraine delivers on reform and efforts to combat corruption, it can continue to rely on strong U.S. support.