The Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky was finally invited to the White House. This was an opportunity he actively and unsuccessfully sought during Donald Trump’s presidency. Coming fresh off the highly publicized Crimea Platform summit in late August, Zelensky was determined to make most of his face-to-face meeting with President Biden. Ukraine’s national security issues remain at the top of Zelensky’s agenda – the country is desperate for substantive western support in ending the war in Donbas and looks to NATO membership as that much-needed decisive turning point. The US government has been eager to support Ukraine in rhetoric and has even provided the impoverished nation with major financial aid packages over the years, but even under the Biden administration, Washington remains reluctant to commit any further.
During their remarks to the press in the Oval Office, the two presidents spoke about the importance of bilateral relations. President Biden implied that Ukraine’s future is tied to the future of Europe: “Ukraine and the United States have a similar value system and the strong commitment to the fil- — the fulfillment of a promise that we hope all will come forward, and that is a Europe whole, free, and at peace. And the United States remains firmly committed to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russian aggression and — and — our support for Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. Today, we’re going to discuss how the U.S. can continue to support Ukraine as it advances its democratic reforms, agenda, and movement toward being completely integrated into Europe.”
Biden added that the US planned to provide Ukraine a new $60 million security assistance package and would provide COVID-related assistance. Earlier this summer Ukraine received 2.2 million doses of COVID vaccine as a donation from the United States. Under a new Strategic Partnership Commission, the United States will work with Ukraine on implementing the security assistance package and aiding with energy diversification projects to secure Ukraine’s energy independence.
According to Zelensky’s office other major accomplishments included the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the two governments on a business partnership: “The document is intended to realize the mutual interest of the two countries in making closer commercial ties to strengthen the welfare, security and economic growth in Ukraine and the United States by encouraging the commercial participation of U.S. companies in the Ukrainian economy and Ukrainian companies in the economy of the United States.
The parties plan to develop and implement business projects, as well as participate in government procurement in Ukraine and the United States. Key attention will be paid to cooperation in the energy sector, including supporting Ukraine's goals for energy transition and decarbonization, infrastructure, digital economy development, defense, cybersecurity, and healthcare. Three agreements totaling $2.5 billion were inked by the state concern Ukroboronprom. The documents relate to cooperation with U.S. defense companies.”
While these are important accomplishments, and Zelensky’s visit to the White House was no small event for Ukraine, the major policy agenda items remain just as ambiguous as before. Last month Ukraine celebrated 30 years since it declared independence from the Soviet Union. The country is not any closer to resolving the conflict in Donbas – this was Zelensky’s number one election promise, and the comedian-turned-president is still looking for ways to deliver on his promise. Initially, the Minsk agreements (1 and 2) were supposed to end the war. The Minsk 2 agreement, signed by representatives from the OSCE, Russia, Ukraine, and the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples Republics, has been the framework for ending the war but has not been implemented due to its many pitfalls. The key issue, however, is that although the agreement is signed by a Russian representative, it does not mention Russia itself, and thus allows Russia to shirk any responsibility. President Zelensky understands that the Minsk agreements have come to a standstill and cannot be implemented and is looking for alternative solutions.
The Normandy Framework is one such alternative solution. It was created by Zelensky and involves Russia, France, and Germany alongside Ukraine at the negotiating table. The negotiations have been mildly successful at times in reaching an understanding between Russia and Ukraine on swapping prisoners and facilitating political communication between Kyiv and Moscow. But this framework is in need of revitalization as no meeting has taken place in two years. Zelensky insists that the United States should join the format. During his visit to Washington, he spoke openly about the need for the US to be involved at the presidential level. He also urged President Biden to support Ukraine’s bid for NATO membership by granting the country a timeline that would come in the form of a formal Membership Action Plan (MAP).
The summit did not result in any new US commitments on either of these critical security issues. The Biden administration’s position towards Ukraine’s security remains largely devoid of any serious commitments or bold new moves. By now this is how Biden’s overall Eurasia policy can be characterized as well – disjointed and leaves a lot to be desired.
Maia Otarashvili is a Research Fellow and Deputy Director of the Eurasia Program. Maia also serves as the Deputy Director of Research at FPRI. Her research interests include geopolitics and security of the Black Sea-Caucasus region, Russian foreign policy, and the post-Soviet “frozen” conflicts.