Report

Ukraine’s President Finally Has His White House Meeting

But Volodymyr Zelensky is irked with the Biden administration over its acquiescence in Russia’s big pipeline.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks with Lloyd Austin.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a meeting with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at the Defense Department in Arlington, Virginia, on Aug. 31. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

When Joe Biden was elected U.S. president, officials in Kyiv were quietly jubilant, hopeful they could move past the tumult of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, which saw Ukraine become a partisan political football in Washington. But as the months wore on after Biden’s inauguration, tensions in the U.S-Ukraine relationship began to mount, especially after Biden decided to waive sanctions on the company behind the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany that is designed to bypass Ukraine’s traditional role as an energy conduit and increase Moscow’s leverage over Eastern Europe.

On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will finally meet with Biden at the White House for the first time with an opportunity for both parties to clear the air and send a strong signal to Moscow about U.S. support for Ukraine, even as Washington scrambles to contain the fallout from its ill-starred withdrawal from Afghanistan. Although the two hope to make progress on defense cooperation, lingering tensions over energy security as well as the Biden administration’s ambivalent stance toward Ukraine’s membership in NATO will weigh on the bilateral meeting.

There is “huge disappointment” in Kyiv regarding the decision to waive sanctions on Nord Stream 2, said Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the Kyiv-based New Europe Center. “Another disappointment is lack of political will in D.C. to support concrete steps on Ukraine’s NATO integration,” she said.

When Joe Biden was elected U.S. president, officials in Kyiv were quietly jubilant, hopeful they could move past the tumult of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, which saw Ukraine become a partisan political football in Washington. But as the months wore on after Biden’s inauguration, tensions in the U.S-Ukraine relationship began to mount, especially after Biden decided to waive sanctions on the company behind the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany that is designed to bypass Ukraine’s traditional role as an energy conduit and increase Moscow’s leverage over Eastern Europe.

On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will finally meet with Biden at the White House for the first time with an opportunity for both parties to clear the air and send a strong signal to Moscow about U.S. support for Ukraine, even as Washington scrambles to contain the fallout from its ill-starred withdrawal from Afghanistan. Although the two hope to make progress on defense cooperation, lingering tensions over energy security as well as the Biden administration’s ambivalent stance toward Ukraine’s membership in NATO will weigh on the bilateral meeting.

There is “huge disappointment” in Kyiv regarding the decision to waive sanctions on Nord Stream 2, said Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the Kyiv-based New Europe Center. “Another disappointment is lack of political will in D.C. to support concrete steps on Ukraine’s NATO integration,” she said.

Zelensky, a former comedian with no political experience until his election in 2019, is the second European leader to visit the Biden White House, following German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit in July. The Ukrainian leader has long coveted a visit to the Oval Office, a fact Trump and his allies tried to leverage as they pressured Zelensky to open investigations into the Biden family, dragging Ukraine and its novice president into the glare of Trump’s first impeachment.

On the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting are a range of issues, including the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine, Kyiv’s NATO ambitions, energy security, and Ukraine’s anti-corruption efforts. A senior Biden administration official speaking on condition of anonymity said the two leaders are expected to announce a deepening of their strategic partnership, and the U.S. Defense Department is set to sign a strategic defense framework to enhance cooperation in Black Sea security, cyber, and intelligence sharing.

The United States has provided more than $2.5 billion in security assistance since 2014, when Russia annexed the country’s Crimean peninsula and threw its weight behind separatists in the eastern region of the Donbas, igniting a war that has killed more than 13,000 people. Ahead of Zelensky’s visit, the White House told Congress on Friday it intends to provide a further $60 million in military aid to Ukraine, including Javelin anti-tank weapons, noting a “major increase in Russian military activity along its border.” 

“This strategic partnership is very much needed given the ongoing military aggression of Russia against Ukraine and given the need for the whole world to see that bullies like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin are contained, punished,” said Yuriy Vitrenko, CEO of Ukraine’s state-controlled energy company Naftogaz and part of the Ukrainian delegation to Washington.

But there are lingering concerns about the lengths Washington is willing to go after the Biden administration opted to waive key sanctions on the nearly complete Nord Stream 2 pipeline Russia built to supply gas directly to Germany and central Europe. The project, years in the making, is explicitly designed to bypass Ukraine’s decades-old role as an energy transit country, which provides billions of dollars a year in revenue and offers some protection against Moscow’s use of energy exports as a weapon. 

Both the Obama and Trump administrations spoke out against the pipeline, noting it could increase Russia’s leverage over European partners and allies. But when Biden took office, the pipeline was nearly 95 percent complete, and U.S-German relations were bruised after four years of Trump. Rather than impose punishing sanctions on German companies to halt the project, the Biden administration quietly changed tack and sought to mitigate the risk the pipeline posed to Ukraine and other Eastern European allies. That culminated in a deal with Germany, announced in July, in which both Berlin and Washington vowed to impose costs on Moscow should it seek to use its energy dominance as a geopolitical weapon in Eastern Europe. 

“It was an expectation of the Ukrainian public that the new administration would punish Russia for the invasion through sanctioning Nord Stream 2 and through economic sanctions,” Vitrenko said. “Nord Stream 2 is viewed as a symbol of Western corruption in Ukraine.”

The trick for the Biden administration will be to placate Ukraine over the pipeline even as the details of the U.S-German agreement to bolster Ukraine’s energy security remain nebulous. But Ukraine must also recognize that Biden felt the need to mend ties with Germany after four years of U.S. trade spats and a Trump administration decision (later reversed) to pull thousands of U.S. troops out of the country.

“I think it’s important that Zelensky not ask for too much—in particular, for example, on Nord Stream 2,” said Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in the late 1990s. “Biden doesn’t like Nord Stream 2, but Biden also doesn’t want to get into a big war with the Germans and the Europeans over it.” Securing more detailed commitments on how the United States and Germany would check aggressive behavior from Moscow as well as enhance Ukraine’s now-imperiled energy security is one area where Zelensky could make some headway, Pifer said.

The meeting was initially scheduled for Monday but was pushed back twice as the administration grappled with the military drawdown from Afghanistan and evacuation efforts. The delay did little to allay anxieties about the U.S-Ukraine relationship, but it also served as an opportunity to ensure news of the long-awaited meeting did not get buried. 

“One of the goals I believe for Zelensky is basically the optics,” Pifer said. “That’s good for him at home, but that’s also a signal he wants to send to the Russians.”

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years, essentially abandoning the country to the Taliban, has sparked some concerns about the United States’ reliability as a security partner for allies in Eastern Europe and the Indo-Pacific as they face increasingly aggressive moves from Russia and China. 

There are some questions about U.S. commitments to its partnerships, even though Ukraine is not Afghanistan,” Getmanchuk said. “We have demonstrated much more progress for much less American political and financial investment. Ukrainians also proved that they are themselves ready to fight for their country, not waiting for the U.S.” During the evacuation in Kabul, Ukrainian soldiers carried out one of the more daring rescue operations, escorting two minibuses full of Afghan interpreters and their families bound for Canada into the airport just hours after the deadly Islamic State suicide attack on Aug. 26.

“Ukraine demonstrated once again that Ukraine is an important contributor to world security, not only its consumer, and it deserves to become a U.S. ally, not only a partner,” Getmanchuk said. 

But ultimately, the withdrawal from Afghanistan may end up benefiting Ukraine, Pifer said.

“By reducing investments in Afghanistan, [Biden is] able to reorient American influence and power towards dealing with Russia and China. That should be a good thing for Ukraine,” he said.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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