President Joe Biden is poised to attempt a high-wire balancing act in his meeting with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky tomorrow.
The meeting will be Biden’s first with one of his foreign counterparts since the end of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and its marks Zelensky’s first visit to the White House, though the Ukrainian leader has been requesting a sit down with the president since taking office in 2019 during the Trump administration.
No doubt, the Biden administration is hoping for a smooth visit that demonstrates U.S. resolve to stand with a partner against Russian aggression. Following the debacle in Afghanistan, which featured strident criticism from the very allies that Biden courted, he needs such a success. And he needs to show the world that U.S. commitments mean something, after he spent weeks shifting blame for the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan to the Afghan defense forces (most recently this afternoon).
On the one hand, demonstrating a broad U.S. commitment shouldn’t be too difficult, as the Biden administration has generally continued U.S. support for the Ukrainian government amid Russia’s ongoing hybrid war in the country’s Eastern region of Donbas. In fact, administration officials are touting a new $60 million military-assistance package to the country, which comes amid a Russian military buildup on the border.
But Biden’s decision to waive mandatory U.S. sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has cast a pall over U.S.–Ukraine relations, putting his commitment to Ukraine’s security and anti-kleptocracy work in doubt. On top of that, Zelensky, like other U.S. partners, might see the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as part of a general tendency toward retrenchment.
“So the White House is going to want to reassure Ukraine and Ukraine is going to want to be reassured,” John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to the country and director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, told me this afternoon. Although Zelensky vociferously opposes Nord Stream 2, and the Biden administration’s decision to waive sanctions on the pipeline project, and is likely to express that in his first White House meeting, Biden’s “inclination to push back or punch back on Nord Stream 2 “I think will be restrained” out of a desire not to escalate the dispute with Zelensky in the aftermath of the Afghanistan withdrawal.
So the dispute isn’t likely to play out in the open, as it did this past spring, when Biden waived the pipeline sanctions without notifying the Ukrainian government in advance, generating some bruising headlines and congressional outrage. There are even some bright spots, as the U.S. announced new COVID-vaccine shipments to Ukraine last week, ahead of tomorrow’s meeting.
But their meeting won’t resolve the pipeline issue, especially as members of Congress promise to fight the administration on Nord Stream 2.
In addition to that, the particular details of the new military-assistance package raise questions about Biden’s commitment, making his work more difficult.
In June, Politico reported that the White House had frozen a $100 million military-aid package to Ukraine that had been arranged as Russian forces amassed at the country’s border this spring; it had been put on hold ahead of Biden’s June 16 summit with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
The administration’s announcement of the new $60 million package doesn’t hurt, but it raises the question of where the proposal for a larger assistance package went.
Washington’s inability to successfully complete its evacuation Americans and Afghan allies from Kabul sent a signal to U.S. adversaries. So, too, do vague assurances to support Ukraine, when the administration simultaneously freezes military-aid packages, greenlights Russian pipelines, and courts Moscow for its participation in “strategic stability” talks.