The Biden presidency will bring more high-level but hard-nosed U.S. support and is good news for Ukraine and those who wish to see it develop into a modern European state, writes Steven Pifer.
In a December 2020 New York Times interview, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed Joe Biden’s election as U.S. president. Zelensky observed that Biden “knows Ukraine better than the previous president” and “will really help strengthen relations, help settle the war in Donbas, and end the occupation of our territory.”
While Zelensky’s comments may prove overly optimistic, there is little reason to doubt that the Biden presidency will be good for Ukraine. The incoming president knows the country, and he understands both the value of a stable and successful Ukraine for U.S. interests in Europe and the challenges posed to Ukraine and the West by Russia. That might—might, not will, but might—help break the logjam on the stalemated Donbas conflict, which Zelensky of course would welcome. Perhaps less welcome to the Ukrainian president may be Biden’s readiness to play hardball to press Kyiv to take needed but politically difficult reform and anti-corruption steps. Ukraine’s success as a liberal democracy depends not just on ending its conflict with Russia but also on combating corruption and advancing still necessary economic reforms.
U.S.-UKRAINE RELATIONS UNDER TRUMP
In one sense, U.S. policy toward Ukraine during the Trump administration had its strengths. It continued political and military support for Kyiv, including the provision of lethal military assistance that the Obama administration had been unwilling to provide. It maintained and strengthened Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia. And it took further steps to bolster the U.S. and NATO military presence in central European states on Ukraine’s western border.
However, Donald Trump never seemed committed to his administration’s policy. His primary engagement on Ukraine was his bid to extort Kyiv into manufacturing derogatory information on his Democratic opponent, a bid that led to his impeachment.
Beyond that, Trump showed no interest in the country and consistently refused to criticize Vladimir Putin, who has inflicted more than six years of low-intensity war on Ukraine.
The Biden presidency will end this dichotomy in Washington’s approach to Kyiv. The president and his administration will align on policy. That new predictability will mean that Ukrainian officials no longer have to worry about late night presidential tweets or the subjugation of U.S. policy interests to the president’s personal political vendettas.
TWO CHALLENGES CONFRONTING UKRAINE
As Biden takes office, two principal challenges confront Ukraine. The conflict with Russia poses the first. In March 2014, in the aftermath of the Maidan Revolution, Russian military forces seized Crimea. Weeks later, Russian security forces instigated a conflict in Donbas, masked poorly as a “separatist” uprising. The Kremlin provided leadership, funding, heavy weapons, ammunition, other supplies and, when necessary, regular units of the Russian army. Now in its seventh year, that conflict has claimed the lives of some 13,000 people.
While Moscow illegally annexed Crimea, it has not moved to annex Donbas. It appears instead to want to use a simmering conflict in that eastern Ukrainian region as a means to put pressure on, destabilize and disorient the government in Kyiv, with the goal of making it harder for the government to build a successful Ukrainian state and draw closer to Europe. (Moscow has interfered elsewhere in the post-Soviet space to try to maintain a Russian sphere of influence.)
Without the Kremlin’s cooperation, Kyiv on its own cannot resolve the conflict in Donbas, and Crimea poses an even harder question. However, meeting the second of the challenges facing Ukraine—implementation of reforms and anti-corruption measures needed to build a fair, robust and growing economy—lies largely within Kyiv’s purview. Unfortunately, after a good start by Zelensky and his first government, reforms have stagnated, oligarchs retain undue political and economic influence (including within Zelensky’s Servant of the People party), and the judicial branch remains wholly unreconstructed. Among other things, this depresses much-needed investment in the country.
PROGRESS TOWARD A RESOLUTION IN DONBAS?
The Biden presidency might well play a more active role in the moribund negotiating process regarding Donbas. As co-chairs of the “Normandy process,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have had little success of late in implementation of the 2015 Minsk agreement, which laid out a path to a settlement and restoration of full Ukrainian sovereignty over Donbas. Unfortunately, it appears that the Kremlin calculates that the benefits of keeping Kyiv distracted currently outweigh the costs, including of Western sanctions.