Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is finally getting his meeting at the White House on Wednesday as President BidenJoe BidenTapper presses top Biden aide on Afghanistan: ‘How are you going to get those Americans out?’ Overnight Defense & National Security: War ends, but finger pointing continues On The Money — Companies consider making unvaccinated workers pay MORE hosts him for a visit that is expected to focus primarily on Russian aggression and Ukraine’s own anti-corruption efforts.
Biden will make clear the United States’ support for Ukraine’s security and will announce a new $60 million security assistance package for Kyiv in the face of Russia’s provocations near Ukraine’s border and its continued occupation of the Crimean peninsula.
Both leaders are also expected to announce a revamped Strategic Partnership Commission, a new strategic defense framework, and new initiatives to address climate change and bolster Ukraine’s energy independence.
The meeting will be clouded by the end of the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, which has dominated headlines for the past two weeks as U.S. officials scrambled to evacuate Americans and Afghans before Tuesday’s withdrawal deadline. The Zelensky visit will offer Biden the chance to shift the focus to another foreign policy priority, namely the challenge posed by Russia.
“They’re obviously very eager to move on,” said Carla Anne Robbins, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“The challenge for Biden now is to show that he is a competent, calm, firm leader who is focusing on the priorities of big power competition, which are their stated strategic priorities. So this is a great opportunity for him to do that, if he can stay on script.”
The meeting had been originally scheduled to take place on Aug. 30 but was pushed back, a move widely interpreted as an effort to delay the visit until after the Afghanistan withdrawal.
Asked about the change of plans, a senior administration declined to get into the reason behind the decision beyond saying the White House wanted the meeting to “receive the attention that it deserves.”
Biden, who made numerous trips to Ukraine as vice president and led the Obama administration’s effort to push back on Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, has been clear in communicating his support for Ukraine’s sovereignty.
“I expect President Biden to convey his ironclad commitment to Ukraine’s security, sovereignty and Euro-Atlantic aspirations, as well as to discuss Ukraine’s ongoing reform program, both in terms of progress that’s already been made and areas where continued progress is still needed,” the senior administration official said on a call with reporters.
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However, Ukraine has been disappointed by the Biden administration’s decision to waive sanctions on the Russian company behind the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany, one of the more difficult issues to be discussed during Wednesday’s meeting.
The Biden administration announced in June that it had reached a compromise with Germany allowing the pipeline to function as an effort to ease tensions between Washington and Berlin, which supports the gas line project.
But the deal drew swift rebuke from Ukraine and Poland, as well as top Democrats and Republicans in Congress, who view the pipeline as a geostrategic threat from Russia to hold Europe hostage through energy delivery and bankrupt Kyiv of key revenue earned through its own gas delivery.
The Biden administration sought to balance the criticism by announcing sanctions related to Nord Stream 2 on Aug. 20, but critics slammed the move as a weak gesture that failed to target the primary entities involved in the pipeline’s construction.
“For the people in Congress, [Biden] has to show the U.S. supports Ukraine and that he’s not going to shy away from criticizing Russia for what it’s doing in Ukraine,” said Angela Stent, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies.
In addition to the $60 million in security assistance, Biden is expected to announce the reinvigoration of the Strategic Partnership Commission; a new strategic defense framework enhancing cooperation on Black Sea security, cybersecurity, and intelligence; and a new energy dialogue and memorandum of understanding on commercial cooperation to boost Ukraine’s energy security. The U.S. will also commit $45 million in new humanitarian assistance to Ukraine.
“We believe this meeting comes at a pivotal moment in the bilateral relationship, as we continue to build on ties that bind our two countries together and really seek to take our strategic partnership to an elevated level,” the senior administration official said.
The visit to Washington represents an important moment for Zelensky, who has sought a meeting with the American president since he was elected in May 2019.
Zelensky was drawn into the U.S. domestic political conversation that same year when a whistleblower revealed that then-President TrumpDonald TrumpMcCarthy says GOP ‘will not forget’ if firms hand records to Jan. 6 panel The Memo: Defensive Biden tries to put Afghanistan behind him Hillicon Valley: Agencies on alert for ransomware attacks ahead of Labor Day weekend MORE had asked Ukraine’s president during a phone call to investigate then-candidate Biden and his son, Hunter. The revelations eventually led to Trump’s first impeachment. The Democrat-led investigation found that Trump used a White House meeting and security assistance to Ukraine as a cudgel to press the country for an investigation into the Bidens, which was never opened.
Zelensky met with Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense & National Security: War ends, but finger pointing continues Feehery: Seizing the radical middle Trump: US should take military action if Taliban don’t return billions in equipment MORE at the Pentagon on Tuesday ahead of the meeting with Biden.
“You can count on our continued support in the face of Russian aggression to help Ukraine realize its Euro-Atlantic aspirations in support of a more secure, prosperous and democratic and free Ukraine,” Austin told Zelensky during the meeting Tuesday afternoon.
Zelensky also met with Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, and NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. The visit is taking place with Congress in recess, however, meaning the Ukrainian president did not have the opportunity to meet with lawmakers on Capitol Hill as foreign leaders sometimes do.
For Biden, the meeting represents an opportunity to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to Ukraine at a time when some have raised concerns about the Afghanistan withdrawal negatively impacting America’s relationship with its allies or signaling a U.S. retreat from the world stage.
“There is generalized concern for a country like Ukraine and other countries, is the U.S. going to still want to be involved in Ukraine and supporting Ukraine in the way it did before,” said Stent. “There is a degree of uncertainty there.”
America’s top competitors and adversaries, China and Russia, both of which abstained from voting on a United Nations Security Council resolution on Afghanistan co-authored by the U.S., have also sought to paint Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan as an embarrassing American retreat and abandonment of allies.
“This notion of reliability of the U.S. as an ally, is something that both of our main great power rivals are beating the drum about, so he’s [Biden] going to have to go out of his way to be quite clear about the firmness of U.S. commitments to allies,” said CFR’s Robbins.
However, Steven Pifer, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, argued that the situation in Ukraine does not bear resemblance to that in Afghanistan.
“Ukraine is not Afghanistan, and part of the reason I believe Biden wants to get out of Afghanistan is that he accepts the main challenge to the U.S. is peer competition from Russia and China,” said Pifer.
In the notification to Congress about the proposed military assistance, the administration points to urgent threats posed to Ukraine by Russian military aggression, and an upcoming joint military exercise between Russia and Belarus set for mid-September, called the “ZAPAD-21” drills.
“Russia has a history of using such exercises as cover to take aggressive actions against its neighbors,” the administration wrote in its notification to congress.
Robbins said the military aid package is likely intended to reassure Ukraine and send a tough message to Russia.
“There’s always this concern that they’re going to use this time as a predicate for cyber attacks, as well as even to provoke NATO members, let alone Ukraine,” she said.
“You get a lot of troops and equipment in the neighborhood and you have a potential for bad things to happen.”