Something for something: Biden, Zelensky, and America’s pre-eminence in Ukraine

Faced with a Russia that is still conducting a war in Ukraine and weaponising gas, Washington’s new deal with Kyiv could provide a real boost to Ukrainian defence and intelligence

US president Joe Biden and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky in the Oval Office in September 2021

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s recent trip to Washington was refreshingly dull: no scandals, no extortive phone calls, no impeachment trial. The Afghanistan withdrawal played its part in this. But it is also the case that US-Ukraine relations are no longer infused with international intrigue in the way they were under Donald Trump.

Even so, such a smooth visit was by no means assured. Indeed, frustrations had built up on both sides over the preceding eight months. Kyiv was left out of German-American negotiations to suspend US sanctions on a company constructing the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The resulting accord completely ignored Kyiv’s fear that, if Moscow no longer needs Ukraine as a gas-transit route, it will feel emboldened to ramp up destabilising actions, including the use of military force; as long as Russia needs Ukraine as a transit country, it also needs it to stay more or less intact. So Germany promised to speak to Russia to persuade it to continue sending gas via Ukraine even after the completion of Nord Stream 2; but, as ever when Germany promises to convince Russia to do something, the plan fell apart. Moscow has rejected the terms of the accord, and it is already using gas coercively: this year Gazprom reduced delivery to Europe to incentivise a rapid completion of the pipeline.

That being said, the Biden administration was frustrated with Zelensky as well. The “fight against the oligarchs” that the Ukrainian president launched earlier this year was highly selective and operated via top-down executive action rather than genuine institutional reform in law enforcement and the judiciary. After May 2020 Zelensky even threatened to reverse key reforms, as political battles erupted over the national bank and the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU), which both tried to preserve their independence, while the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office remained without a formal head as the president tried to change the rules of nominating a successor. Courts of dubious repute permitted this inappropriate presidential influence to continue unabated, which furthermore revealed the frailty of what judicial reforms have taken place. Elsewhere, the Ukrainian government replaced the CEO of the state-owned oil and gas firm Naftogaz with the acting energy minister, prompting the entire supervisory board to resign. The reform of Naftogaz – once a hotbed of corruption, political influence, and cronyism – was not only a prerequisite for continued US opposition to Nord Stream 2, but was also a key demand of the International Monetary Fund.

This frustration in Washington partly explains why Biden kept Zelensky at arm’s length for so long after his election. The US president was not minded to enable easy PR opportunities. But, given Russia’s military muscle-flexing in March and April and the uncooperative attitude of the Kremlin in the Minsk process (now underpinned by Moscow’s refusal to continue the OSCE mission to monitor two Russia-Ukraine border crossings), at some point a US package of assistance provided in return for reforms was always likely. And this package was officially agreed on 1 September.

The new deal contains aid in the form of lethal weapons – psychologically encouraging for Ukraine because it underpins the legitimacy of its military efforts

The support Zelensky secured was indeed substantial. It contains $60m foreign military aid, which will include lethal weapons – something that is psychologically encouraging for Ukraine because it underpins the legitimacy and defensive nature of its military efforts. But, even beyond this, the American assistance pledged for modernisation, reform, and technological partnerships in Ukraine’s defence-industrial sector could be a much more substantial boost for the country’s military in the long run. Kyiv has long been desperately seeking to modernise – and Westernise – this sector, given the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war in 2014. In the West, states such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and France were concerned that this desperation would lead Ukraine to accept any sort of investment, including from countries the West wants to keep away from Ukraine’s technology, which nevertheless has numerous strengths. This year’s dispute over the sale of Ukrainian turbine and engine company Motorsich to Chinese investors exemplifies this worry – it was blocked by a Ukrainian court on security grounds, to the pleasure of Washington. Ultimately, with the 1 September deal, the US did what is most prudent in this situation: to make the investments itself in order to facilitate technological modernisation and see off unintended proliferation.

Little noticed as part of the new deal is the important support that the US has promised Ukraine in the fields of cyber and intelligence in order to strengthen the country’s resilience. This will also incentivise reform of the SBU – Ukraine’s domestic intelligence service – for which key legislation was passed in January and now needs to be properly implemented. American intelligence about Russia’s movements in Donbas, Russia’s deployments of troops on Ukraine’s borders, and clandestine threats to Ukraine’s security have been vital for Kyiv’s decision-makers in the past. One should not underestimate the significance of this deal for deeper future cooperation between America and Ukraine.

Last but not least, the US pledged assistance to fight the pandemic. In particular, its offer to export vaccines to Ukraine will be an important boost to public morale, as for much of this year the Ukrainian government’s vaccination efforts have been hampered by the low availability of vaccines. Cases are now on the rise again.

Zelensky, for his part, had to recommit to key reforms – with the delivery of the new support made conditional on him making progress. On this, the Biden administration is expected to be tougher than its predecessor. This is, firstly, because it prioritises issues such as the fight against corruption, institutional integrity, and rule of law; and, secondly, because it lacks domestic pressure to deliver assistance without preconditions. At times, Donald Trump needed to demonstrate to his own party and his domestic audience that he was not colluding with Moscow. He was therefore wont to grant assistance to Kyiv to bolster this claim – regardless of whether Ukraine had done much to deserve it.

The Biden-Zelensky summit contained few surprises, and the attractiveness of swapping support – particularly in the military, security, and intelligence realms – for reforms was a formula that European and American experts had been proposing for some time. But, despite countless statements on “strategic autonomy” and “geopolitical Europe” – whose numbers have only grown since the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan – it is the US rather than the European Union that is showing itself to be the true geopolitical actor. The survival of Ukraine as a sovereign and independent nation should be of greater import to EU members – it is their direct neighbourhood, after all – but securing peace and stability in Europe still appears to be in the American job description.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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