Man-to-Man Talk


Biden Makes It Clear to Zelensky That Everything Is in His Hands

The Ukrainian president’s visit to the United States was given so much weight in advance that the effect was like before a serious exam: everyone was worried, and the exam turned out easier than expected. Even a previously prepared “cheat sheet” – a joint statement of the two leaders – was fully agreed upon and did not undergo any changes. Perhaps the high expectations did not come true, but the fears were in vain.

It should be recalled how the parties prepared for the summit. Immediately after Joe Biden’s inauguration, people in Ukraine began to wonder when the new leader of the United States would call Volodymyr Zelensky and witness the change in American policy toward our country. After all, for Donald Trump, Ukraine was of little interest beyond the possibility of collecting compromising information on a political opponent, and later simply became annoying, as it led to accusations of abuse of power, which led to the impeachment process. The new president was to take U.S.-Ukrainian relations to another level, especially since Biden, who took care of Ukraine under Obama, is well versed in local problems.

Then there was a nervous anticipation of the U.S. president’s first phone call to Kyiv, which was postponed, and someone was in a hurry to conclude that the president was more indifferent to Ukraine than expected. The situation became more complicated when in the spring Russia demonstratively increased the presence of armed forces near the borders of Ukraine and in Crimea. During the escalation, the Ukrainian authorities, in turn, intensified their pro-NATO rhetoric, demanding that the Western Allies take more decisive steps to involve Ukraine in the Alliance. The United States was active in easing tensions, and Putin got a meeting with Biden.

The 16 June Geneva summit did not become sensational in any sense, but allowed, among other things, the marking of the positions of the parties, in particular, in the Ukrainian direction. The White House has once again made it clear to the Kremlin that it will not allow another direct aggression against Ukraine. And Putin, in turn, noted the inadmissibility of Ukraine’s NATO prospect. The parties, so to speak, went home to think, monitor the developments and plan the next steps. For the United States, one of these steps was a meeting with the President of Ukraine.

Volodymyr Zelensky’s trip to the United States was postponed several times, and even after his arrival there was postponed due to the difficult situation around Afghanistan. And the situation, when the United States failed miserably in its efforts to build modern democratic institutions in a third world country, raised fears that the White House would save significantly on foreign policy projects, and Ukraine could become the first victim of such savings, and assistance to it would be significantly cut off.

The results of the meeting between Biden and Zelensky, as already mentioned, cooled the optimists and calmed those who feared the worst. American aid will not fade away and will grow under certain conditions: if the framework agreements that have been concluded are filled with details, and Ukraine will move forward on the path of reforms. At the same time, no promises, let alone commitments, to influence the acceleration of Ukraine’s accession to NATO have been made by the United States. Yes, there is a strategic partnership between Ukraine and the United States, but there are no direct consequences for Ukraine’s NATO prospects. So, Moscow may not worry about this for a while.

Support in the defence sector will continue, but this concerns strengthening Ukraine’s defence capabilities, which would restrain the likelihood of a direct attack by Russia. Biden chose a clear position to reduce the possibility of unpredictable development of the Russian-Ukrainian confrontation. Dmitry Peskov, the Russian president’s spokesman, certainly condemned U.S. military aid, saying it could push Ukraine into military action in the east, but the Kremlin made sure that Joe Biden adheres to the position he chose in Geneva: no deliberate aggravation.

At the same time, Ukraine was given guarantees of American protection in the event that Russia does resort to hostile actions, including blackmail with the help of Nord Stream 2. In the future, the prospects for the qualitative development of relations will be tied to Ukraine’s own success in fighting corruption and implementing judicial reform “according to the highest international standards.” Volodymyr Zelensky’s attempts to talk about large-scale investments by American business run into the issue of the lack of guarantees of their proper protection: reforms first, and then investments.

According to Volodymyr Zelensky, Joe Biden did not smooth out the differences, and the presidents’ conversation was direct, “man-to-man.” The U.S. leader took a tough pragmatic stance and demanded effective action from Ukraine, primarily within the country. They once said ‘Moscow does not believe in words.’ Now Washington does not believe in words. And it seems that this approach will benefit Ukraine the most.

Leonid Shvets

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